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'Uranium is the new asbetsos': Union ban on nuclear work

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Nat Wasley, Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC)

"We are sending a clear message to the industry and the wider community that vested interests in the uranium and nuclear industries are trying to hoodwink us about this dangerous product and industry,". Strong wording in a press release of the Australian Electrical Trades Union (ETU) who has banned its members from working in uranium mines, nuclear power stations or any other part of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The Australian Electrical Trades Union says uranium is the new asbestos in the workplace. "Corporate interests, and their political supporters in the Labor and Coalition parties, are also trying to buy working families off with high wages, while denying the true short-term and long-term health risks of such jobs". Australia has about 20 per cent of the world's known uranium deposits and the largest known deposits of high-grade uranium ore. The ban will apply to ETU members in Queensland and the Northern Territory and, according to ETU’s Queensland secretary Peter Simpson, other unions will follow its lead and join the campaign against the uranium and nuclear industries.

The Australian Uranium Association says to “be puzzled about the ETU position. Uranium mines are safe workplaces. Mine operators and mine employees work together, using the right equipment and designated procedures, to ensure that radiation exposure is kept to the minimum. That is standard practice in our industry”.

But the ETU seems to be passionate about their move. Simpson; “We are campaigning to have a national anti-uranium policy re-introduced, as in the past. We will take this to the union's National Council and beyond. We don't want nuclear waste, nuclear power or any part of the nuclear cycle.”

The campaign against the nuclear industry is an important renewal of support for the Australian anti-uranium movement by the Australian unions. During the 1970s and 1980s Australian unions were heavily involved actions against uranium mining including the refusal by Australian Railways Union (now the Rail, Tram and Bus Union), Transport Workers Union and the Waterside Workers Federation (now the Maritime Union of Australia) to transport uranium ore.

However this campaign was undermined by the decision by the Hawke Labor government to sharply increase the penalties for unions engaging in industrial activities around social issues. In this context the ETU’s move to ban members working in the uranium industry is both a significant strengthening of the movement and an innovative approach to taking action to support a social movement. It remains  to be seen if the move has any practical consequences for the mining industry. The union has 14.000 members in Queensland and the Northern Territory. The later is home to the Ranger mine, operated by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), owned by Rio Tinto.

The mine has recently been plagued by several incidents an accidents. Millions of liters of radioactive water from the Ranger uranium mine have flowed into internationally acclaimed and World Heritage-listed wetlands in Kakadu National Park. Traditional owners say they will oppose plans for a huge expansion of the 30-year-old mine by ERA, unless the company upgrades outdated environmental protection procedures. ERA has tried to play down an alarming and unexplained spike in contamination in water flowing from the mine into Kakadu's Magela Creek between April 9 and 11, 2010

About 40 Aborigines live downstream from a site where a measure probe recorded up to five times the warning level of electrical conductivity, which is a measure of contaminants including uranium, sulphate and radium. Environmental group Environment Centre Northern Territory has been shown evidence showing the spike, which ERA representatives said had originated upstream from the mine and was not ERA's fault. But, asked about the contamination, ERA admitted the source ''could not be determined and investigations are continuing''. ''It is possible that these have come from the Ranger operations,'' it said. ERA's handling of the spike and other environmental concerns about the mine have strained its relations with the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Mirrar traditional owners.

In another unreported mishap at the mine, in December 2009 a poorly engineered dam collapsed, spilling 6 million litres of radioactive water into the Gulungul Creek, which flows into Kakadu.

Justin O'Brien, the Gundjeihmi corporation's executive officer, said unless the company changes its environmental procedures, the Mirarr will not support any expansion of the mine - that includes a heap leaching plant, a tunnel under flood-plains, a 1000-person accommodation village, 650 evaporation ponds and a one-square-kilometre tailings dam. The expansion, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, would extend the mine's operation to at least 2021.

How much members of the ETU actually do work in the Ranger mine is un-known. But at least the Unions move has sparked a new debate over health issues connected to uranium mining. The campaign of ETU was welcomed by many environmental organisations all over Australia but also by the Northern Territory Branch of the Public Health Association of Australia (NT PHAA) who endorsed the call by the Electrical Trades Union for workers to shun uranium mining. “The ETU Queensland/Northern Territory Branch’s advice to its members that this is an inherently dangerous industry to work in is an honest and correct call. From a health and safety point of view the ETU Branch is doing the right thing by its members."

Radiation unsafe at BHP’s Olympic Dam.
Workers at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam are being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, according to a company whistleblower. The whistleblower produced documents that show BHP uses manipulated averages and distorted sampling to ensure the figures are below the maximum exposure levels set by government. The company had managed to manipulate the sampling by transferring workers, whose exposures were escalating, to a different area, according to South Australian Upper House Greens MP Mark Parnell.

Although he’s been aware of the situation for some years, Mr Parnell said until the whistleblower, who works in the plant, came forward late last year there was no evidence of the practices. When BHP released its environmental impact statement for its planned expansion, Mr Parnell said it showed it was ‘‘business as usual’’ and the company was not proposing any improvements to occupational health and safety standards.
Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 2010

Sources: / Brisbane Times, 31 May 2010 / / / / The Age, 24 May 2010
Contact: Nat Wasley, Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC).


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