The Multinational Monitor


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The Uranium Pipe Dream

by Patricia Jessen

Despite strong public opposition and a dwindling market for uranium, the government of Australia is going ahead with plans to become the world's major uranium supplier. Australia, which is second only to South Africa in uranium resources, has put aside concerns for the environment, worker health and preservation of aboriginal homelands to continue the development of uranium mining. And even though the promise of job creation has failed to materialize, the government continues to support the industry through tax breaks, public works projects and subsidies such as roads, railways, energy and water supplies for mines.

Australia first began exploration for uranium in the 1940s at the request of the British government, which wanted uranium for its nuclear weapons program. Mining began in 1954 at two locations, one in Australia's Northern Territory and the other in South Australia. Two years later, a third mine opened in Queensland. But the promised growth in the nuclear power industry failed to take place, and, with the ban on testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere imposed under the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, the demand for uranium fell sharply. By 1971 all three mines had closed.

In the early 1970s, new uranium deposits were discovered in a number of locations. And in 1975 the largest deposit of uranium in the world was discovered at Roxby Downs in South Australia. In 1979, the govemment approved a joint venture which allowed British Petroleum to own 49 percent of the Roxby Downs project, despite restrictions requiring uranium investments to have at least 75 percent local equity. The Liberal Fraser government relaxed these restrictions in order to spur foreign investment in the uranium industry.

Multinational mining companies have played a significant role in the development of Australia's uranium industry. Generous government tax breaks, cheap energy and huge mineral deposits have made Australia an attractive place from which to do business. By 1985 the South Australia state government had made investments totalling more than $A50 million in the giant Roxby Downs mine.

Despite a helpful government and almost a third of the world's economically recoverable uranium, however, the promised boost to Australia's economic fortunes has not materialized. Today only two large mines, Ranger and Roxby Downs, and one small one, Nabarlek, are operating.

Widespread opposition to uranium mining in Australia has come from a variety of sectors. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has a strong anti-uranium stand and factions of the trade union movement have taken action against uranium exports. Peace activists oppose uranium mining on the grounds that the uranium could be used in the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Aboriginal people have joined the fight in order to preserve sacred cultural and spiritual sites. Environmentalists have intervened in licensing proceedings, and organized demonstrations and blockades. They have also become involved in electoral politics to help elect anti-uranium candidates. These groups have all joined forces to pressure the government to close existing mines and keep additional mines from opening.

Two Aboriginal communities situated in Australia's second largest National Park, Ruddal River, may soon be clashing with the mining giant Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA), an offshoot of the British company RTZ. CRA has discovered potentially the richest uranium deposit in Australia within the National Park on Aboriginal land. This threat to aboriginal land is one of many posed by mining companies like CRA, Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. (BHP) and the United Kingdom Central Electricity Generating Board.

Historically, mining companies have tried to divide communities of indigenous people for their own ends, making empty promises and offering money to isolated groups within a tribal community.

Unfortunately, the federal government may be siding with CRA in the conflict at Ruddall River. Since the Australian Labor Party came to power in 1983, its policy on uranium mining has shifted from "total opposition" to the industry to "phasing out mining," which allows greatly expanded uranium exports.

Anti-nuclear activists are now concerned that the Labor Government will give in to pressure from the "New Right" and the mining industry lobby. Mr. John Kerin, the Minister for the Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DOPIE), recently said he did "not rule out changes to the Labor policy allowing only three uranium mines in the light of an expected upturn in the world market between 1989-90. Some companies, because of their structure and because of their location - they're multinationals-do have additional market opportunities that Ranger and Roxby Downs won't have." As the Narbarlek mine nears the end of production in the Territory, the industry may explore new mining ventures.

The uranium industry in Australia has a disastrous environmental track record. Ranger is situated in the World Heritage Kakadu National Park, upstream from a delicate and unique wetlands environment. Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) recently lost the fight to prevent the release of contaminated water from the mine into the Park. The mine has an annual problem in containing its contaminated water after each tropical wet season. Incidents of radioactive water mixing with drinking water and faulty concrete used in the tailings dam do little to instill confidence in this inherently dangerous industry. And numerous strikes at Ranger were provoked by incidents that endangered the health of workers.

The Australian government has not always supported the uranium industry. It came under intense government scrutiny in the early 1970s and was found unprofitable and potentially damaging to the environment. The Labor government began examining the export earnings of the mining industry and instituted controls thatprevented manipulative pricing arrangements. A 1974 report ordered by the government showed that the government paid $55 million more in tax concessions and subsidies for mining than itreceived in royalties. In addition, the Labor government halted operations at the Ranger mine until the Ranger Environmental Inquiry could finish its report.

The Liberal Fraser government came to power in 1975 firmly committed to uranium mining and it reversed many of the regulations imposed during the early 1970s. The Australian Labor Party adopted a policy opposing uranium mining in 1977 but amended it in 1982. At that point the policy was amended to allow the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia to open. Though many believed the Hawke Labor government, which came to power in 1983, was anti-uranium, they soon found that the Prime Minister was an ardent supporter of uranium mining.

The fight continues. Indeed, widespread opposition coupled with the slump in the demand for uranium may well sound the death knell for Hawke's plans to have Australia become the world's uranium supermarket.

Patricia Jessen is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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