Ranger danger: Rio Tinto faces its nuclear test in Kakadu uranium mine

16 December 2020
Rebecca Lawrence and Dave Sweeney report on growing concerns over the potential failures of the rehabilitation plan for the Ranger mine in Kakadu National Park.

By Rebecca Lawrence, Senior Research Fellow, Sydney Environment Institute and Dave Sweeney, Australian Conservation Foundation

In the 1950’s uranium mining began in the Alligator Rivers and Kakadu regions in the Top End of the Northern Territory. Since then, the Kakadu uranium story has generated heartache and headlines but it is set to soon come to an end with the closure of the Ranger uranium mine in early January 2021. The story is now moving from one of contest over the impacts of mining to one of concern around the adequacy of rehabilitation.

Australia has a notorious record when it comes to mine rehabilitation. Many mines are simply abandoned, and those that are rehabilitated often fail, which means complex and on-going monitoring and management is usually required. In many cases, mining companies and their shareholders are long-gone and it is usually Indigenous communities who are forced to live with toxic legacies and left to fight for governments to finance the clean-up with tax-payer money.

Two former Rio Tinto uranium operations at Mary Kathleen in western Queensland and Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory remain inadequately rehabilitated and a continuing source of environmental damage. These failed rehabilitation efforts and the pattern of cost shifting from a private company to the public purse must not be replicated at Ranger.

Yet, there are alarming signs we may be headed that way. Significant and crucial knowledge gaps remain around the closure and rehabilitation of the Ranger mine. Despite the looming closure date, mine operator Energy Resources Australia (ERA) is still unable to answer many key questions. For example, ERA has still not completed modelling of the pathways and volumes of toxic contaminants expected to move off site and into Kakadu National Park.

Another key omission in the mine closure plan is the absence of any substantive social impact research. There is no attention paid to how Aboriginal people have been impacted by uranium mining in Kakadu, or any assessment of how they may be impacted the mine closure. This omission constitutes a profound social injustice and is demonstrably inconsistent with both international best practise and contemporary community expectation.

ERA is part of the global Rio Tinto group. Rio, who own 86% of ERA, has been called out for its destruction of ancient Aboriginal heritage and sites at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of West Australia. As the main shareholder in ERA at Ranger, there is a real risk that Rio will also fail at Ranger if they don’t get the rehabilitation right and put in place secure financing for perpetual care and maintenance of the Ranger site post-closure. There is a requirement that the company must isolate large volumes of radioactive mining tailings for 10,000 years, but how can that be done without any funds earmarked for monitoring or post-closure management?

The Commonwealth government was the key driver behind opening the Ranger Uranium mine in the early 1980s and yet as closure approaches, they are virtually absent. There is no clear regulatory process for how rehabilitation and post-closure monitoring will be financed or enforced. A successful rehabilitation is dependent upon the Commonwealth Government keeping ERA and Rio Tinto accountable and honest. Despite reassuring rhetoric no mining company will do that on their own – for too many the triple bottom line remains measured in pounds, dollars and euros. The Commonwealth Government needs to step up and ensure that the Kakadu environment and its people are protected and that a dual World heritage listed region is given the attention and focus it deserves and needs.

A further key constraint on the likely success of the clean up and closure of Ranger is the unrealistic timeframe that has been mandated for rehabilitation. Ranger is the longest running uranium mine in Australia. It was imposed against the explicit opposition of the region’s Mirarr Traditional Owners and for forty years has conducted deeply contested operations in a monsoonal tropical environment. And not just any tropical environment – the mine is an industrial zone surrounded by Australia’s largest national park – Kakadu.

Kakadu National Park is a dual World heritage listed area that is recognised for both its cultural and natural values and properties. The Ranger site is required to be rehabilitated to a standard where it could be incorporated into this unique environment. This is a very high bar to clear and Rio Tinto currently have a very short run-up. The rehabilitation period extends only from January 2021 to January 2026. Five years is simply not enough time to make meaningful and lasting repair to a heavily impacted landscape. As a result, the rehabilitation approach is being increasingly driven by short-cuts and bad decisions, rather than taking the time needed to get it right.

The Mirarr people and an increasing number of civil society and wider stakeholders and commentators are urging both the Commonwealth and the company to extend this set period of works to better reflect the complexity of the rehabilitation challenge and to increase the likelihood of a successful result.

The closure and clean up of Ranger is a critical test of the commitment, competence and credibility of Rio Tinto and the Commonwealth. Both parties have a responsibility to address decades of environmental damage and community disruption.

Without more clarity, funding, time and transparency the future of Kakadu cannot be assured. And this is too high a price to pay. There are many eyes from across Australia and around the world that are focussed on the Ranger rehabilitation and near enough is not good enough.

The challenge is clear and considerable – and now it needs to be met.

Rebecca Lawrence and Dave Sweeney are part of an expert group who have authored the report, Closing Ranger, protecting Kakadu (pdf, 6.5MB), released by the Sydney Environment Institute, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Mineral Policy Institute and the Environment Centre NT. 

Rebecca Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Rebecca joins the institute in 2020 after her time at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University as Research Fellow. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is the Research Lead on Resource Legacies and Impacted Communities.

Dave Sweeney has been active in the uranium and nuclear debate in Australia and overseas for many years through his work with the media, trade unions, Indigenous and environment groups. He leads the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear free campaign and is a foundation member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Header image: by Susan Bell via Unsplash.