Last month’s announcement that Energy Resources Australia will pull the plug on the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory signals the end of one of the most controversial chapters in Australian mining history. Keri Phillips of ABC traces the history of uranium mining in Australia and Ranger’s role in it.

Ranger Uranium MIne

Australia has about one third of the world’s known uranium resources and mining goes back to 1906, when a small amount of uranium ore was taken from Radium Hill in South Australia and processed in Hunters Hill in Sydney. It was used to produce radium, an element that was used to paint watches and clock faces until the risks of its radioactivity were understood.

The modern era of uranium mining in Australia began in the 1950s.

‘It started off really after the Second World War when countries like the UK were building up weapons stockpiles, because of course uranium first came to the attention of most of the world with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ explains Ian Hore-Lacy from the World Nuclear Association, an organisation that promotes nuclear energy.

‘Of course, that then gave way to the potential for nuclear power—that is, harnessing this enormous energy for generating electricity. Progressively that became the driver for uranium exploration in Australia.

‘Uranium is a heavy metal with unusual properties. It has a particular virtue of being fissile, that is to say that if you put it in certain circumstances where it is hit by neutrons it releases an enormous amount of energy. If you use uranium as a fuel in a nuclear reactor, you get a huge amount of energy from a very small amount of material.’

Uranium’s potential as a future source of energy drove exploration in the 1950s and ’60s, says Dave Sweeney, the national nuclear campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

‘At the time it was routinely said that it would be energy too cheap to meter because of the mighty power of the atom. So that then led to a literal yellowcake gold rush in Australia—prospectors everywhere, particularly in the north of Australia, pegging out areas of land, looking around, poking around and finding uranium.

‘There were two areas where it really took off. One was in the Top End, the Rum Jungle deposit near Batchelor, and then a host of finds and small mines through the South Alligator Valley region. Mines like Rockhole and Moline and El Sharana were developed through the 1950s and ’60s and there were groups of disparate individuals in bush camps digging uranium in scattered parts of the country.’

Sweeney says that the early enthusiasm for uranium’s potential was shared by various federal governments, especially during the Whitlam years when Rex Connor, the minister for minerals and energy, dreamed of building Australia’s future on the back of national ownership of resources. ‘With the ’70s OPEC oil shock, the era of cheap petroleum was gone, and the vulnerability of western economies to an unreliable or unguaranteed fuel source was exposed. That led to a flurry of serious infrastructure spending, particularly in the US, on nuclear power. Rex Connor was Australia’s resources minister and he said, “‘Well, we can fuel this stuff, we’ve got a third of the world’s supply.”’ The idea was that Australia would become the ‘Saudi Arabia of uranium’, but not everyone agreed. Many wondered whether the Cold War would become a nuclear war, and noted the environmental hazards associated with both uranium mining and nuclear power plants. The threat to Indigenous land rights was added to these concerns when uranium was discovered at various places in the Alligator Rivers region of the Northern Territory, much of which would become Kakadu National Park. Ranger mines australiaIn about 1968 federal government geologists had gone through the Alligator Rivers region and recognised that the geology had many similarities to the Rum Jungle field. Mining companies looked at this new interpretation of the geology and the area was very quickly covered by exploration leases, despite being proposed as a national park. ‘In 1969, the planes that were flying around that area had discovered this area just on the northern side of the Mount Brockman escarpment and that’s what we now know as the Ranger uranium project,’ says Dr Gavin Mudd, a senior lecturer in environmental engineering at Monash University with a long standing interest in Ranger. ‘In ’71 they discovered Jabiluka to the north and 1970 they discovered the Koongarra deposits on the southern side of that escarpment near Nourlangie [Djidbidjidbi]. In 1970 they also discovered the Narbarlek deposit over in the western side of Arnhem Land, and that set the scene for the rest of the 1970s effectively in that region.’ ‘You’ve got the fierce battle between land rights for the Mirarr Gundjeihmi mob and other Indigenous groups in that area, the national park which had been proposed five years earlier, and the potential for uranium mining. You’ve got multiple interests all competing and I guess that’s the genesis of Ranger, that’s where it all started.’ To resolve those competing interests, two inquiries were held under the Whitlam and Fraser governments. The first, the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, ran for two years from 1975 and held hearings all over Australia. ‘There were I think something like 13,500 pages of transcripts, and the mining industry, government agencies and especially community groups were very involved,’ explains Mudd. ‘Nuclear issues were big issues at the time, it was the height of the Cold War, so you’ve got the massive stockpiling of nuclear weapons going on between the United States and the Soviets, and you’ve got this growing concern about the safety of nuclear power.’ Olympic Dam uranium mineThe Ranger Uranium Inquiry produced two major reports. The first, released in October 1976, looked at the broad issues around nuclear power—should Australia be involved in nuclear power and what were its risks? It concluded, in very careful language, that uranium mining would be fine as long as it was properly regulated. The second stage of the Ranger Uranium Inquiry went on to look at the very detailed proposal for the Ranger uranium project. By that stage the inquiry had also been authorised under the Land Rights Act to hear the stage one land claim for the Indigenous people of the region we now know as Kakadu National Park. It was hearing a land rights claim, running an environmental assessment process through the public inquiry, and then looking at all of the issues around Ranger. In the end, it gave government the basis to approve the Ranger project. In 1978, the process moved on to long drawn-out negotiations between the Northern Land Council—representing the traditional owners—and the federal government. The traditional owners had always opposed the Ranger uranium project and that became very obvious and explicitly clear to the Ranger Inquiry,’ says Mudd. ‘But ultimately, in the words of the Ranger Inquiry, and this is almost an exact version, “In the end we form the view that their opinion shall not prevail.” So in other words, “We recognise that you oppose the Ranger uranium project, but in the end that doesn’t matter.” ‘They recognised and gave the land rights to Mirarr Gundjeihmi and other groups in that region through the Gagudju Land Trust, but basically the price of getting their land rights was having to accept the Ranger uranium project, which was the one thing that they absolutely fiercely opposed.’ The Ranger mine was opened by then deputy PM Doug Anthony in June 1979. During the 1980s, Ranger and Narbarlek, a small deposit also in the Alligator Rivers Region, were joined by a third uranium mine, Olympic Dam in South Australia, the world’s largest uranium deposit.

Uranium mining continued to be a political issue throughout the 1980s, with the Hawke Labor government restricting it to existing mines—the so-called three mines policy. After the conservatives won office again under John Howard in 1996, the Beverley and Honeymoon uranium mines, both in South Australia, began operation. In 2007, the Labor Party abandoned the three mines policy. Today, although some state governments allow uranium mining, others ban it, while the federal government continues to control mining in the Northern Territory.

The price of uranium plunged after the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan and although the Japanese government is yet to turn its reactors back on, both China and India have plans to expand their nuclear power capacity. Ian Hore-Lacy sees a growing demand for Australia’s uranium.

‘Yes, there are a number of deposits that are moving towards being mined, mainly in Western Australia. So yes, I think you’ll see more uranium mining in Australia. There will be plenty more to be discovered, I’ve no doubt, when the price rises and uranium exploration activity increases. Certainly uranium has a very major role in any international scenarios for the future of electricity, especially if we take climate change seriously and the need to limit CO2 emissions.’

Anti-nuke activists uranium mining australiaWhatever the future, it has come too late for the operator of Ranger. Energy Resources Australia—once one of the world’s biggest uranium producers, supplying about 10 per cent of the global market to electricity utilities in Japan, Europe and North America—last month announced it would abandon plans to develop an expensive underground mine, the Ranger 3 Deeps project. Its majority shareholder, Rio Tinto, failed to support the proposal.

The ultimate plan for Ranger was that the site would be rehabilitated and incorporated in Kakadu, though that now seems unlikely. Since 1979, Environment Australia has documented over 200 environmental incidents at Ranger, including the discharge of a million litres of radioactive slurry in 2013.

‘There are two major open cut mines at Ranger,’ explains Mudd. ‘The first one has been filled with tailings and is now in the process of having a cover and waste rock put over the top of that and completely backfilling it. Pit three is in the process of that happening now as well, so they are discharging tailings into pit three, and eventually the tailings dam will be dug up at Ranger and put into pit three, and then pit three will be capped and then waste rock put over the top of that and then the land re-contoured.’

‘So to Mirarr, I guess what they see is very, very large disturbance, they see mountains of waste rock and low-grade ore, and sometimes that does affect their views of important sites like Djidbidjidbi or just the landscape.

‘It will never look the same again and the site will have to be monitored for decades to come after it is finished being rehabilitated so that we can make sure that it is actually in a stable chemical condition, the biodiversity is doing okay and the ecosystem is functional and so on.’

According to ERA figures, rehabilitation is expected to cost close to $500 million.

‘They’ve got about $67 million set aside as a bond for that,’ says Mudd. ‘So that means they’ve got well over $400 million left to find. Now, there are cash reserves sitting in the bank of ERA and I think that’s something of the order of $260 million. That’s got to also pay for ongoing operations as well as the activities of the company at the moment.

‘If they continue to produce they can generate more revenue, but they are not making money at the moment and they need to make a lot more money in order to be able to fund that difference in rehabilitation.’