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Tuesday, 11 October 2011
Page: 7034


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (19:15): I rise to speak on a different matter but one which perhaps has some relation to the contribution just made by Senator Cash. To begin with, I acknowledge the Arabunna and the Kokotha people of central South Australia, who are coping with the news as of yesterday that the Commonwealth government has signed off on a colossal expansion of the Olympic Dam copper-gold uranium mine. I also acknowledge my South Australian state parliament colleague Mark Parnell, who has done an enormous amount of work watchdogging this project and trying to come up with constructive counterpro­posals that would let the project go ahead without the extraordinary environmental, social and public health impacts of the project as proposed. I am speaking in particular of a study that was conducted about this time last year by Dr Gavin Mudd, a hydrogeologist at Monash University, on a proposal for the expansion of Olympic Dam that would go ahead without the uranium circuit—so the mine would proceed as a copper-gold venture—and with the process­ing being undertaken here in Australia rather than BHP's current proposal to simply export the smelting operations and, indeed, those highly skilled jobs to China.

The concept of environmental protection took on new meaning yesterday with the announcement of Commonwealth environ­mental approvals for this venture. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, said, 'We have the toughest environ­mental conditions that you'll ever find imposed on a uranium mine.' This, I think, is known in the technical literature as a bald faced lie. We know this because the toughest environmental conditions found at a uranium mine are 2,000 kilometres northward at the Ranger Uranium Mine, on a lease chopped out of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. There the company is required to backfill the mine voids with radioactive waste, removing—

Senator Carol Brown: Madam Acting Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I think that part of Senator Ludlam's contribution about Mr Burke being a bald faced liar is unparliamentary and should be withdrawn.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Pratt ): Yes. I ask Senator Ludlam to withdraw those remarks.

Senator LUDLAM: I withdraw the accusation that our environment minister is a bald faced liar, Madam Acting Deputy President.

Senator Carol Brown: It would be nice if he did it with some courtesy.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: You have to withdraw it without repeating it, Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM: Certainly, Madam Acting Deputy President. As I was saying, if we are talking about what world best practice or highly regulated uranium mining is, we need only point to what is occurring at the moment in Kakadu National Park, where the company is required to isolate the radioact­ive wastes from the wider environment for a period not less than 10,000 years by removing the radioactive tailings and putting them back in the mine pit. This is clearly an impossible task, but it is at least a worthy ambition. No such duty of care will be applied for the benefit of South Australians. Mr Burke has earnestly reassured the public that conditions will apply for 10 years after the life of the mine. He has granted approval for the mine-tailings waste to be dumped and left out on the surface in apparent ignorance of the fact that the residual inventory of uranium 238 has a half-life of 4½ billion years and that the mine wastes will contain a cocktail of unwanted daughter isotopes including radium, protactinium, radon gas and radioactive lead.

In the course of processing, the uranium ore is milled to the consistency of wet talcum powder and chemically treated to extract most of the uranium, leaving the rest of this toxic garbage behind. By 2020, with operations in full swing, the company informs us that around eight megalitres of contaminated, radioactive water will be leaching into local groundwater every single day from beneath the largely unlined tailings structures. The company has sought to minimise costs by lining only a small area of each tailings cell. So the minister has just agreed to require up to four per cent of the tailings storage facility to be lined—stringent conditions indeed.

If these ore bodies are locked up in the host geology hundreds of metres below ground, they pose no hazard to human health. However, if blasted free, crushed and left on the surface in colossal piles, it is inevitable that this material will gradually work its way into the environment and into the food chain as it is right now at other neglected uranium mine sites around the world. Not all of it will be left in South Australia, of course, because BHP's preferred project configuration has the majority of the uranium infused bulk copper concentrate—some 1.2 million tonnes of mine wastes every year—sent to China for smelting, leaving much of the radioactive material as someone else's problem. But we will have our own legacy in Australia. Out to 2050, BHP plans to mill and dump 2.3 billion tonnes of toxic, radioactive mine tailings in outback South Australia. That will leave behind roughly 1.3 cubic kilometres of radioactive waste, enough to bury Adelaide's central business district 370 metres deep—almost exactly three times the height of Adelaide's tallest building—in finely powdered radioactive tailings.

I am well aware that these back-of-the-envelope calculations will not be of the slightest interest to the assembled politicians who lined up to abase themselves before BHP's otherworldly revenue estimates. It is assumed that the future will take care of the intractable wastes left behind, and there is actually a grain of truth in this. Check your current federal budget and you will find several million dollars appropriated to assess a clean-up strategy for the relatively small Alligator Rivers uranium mines in the Northern Territory. The clean-up bill for these radioactive hotspots, mined out half a century ago, will look like loose change compared to the liability being planned for future taxpayers as a result of yesterday's decision.

Radioactive wastes cause cancer—a small detail that does not get much of a mention in BHP's environmental documentation. Something has gone deeply wrong here. It is by no means certain that this project is going ahead—although that is for reasons more to do with global market instability than anything else—but what confidence should we have in our body of environmental law, built up over a generation, when the creation of a carcinogenic waste pile the size of a small mountain range is not only legal but cause for celebration?

Again I would like to acknowledge the work of local Aboriginal elders and antinuclear campaigners, in particular Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, who has been tireless and inspirational in this role over a long period of time. He was reported as saying that he has been opposed to the mine from the outset because it encompasses sacred areas for the people of the region. He says:

We are not going to rest until the government reverses its decision. We want BHP Billiton out of the desert.

These words, although they may seem a long way away from Capital Hill, have inspired people like me and a whole generation of campaigners who will not rest until the toxic, deadly and obsolete uranium mining industry is phased out in Australia.