There are three operating uranium mines in Australia -Ranger in Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory; Olympic Dam in South Australia; and Beverley with Four Mile in South Australia. Ranger is situated within the perimeter of the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park (Kakadu). Kakadu has two other rich uranium deposits yet to be developed - Jabiluka and Koongarra.
Ranger was developed against the wishes of local traditional owners - the Mirrar people. Senior Traditional Owner Toby Gangale, opposed plans for uranium exploration and mining on his country in the 1970s. His opposition, along with that of other local Aboriginal people, was overruled by the Federal Government when it legislated for the development of the Ranger Uranium Mine in 1976. Ranger commenced operations in 1980, the mine is now run by Energy Resources Australia (ERA) which is majority owned by Rio Tinto.
Since the early 1980s, yellowcake from Mirarr land has been sent to fuel nuclear reactors in Japan, Europe and elsewhere. By 2019 Ranger uranium mine is now coming to the end of its life. Mining has concluded and minimal processing of stockpiled ore continues as the company contemplates the enormous rehabilitation task.
ERA announced the closure and rehabilitation of the entire site by 2021. In December 2014 ERA called for public comment on its environmental impact statement for a massive new ‘Ranger 3 Deeps’ underground mine. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF, Sweeney 2014) responded that the proposed mining technique was untested in monsoonal tropical areas and risked the rehabilitation of the site. ACF cited the 200+ leaks, spills, accidents and license breaches at Ranger Uranium Mine to date and the negative impacts on local (Indigenous) communities living downstream as well as the environmentally and culturally significance of the environment: ‘It is home to the world's richest breeding grounds for migratory tropical water birds, majestic waterfalls, vast wetlands teeming with wildlife, Indigenous rock art sites and over 50,000 years of living tradition and cultural practice’.
After the Fukushima accident, the traditional landowners were worried also by the impact of the activity on their land has on others. The possibility of uranium from Mirarr land being incorporated into a nuclear weapon or present at the site of a nuclear accident is therefore of enormous concern to Mirarr. Despite assurances from successive Federal Governments that Australian uranium is only sold for nuclear power, the fact remains that is impossible to guarantee Australian uranium does not end up in nuclear weapons. In April 2011, following the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan, Yvonne Margarula wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and expressed her sorrow at the impacts radiation is having on the lives of Japanese people. She noted that, ‘it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.’ (1).
Leaving aside the damage that the extracted uranium has done elsewhere, the local rehabilitation costs amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. After the price collapse following the Fukushima nuclear crisis, times in the uranium trade were difficult. Coupled with a mandated end to commercial operations by early 2021, Rio Tinto has accepted the era of mining has now been replaced by the need for rehabilitation.
But the challenge for Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto, who own and operate the mine, is not simple. It is to ensure radioactive and contaminated mine tailings are "physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years [and that] any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years."(2).