Senate debates

Monday, 9 December 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Uranium Mining

3:30 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to an incident at the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory.

The Ranger uranium mine is, of course, a mineral lease that is surrounded by Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is the jewel in the crown of Australia's conservation estate. It is one of our most important national parks. It is one of the most important World Heritage areas in the world—listed originally for its cultural and its environmental values—and it has a dirty great uranium mine operating right in the middle of it.

Not so long ago, all sides of this chamber and former environment minister Tony Burke, from my recollection, lined up to congratulate the traditional owners of the Koongarra mineral lease for re-incorporating the Koongarra mineral lease into Kakadu National Park, from which it should never have been excised. Senators are no doubt also aware that the other uranium lease in Kakadu National Park is at Jabiluka, which we know that Rio Tinto has its eyes on. But at this clapped-out facility over the weekend—as Senator Cormann indicated not so long ago, during question time—up to 1.4 million litres of strongly acidic radioactive sludge spilled overnight from a burst tank into the mine site. The minister representing the environment minister today continued to play down those events. I would construe this as the worst radioactivity disaster in Australian history. That may sound a little over the top; I am more than happy for senators on any side of the chamber to stand up and tell me which was worse. If you except the deliberate atomic bombing of Australian and British service personnel and the Aboriginal people of the region after the Second World War, it is hard to come up with a worse example of a radioactive spill or contamination event in Australian history.

This is one of the best, if not the best, regulated uranium mine anywhere in the world. I cannot think of a uranium mine anywhere else in the world that has its own statutory regulator—its own Commonwealth authority—set up explicitly to maintain the mine and make sure not only that the impacts on Kakadu and on the people who have lived in that area for tens of thousands of years are minimised but that there are no impacts at all. Quite clearly not only has the operator of that mine failed catastrophically over the weekend but also so has the regulator.

This is the most recent—but I would say it is the most serious—of a string of leaks, spills, disasters, near misses and mishaps that have occurred at the Ranger project area over a period of 33 years. The record of more than 150 spills, leaks and licence breaches is well documented. Some years ago I revealed through Senate estimates with the supervising scientist that water with uranium concentrations of nearly 5½ thousand times background were leaching beneath the tailings dam at Ranger. A few weeks ago a contaminated vehicle was somehow allowed out of the restricted area of the site. In 2004, plant workers drank and showered in uranium process water containing 400 times the legal uranium concentration. I share the deep concerns of the traditional owners of the area, who quite agree with the Senate committee into the uranium industry in Australia which found that it has never been properly followed up and found a persistent pattern of underperformance and noncompliance. It is very, very lucky, and the company is extremely fortunate, that someone was not killed or seriously injured on that site on the weekend, as a key part of their process plant exploded, showering the surrounding area with acid, with a pH of one or two, that was laced with uranium and other chemicals.

Today, I put in a 29-part question on notice to try to get to the bottom of the incident, to find out how the operators and the regulation could fail so badly. This is not the only leach tank of its kind at the plant. I have been unable to ascertain over the last few days how many there are. There are somewhere between another three and six of these leach tanks. It is essential that the company identify immediately whether others are in a similar condition and also pose a threat of catastrophic failure.

If this can happen at this mine, which is supposedly one of the best regulated uranium mines in the world, it can happen anywhere. This is an industry that we do not need in Western Australia, we do not need in South Australia and we certainly do not need in Queensland or in New South Wales, where it is trying to get its teeth into state regulators. The last thing we need is for the environment minister to be outsourcing his responsibilities to the states and territories. This is an industry that needs further, much stricter, regulation while we establish how long it is going to take to phase it out. From the point of view of the Australian Greens, the sooner it is, the better.

Question agreed to.