This year a Review Committee is examining the cornerstone of Australia's environmental laws – the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. This review comes hot on the heels of three inquiries into nuclear power driven by conservative politicians and pressure from the nuclear lobby. This cohort are pushing for the removal of laws banning nuclear power, a push the current federal government has already ruled out.1
They are also pushing to weaken regulatory requirements for uranium mine assessments through the EPBC Act. There is currently no national prohibition on uranium mining, but prohibitions exist in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania.
South Australia and the Northern Territory have a long and contested history of supplying uranium to fuel nuclear power plants overseas. Uranium from SA and the NT fuelled the Fukushima reactor during the 2011 meltdowns, fires and explosions2 ‒ a discomforting legacy given that there was ample evidence long before the Fukushima disaster of corruption and inadequate safety standards in Japan's nuclear industry.
Following the Fukushima disaster the UN Secretary General advised that Australia have "an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material on local communities and ecosystems."3 No such assessment has been carried out. Worse still, the appointment of a former uranium mining company executive to the EPBC Review Committee suggests that there may be some support within the government for a weakening of uranium mining regulations rather than the necessary strengthening.
The reality of uranium mining in Australia has been one of leaks, spills, accidents, license breaches and a failure to rehabilitate. Of the 15 uranium mines that have operated, just two are still mining (Olympic Dam and Beverley Four Mile), one is preparing for closure (Ranger), another is preparing for a second round of rehabilitation failing previous attempts (Rum Jungle), three are on life support in extended care and maintenance; and the remaining sites are all contaminated and require ongoing monitoring and maintenance at the expense of taxpayers.
That track-record strongly suggests the need for greater scrutiny and a strengthening not a weakening of regulations. Proposed changes by the nuclear industry include changing the definition of 'nuclear actions' in the EPBC Act to remove the "mining and milling" of uranium. The impact of this would reduce requirements for whole-of-environment assessments for uranium projects and reduce federal oversight. Existing processes desperately need improvement given recent failures around transparency, upholding principles and objects of environmental laws, political influence in decision making, expedited process and unfounded exemptions.
The Ranger uranium mine in the tropical Northern Territory, owned by Rio Tinto and operated by ERA, will begin rehabilitation in 2021, a project set to cost in excess of A$1 billion. There are ongoing concerns about the funding and adequacy of the proposed rehabilitation. Meeting the regulatory requirement to secure radioactive wastes and other toxins from the environment for 10,000 years is inherently difficult, not least because there is a long history of routine, daily leakage of large volumes of contaminated liquid.4
Not far from Ranger, the government-owned Rum Jungle mine has been leaking radioactive and acidic materials into the East Branch of the Finniss River since it was closed in 1971. The NT government has released new plans to remediate the site which is likely to cost in excess of A$300 million, but there is still no commitment from the NT or Federal governments to fund this important work.
The legacy threats from uranium mines are unlike the threats from other mines and a repeated failure to contain this waste suggests that mining uranium should be banned, or at the very least have the strictest possible regulations.
There are many other examples of industry and regulatory failure. At the former uranium mine at Radium Hill in SA, the tailings dam was shoddily constructed and was not capped when the mine closed. The Port Pirie uranium treatment plant in SA is still contaminated over 50 years after its closure. SA regulators failed to detect a mining exploration company's dumping of low-level radioactive waste in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. At the Beverley Four Mile in-situ leach uranium mine in SA, contaminated wastewater is routinely dumped in groundwater ‒ a process permitted by regulators who should know better.
In yet another regulatory failure, BHP's proposal for a new tailing's facility at its Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in SA has been fast-tracked without requirements for federal approval. The decision not to assess the new tailings dam came after the Australian National Committee on Large Dams gave three existing tailings dams at Olympic Dam a risk ranking of 'extreme' – this ranking is given to tailings facilities that if failed would cause the death of over 100 people. The independent review of tailings followed the Samarco tailings disaster in Brazil, a joint venture project between BHP and Vale, which killed 19 people.5 The new proposed tailings should be assessed to determine the risk and likelihood of failure; instead, the facility has been fast-tracked avoiding scrutiny under the EPBC Act.
Cameco's proposed Yeelirrie mine in WA provides another example of unseemly haste and unseemly exemptions. The WA EPA recommended that Yeelirrie not be approved because of the likelihood the mine would cause multiple species extinctions. Despite this recommendation the former State Environment Minister approved the mine weeks before losing his seat and the Liberal party lost Government in the 2017 WA election. In a similar scenario, the mine was given federal approval on the eve of announcing the 2019 federal election.6 That federal approval followed direct lobbying of Ministers and the Department and resulted in a set of conditions that no longer require the company to prove the mine won't cause species extinction.
A 2003 report by the federal Senate References and Legislation Committee found "a pattern of underperformance and non-compliance" in the uranium mining industry and it concluded that changes were necessary "in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage". The same could be said now. Subsequent reviews of uranium mining regulations in Queensland, WA and Canada identify unique risks with uranium mining and calls for improved and increased regulations that meet those specific challenges and risks.
The push from the industry to weaken regulations should be wholeheartedly rejected and instead the EPBC Committee could consider advice from the former UN Secretary General to hold an "in-depth" assessment of the uranium sector and its impacts.