The anniversary of the Australian uranium-fuelled Fukushima nuclear disaster provides a stark reminder of the dangers of opening the door to an expanded nuclear industry in Australia.
Nine years ago this week the world learned to pronounce the word Fukushima as the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 devastated large areas of Japan’s eastern seaboard.
It also breached the safety and back-up systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, leading to mass evacuations, hundreds of billions of dollars in economic loss and the release of large amounts of radioactive contamination.
The crisis continues today with Japanese nuclear authorities confirming active intervention will be required for at least four more decades to stabilise the stricken site, contested and continuing releases of radioactive water to the Pacific and mounting waste management concerns.
Fukushima means ‘fortunate island’ but the luck largely melted down alongside the reactor and Fukushima remains a profound environmental, economic and human disaster that continues to negatively impact lives in Japan and far beyond.
The current pro-nuclear push in Australia is even more startling when you consider that the Fukushima uranium came from the back of a big yellow truck in Australia.
In October 2011, the Australian Parliament was formally advised that a load of Australian uranium was fuelling the Fukushima complex at the time of the disaster.
Australian radioactive rocks are the source of Fukushima’s fallout, but sadly the miners and their political fellow travellers have been more focused on managing the political fallout.
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 never happened.
Instead of scrutiny, we have a swag of conservative state and federal politicians and commentators lining up to beat the zombie drum for this down but not dead sector. Their fanciful claims of economic benefit belie the reality of an embattled sector that has failed to deliver the dollars and has never made sense.
And recently these atomic advocates have been joined by a conga line of nuke-spruikers championing domestic nuclear power and seeking public funds for a technology whose time has passed in the case of old reactors or whose time is not here, and never likely to be, in the case of so-called ‘next-generation’ reactors.
As home to around 35 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves, Australia is a significant player in the global nuclear trade and what we do, or fail to do, matters.
Since the 1980s the ‘modern’ period of Australian uranium mining has been dominated by two major operations – Ranger in Kakadu and Olympic Dam in northern South Australia.
Processing of stockpiled ore limps on at Ranger, but mining has ended and parent company Rio Tinto is now focussed on rehabilitation work. The era of uranium mining in Kakadu is over – now comes the costly and complex clean-up and repair.
At Olympic Dam, the world’s biggest mining company, BHP, is seeking to expand operations. However, this move is being driven by the growing global demand for copper, not because of any appetite for uranium.
And the big Australian’s plan poses a big threat to the SA environment and the local workforce. The company persists with an operation that relies on ‘extreme risk’ tailings dams and massive water consumption in Australia’s driest state.
Meanwhile, smaller uranium operations mines like Honeymoon in SA or undeveloped projects like Cameco’s Kintyre and Yeelirrie projects in WA have been deferred or placed on extended care and maintenance due to the depressed uranium market and low commodity price.
The sector’s prevailing business model is to sort the paperwork, duchess conservative politicians and commentators and 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.
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Australia’s uranium industry generates less than 0.2 per cent of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02 per cent of jobs in Australia – under one thousand people are employed in Australia’s uranium industry. The sector is an economic minnow and a waste, risk and cost whale.
In an attempt to jumpstart the flatlining uranium trade successive federal governments have embraced enthusiasm rather than evidence.
They have failed to scrutinise the sector, preferring to further remove already scant environmental and public health protections and fast track increasingly irresponsible uranium sales deals including to India, Ukraine and the UAE.
Australia’s uranium sector is high risk and low return. It means polluted mine sites at home and nuclear risk and insecurity abroad. And it fuelled Fukushima.
This anniversary, it is time to learn one simple lesson from Fukushima. Radioactive risk is more constant than a politician’s promise or corporate assurance.
For Australia, this means it is time to close the door on the dangerous distraction of domestic nuclear power and open the door to a credible and independent review of costs and consequences of the uranium sector.
Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner and was a member of the Federal advisory panel on radioactive waste.
This piece was first published by Independent Australia.
Fukushima vigil header pic by Zoe Burrell.