The Queensland Government is unwise to reverse the ban against uranium mining and there is no stronger reason than the industry’s sordid track record in the state.
French company Minatome undertook trial mining at Ben Lomond, near Townsville, in the early 1980s. Federal MP Bob Katter spoke at length about Ben Lomond in Parliament on 1 November 2005. He noted that Minatome initially denied reports of a radioactive spill, but then changed its story and claimed that the spill posed no risk and did not reach the water system from which 210,000 people drank.
Bob Katter takes up the story:
“For the next two or three weeks they held out with that story. Further evidence was produced in which they admitted that it had been a dangerous level. Yes, it was about 10,000 times higher than what the health agencies in Australia regarded as an acceptable level. After six weeks, we got rid of lie number two. I think it was at about week 8 or week 12 when, as a state member of parliament, I insisted upon going up to the site. Just before I went up to the site, the company admitted − remember, it was not just the company but also the agency set up by the government to protect us who were telling lies − that the spill had reached the creek which ran into the Burdekin River, which provided the drinking water for 210,000 people. We had been told three sets of lies over a period of three months.”
Queensland’s other misadventure with uranium was the Mary Kathleen mine in western Queensland. In the mid-1970s, a whistleblower from Mary Kathleen Uranium Mining Pty. Ltd. leaked documents which revealed the existence of a global uranium cartel leading to protracted international scandals and fines totalling hundreds of millions of dollars.
The leaked documents also revealed evidence of shoddy environmental practices at Mary Kathleen; close surveillance of environmental organisations; the close relationship between ACTU President Bob Hawke and the chairman of uranium miner Conzinc Riotinto Australia; and advice from government officials about how companies could circumvent non-proliferation treaties in order to sell uranium to countries that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
One million litres of radioactive liquid were released in February 1984 from Mary Kathleen’s evaporation ponds during a wet spell. Even now, 30 years after the mine’s closure, there is ongoing seepage of saline, metal and radionuclide-rich waters from tailings, as well as low-level uptake of heavy metals and radionuclides into vegetation.
Bob Katter’s son, state MP Rob Katter, claims that uranium mining represents a potential $20 billion export industry for Queensland which could generate 2600 jobs. The simple facts are that uranium accounts for just 0.2 percent of Australia’s export revenue ($610 million in 2010−11) and less than 0.02 percent of Australian jobs (1760 jobs including mining, exploration and regulation). Queensland is home to just 3% of Australia’s uranium resources.
Rob Katter claims that Queenslanders support uranium mining but he provides no evidence. The latest poll was taken in 2008 and it found that 47 percent of Queenslanders oppose uranium mining compared to 45 precent in support. Two-thirds of Queenslanders oppose uranium sales to nuclear weapons states. A majority of Australians believe that the ‘safeguards’ system, which aims to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, is ineffective.
Before the last state election, the Queensland Liberal National Party said it had no intention of reversing the ban against uranium mining. Campbell Newman’s LNP Government ought to take its new position to the next state election. Better still, a referendum could be held on the question of uranium mining when Queenslanders next go to the polls.
The uranium industry has no capacity to deliver serious economic benefits to Queensland but, if given the chance, it will create more long-term environmental and public health hazards such as Ben Lomond and Mary Kathleen.