After directly fuelling the disaster at Fukushima, Australia should have taken steps to review and reconsider its role in the global nuclear trade

Five years ago this week the world held its breath, crossed its fingers and learnt a new word.

Fukushima went from being the name of a provincial Japanese city to becoming global shorthand for a costly and contaminating nuclear disaster.

Fukushima means “fortunate island” but the region’s luck melted down along with the reactors on March 11, 2011. The subsequent system failure, meltdown and uncontrolled release of large volumes of radiation at the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex has become one of the defining events of our age.

It was a game-changer that highlighted the urgent need for the game to change. As the country that supplied the fuel that made it happen, the events at Fukushima held – and still hold – profound implications for Australia.

As the country that supplied the fuel that made it happen, the events at Fukushima held – and still hold – profound implications for Australia.

The March 11 Great Eastern earthquake and tsunami devastated much of Japan’s eastern seaboard. It also breached the safety and back-up systems at Tepco’s nuclear complex leading to the loss of life, mass evacuations, hundreds of billions of dollars in economic loss and extensive radioactive contamination of the air, soil and ocean.

The crisis continues today. Japanese nuclear authorities have confirmed that active intervention will be required for the next forty years to stabilise the site, there are on-going radioactive releases and water and waste management issues and charges have just been laid against former senior Tepco officials for “professional negligence resulting in deaths and injury”.

In August 2012, I joined a delegation of international monitors and public health experts who visited the Fukushima region.

We saw and spoke with people whose lives have been irreparably changed. We drove through abandoned regions and towns empty of both people and hope. We met with elderly evacuees in temporary housing who will never return home. We heard stories of individual bravery and corporate indifference and all to the sinister soundtrack of a disturbingly active Geiger counter.

As tour member Hasegawa Kenichi, a Fukushima dairy farmer who can no longer sell his milk, stated “it is important to make sure that what is happening in Fukushima is not forgotten.”

For Australia, his words have great relevance as the disaster that has irrevocably affected his life and livelihood started in the back of a big yellow truck right here.

In October 2011 it was formally confirmed to the Australian parliament that not only was Australian uranium routinely sold to the corner-cutting Tepco but that a load of true blue yellowcake was fuelling the Fukushima complex at the time of the disaster. Australian radioactive rocks were the source of Fukushima’s fallout.

Surely after directly fuelling disaster Australia would have taken some steps to review and possibly reconsider our role in the global nuclear trade?

The UN thought so. In September 2011 the UN secretary-general called on Australia to conduct “an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material on local communities and ecosystems”.

This has never happened. It needs to, and Australia’s uranium sector deserves some long overdue scrutiny.

This has never happened. It needs to, and Australia’s uranium sector deserves some long overdue scrutiny.

The most recent independent assessment of the Australian uranium industry – a Senate inquiry in October 2003 – found the sector characterised by underperformance and non-compliance, an absence of reliable data to measure contamination or its impact on the environment and an operational culture focussed on short term considerations.

As home to around 35% of the world’s uranium reserves, Australia has long been a significant player in the global nuclear trade.

Since the 1980s Australian uranium mining has been dominated by two major operations – Ranger in Kakadu and Olympic Dam in northern South Australia.

Both operations and their heavyweight owners have been voting with their feet and their finances since 2011.

Processing of stockpiled ore continues at Ranger but mining has ended and parent company Rio Tinto is now preparing to commence costly and complex rehabilitation work.

At Olympic Dam the world’s biggest mining company BHP Billiton stunned the South Australian government in 2012 when it shelved an approved and long planned multi-billion dollar mine expansion.

Smaller mines like Honeymoon in South Australia have been placed on extended care and maintenance, junior companies have abandoned the field and the sectors prevailing business model is to get the paperwork in order and wait in hope for better times.

Historically the sector has been constrained by political uncertainty, restrictions on the number of mines, a consistent lack of social license and strong Aboriginal and community resistance.

Recent years have seen fewer political constraints but a dramatic decline in the price of uranium and popularity of nuclear power following Fukushima.

Australia now accounts for approximately 11% of global uranium production, down from over 18% a decade earlier.

Australia’s uranium production of 5,000 tonnes in 2014 was the lowest for 16 years.

The industry generates less than 0.2% of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02% of jobs in Australia. Less than one thousand people are employed in Australia’s uranium industry.

In an attempt to jump start the flat-lining uranium trade, successive federal governments have preferred enthusiasm to evidence. They have failed to conduct the requested industry review and instead fast-tracked increasingly irresponsible uranium sales deals, most recently with India.

Approvals are fast-tracked, regulators are complacent, community concerns are air-brushed away and all for a sector that never really made sense and now doesn’t even make dollars.

In short, Australia’s uranium sector is high risk and low return. It leaves polluted mine sites and home and drives nuclear risk and insecurity abroad. And it fuelled Fukushima – a profound environmental, economic and human disaster that continues to negatively impact lives in Japan and far beyond.

On this fifth anniversary it is time to honour Kenichi-san’s plea not to be forgotten with a credible and independent review of the real costs and consequences of Australia’s uranium trade.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.