NIT: One million litres of uranium waste spills into Kakadu

Publish Date:
11th December 2013

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It's the largest toxic spill in Australia's history, say Mirrar people as fears grow radiation sickness will hit  communities A million litres of radioactive slurry has contaminated Kakadu National Park from a burst tank at Ranger uranium mine.
It is a significant toxic spill described by Traditional Owners of the land affected as the worst spill of its kind in Australia's history.
Surprisingly news of the spill has generated relatively minimal coverage from mainstream media but it took the local Traditional Owners to break the news to Australia.
Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) represent the Native Title interests of the Mirarr peoples who  own the land and GAC Chief Executive Officer, Justin O'Brien said the Ranger mine and its surrounds may be closed for at least two months in order to contain the leak. The leak was discovered last Saturday  morning at 1 am when a hole was found in one of the leach tanks. Up to a score of onsite personnel were  evacuated and it is understood the tank actually collapsed a little while later.
Mr O'Brien said up to a million litres of radiological material in the form of an acid from a drum caused  nearby damage and then poured into stormwater drains. Mirarr Traditional Owners are angry and  concerned by the contamination they fear will be caused by the leak and because it is the worst incident of  a string of incidents involving the mine in recent weeks.
The Traditional Owners have described the leak as the "biggest nuclear disaster in Australia ever ". Mining giant, Rio Tinto owns Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) which operates the site and the  company is backing yet another uranium mining project at the site called Ranger 3 Deeps but this latest contamination breach is a setback that has now cast doubts about Traditional Owners allowing further  mining to be conducted. Energy Resources Australia had agreed to proceed only with the new project if it had the consent of the Mirrar peoples but Mr O'Brien said this was now unlikely. "Day by day, litre by litre, incident by incident, this mining company is losing whatever trust Traditional Owners have in them," he  said.
In light of this latest incident Mr O'Brien said as far as the Traditional Owners were concerned the Ranger 3 Deeps project "was now off the table ". Chairperson of the Aboriginal Elders led Western Australian  Nuclear Free Alliance (WANFA) and Co-Chair of the Australian Anti- Nuclear Alliance, Kado Muir joined in condemning uranium mining in Australia and warned Australia was yet to learn from the Fukishima disaster in Japan.
"The only safe place for uranium is to leave it in the ground," he said. "It has never been safe for anyone  when we have mined it."
Mr Muir has long fought agains proposed uranium mines on his Yeelirrie Country arguing the riSks to Country "are too vast, too toxic, too poisonous for far too many generations to come".
"Uranium is the asbestos nightmare of the 21st century but radiation poisoning from uranium and nuclear disasters pose far greater dangers and disasters than even asbestos," he said.
"What has happened in Kakadu should be a wake -up to all Australians and I say to all influential  Aboriginal persons in our governments or who have the ear of the Prime Minister do something now to  save Country. Everything that can be done to stop any mining of uranium must be done. This disaster just reinforces the fear in Aboriginal communities there really is no second chance with uranium mining and when mining companies and government fail in their duties to the environment it is us, the Traditional Owners and the Australian people, who are left holding the toxic legacy. "We need a full public inquiry into the opening of new uranium mines across the Australia and the people need to be assured existing operators will clean up their act," Mr Muir said.

Mr O'Brien said GAC had now requested assistance from expert bodies such as the World Heritage Committee. He has called for an independent external audit of the Ranger uranium site, noting this serious contamination was the third breach by the company in less than a month. But the ERA's General Operations manager, Tim Eckersley, responded with a public statement saying the leak would cause no environmental impact. He said there was no explosion and checks and balances took effect. "The slurry moved outside the bunded containment area but has been captured and contained on site," he said.
"Containment systems stopped the flow and this has meant there was no impact to the surrounding  environment. ERA is focusing on clean up and recovery and the protection of the environment and the health and safety of our people remains paramount. "Upon discovery of a hole in the side of the tank, personnel were removed from the nearby area before the tank failed and a mixture of slurry escaped."

According to South Australia's Arabunna Elder, Kevin Buzzacott, the protest movement against uranium
mining is growing. Mr Buzzacott is Co -Chair of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance and has for decades
campaigned against the uranium mining expansion at Olympic Dam on his Country in South Australia.
"They are drying up our Country, the water is going, it is impacting and just one major disaster would  render our Country useless," he said. "What has happened at Kakadu should send shivers up the spines of all Australians but I do not understand why it has not made the television news. What has occurred in Kakadu is scary"

Wiluna Elder, and anti-uranium campaigner, Glen Cooke agreed with Mr Buzzacott the World Heritage area of the Kakadu has now been put at risk. "I feel for the people of Kakadu, it is rich in  history. Kakadu is a library of the local peoples history, thousands of years of rock art, sacred sites, ritual areas, of colours and songlines, of places where boys go to become men and girls to become women. "Kakadu is the heart of Australia's beauty and it should never be hurt by radiation. If they do not learn from this burst tanker then they should regard this as just the beginning. "They risk losing Kakadu. They risk all our Country wherever a uranium mine is set up," Mr Cooke said.
Mr Cooke's people live nearby a potential uranium mine development being developed by Toro Energy. The Toro project is scheduled to become operational in 2015 with two open -cut mines at Centipede and Lake Way which will produce at least 780 tonnes of uranium oxide a year for at least 14 years.