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Completion of Kakadu National Park (Koongarra Project Area Repeal) Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 14 Mar 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:06): This is probably not going to come as a surprise to any: the Greens also welcome the Completion of Kakadu National Park (Koongarra Project Area Repeal) Bill 2013 into the Senate. I am also delighted to catch the tail end of Senator Birmingham's contribution, given the controversy attached to uranium mining in Kakadu in the past.

When he came to Canberra a few weeks ago to witness this bill being introduced into the other place, Djok senior traditional owner, Jeffrey Lee, AM, said

Money comes and goes, but the land is always here. It always stays if we look after it and it will look after us.

While the government and opposition are stubbornly ignorant of the profound wisdom of this sentiment most of the time and often ignore the wishes of Aboriginal people, in this bill they have honoured the wishes of the traditional owners of this country and their understanding of sustainability and sacredness.

It is very difficult to comprehend the pressure that Jeffrey Lee withstood so that we could get to this point, but I do want to pay honour to this fine and courageous man. It was my pleasure to meet him, and I hope a number of senators got to spend time with him, while he was here in Canberra. He stood up to some of the most powerful interests and companies on earth and won. AREVA, the largest nuclear energy company in the world owned that lease in Kakadu. It is, effectively, the French state-owned nuclear industry. AREVA's largest shareholder is the French government, famous in this region for killing antinuclear campaigners. AREVA is famous for extracting wealth and leaving toxic pollution in more than 100 countries.

Look, for example, at its record in Niger, the country ranked last by the UNDP development report because more than 40 per cent of children are underweight for their age, water and access to improved water sources is scarce and almost three-quarters of the population are illiterate. AREVA extracts millions of dollars from its uranium operations in Niger, with very little benefit accruing to local people. Jeffrey Lee has protected Australia from that happening here.

He went to Paris, where AREVA is headquartered, to explain why uranium should not be mined on his land and, instead, why the area of 1,228 hectares next to Noarlunga Rock in Kakadu should be recognised by UNESCO for having cultural and environmental significance. In June 2011, the World Heritage Committee did exactly that.

Kakadu is the jewel in Australia's environmental heritage, and it is a core component of our tourism industry. In 1979 a number of chunks were cut out of it-not out of the ecological values or the living cultural values, but out of the map. It is a frequent thing that we do: we cut rectangles out of maps and land use designations and imagine that that then should hold some kind of sway or standing in ecological or cultural arguments.

Koongarra, Ranger and Jabiluka mineral leases were excised from the lines on the map, but all three of them are an intrinsic part of the environmental values, the watershed and the living cultural integrity of Kakadu. They were excluded from the national park because of their world-class uranium resources.

The Ranger mine was forced on Aboriginal traditional owners by legislation that prevented them from saying no in 1978. At the time, in response to the Fox review, it was acknowledged by the government of the day that the opposition of the traditional owners should not be allowed to prevail. The opposition was recognised. It is not that it was ignored; it was recognised, and then it was determined that that opposition should not be allowed to prevail over the interests of the uranium industry.

So-called consent for mining at the nearby Jabiluka lease was obtained from the Mirarr clan under extraordinary duress in 1982, and Mirarr have fought against mining at Jabiluka ever since. For the benefit of senators, I would cite that as probably one of the single most important reasons why I am standing here today, because that campaign was what shunted me out of my former life and caused me to take on the role of anti-nuclear campaigner. The idea that the Howard government would set loose the uranium industry in Kakadu against the express wishes of the traditional owners triggered something in me that has brought me ultimately into this building. An enormous international and domestic campaign led by Mirarr senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula saw mining at Jabiluka halted. It forced mining giant Rio Tinto, which ultimately acquired the lease, to enter into an agreement with Mirarr whereby mining will not take place at Jabiluka without traditional owner consent. It is worth acknowledging Rio's management for entering into that agreement whereby they would not initiate mining on the Jabiluka mineral lease without the express written consent of the senior traditional owners from the Mirarr clan. There should be more agreements like that in Australia, but I do acknowledge that that one exists in this instance.

Jeffrey Lee has cited the strength of Yvonne Margarula as a source of inspiration for him in his consistent opposition to pressure for unwanted mining on his land. He noted last month:

I hope that one day Kakadu National Park will be truly complete with the Mirarr lands at Ranger and Jabiluka included in the national park.

Kakadu will not be complete until Ranger and Jabiluka are rehabilitated and incorporated back into the park, and that is probably the only quibble that I have with this bill. It is an excellent bill. It is some period overdue, but it is here. The federal environment minister has obviously indicated his strong support. It has the support of the World Heritage Committee, the support of the landowners and, I understand, the support of all parties in this place. But calling it the 'completion of Kakadu National Park bill' is an unnecessary sting in the tail, because this tale is not yet complete.

Ranger is a toxic assault on that same landscape and, we have established through parliamentary committee work in here, leaks at least 100,000 litres of radioactively contaminated water into Kakadu every single day. That statement is going to annoy the company, because they believe that that water is dropping straight down out of the tailings dump and is not entering the arbitrary lines on the map that they have drawn that define what is Kakadu and what is not. I reject that assertion utterly. This is radioactive tailings water that is leaking into the groundwater body directly beneath the Ranger facility, and the company does not know where it is going after that-100,000 litres a day. There have been more than 150 leaks, spills and licence breaches since the mine opened. Ranger was temporarily closed in 2011 because of the tailings dam being very close to overtopping because of a series of unseasonally heavy wet seasons. This is what will happen when you build a uranium mine in tropical Australia in an age of climate change. The wet seasons are inconvenient but true.

Despite ongoing problems and ageing infrastructure, ERA is nonetheless considering an expansion at the Ranger facility. Construction of a decline for underground mining in the guise of exploration has commenced without environmental oversight under the EPBC Act, and this exploration, if you want to call it that, is clearly the first stage of what the company intends to become a new underground mine. The Greens strongly believe, along with the many others who wrote to environment minister Tony Burke, that the minister should have taken his responsibility to scrutinise what is clearly a nuclear action under the terms of the EPBC Act.

When you look a little bit closer at the area surrounding the Olympic Dam uranium mine, you will find exquisite desert ecosystems based on the mound springs which the mine has had a devastating impact on, desert life and desert culture. This is not a case of not in my backyard. Whether it is me as a Western Australian campaigner or Jeffrey Lee fighting for his block in Kakadu or Senators Wright and Hanson-Young contesting uranium operations at Roxby Downs, this stuff is not safe for anybody's backyard. It is nice just once for this chamber to acknowledge that in honour of Jeffrey Lee.

So I call on the environment minister again to protect Kakadu from the ongoing threat of mining at Ranger today and perhaps Jabiluka tomorrow because, until he does so, this bill is misnamed. I thought of bringing a second reading amendment to change the name of the bill and then figured we should let it go through but acknowledge as we do that this is unfinished business.

We also had earlier this week a number of visitors from Fukushima from a small village called Iitate that I had the experience of travelling through last year. This is an abandoned village. We had a visit in this place yesterday from a dairy farmer and his wife who had to slaughter their herd and evacuate the area along with 160,000 other people because the area had been hit by the fallout plume that had travelled north-west and then tapered south towards Tokyo in the aftermath of the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi complex following the great Tohoku earthquake in March two years ago. Mr Hasegawa put very clearly to a press conference here and to a number of Labor and Greens MPs who took the courtesy of meeting with him while he was here that they are very well aware that we established in this place that uranium in all four of those plants came from this country, came from Kakadu, came from central South Australia.

This is not, as some have indicated, like selling someone a piece of rope and then having to take responsibility when they hang themselves or selling someone iron ore and then having to take responsibility if someone is injured with a blade made of steel. This is very different. Comparing uranium that has no other purpose apart from nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons to other, everyday commodities is, I think, to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the argument. We sell nuclear fuel to the majority of the world's nuclear weapon states. One of the reasons that we campaigned so hard against uranium mining at Kakadu, on the shores of Lake Way, in the deserts of central South Australia, in north-western New South Wales and in inland Queensland is the local impact on groundwater, air quality, traditional rights of access to land, rights of maintenance of cultural heritage, public health and safety, safety of transport corridors and occupational health and safety. The local impacts are, in my view, intractable This is not an industry that should be better regulated; it is an industry that should be closed down as we closed down the asbestos industry for many of the same reasons.

What is different about this campaign is that these are not simply localised. They connect to three generations of campaigners in all parts of the world where our uranium is shipped. When we travel to those places, we realise that the misery that has been created on the ground here in Australia at the site of uranium mines is compounded in the client countries which buy this product. This government appears to be in a headlong rush, backed by the opposition, to add India to our client list, and all I can do is invite senators on all sides of the chamber to examine-because there is quite a bit on the public record-the Indian nuclear industry's safety record and find out the near misses and horror shows that have occurred there. Senator Back is nodding, so perhaps he has done a little bit of this legwork.

The Indians almost lost a plant at Narora more than a decade ago-they would have if it had not been for cohorts of workers on very short shifts. This is what happened at Fukushima as well. They feed the workforce into the plant on 15-minute shifts, during which they will accumulate more than a lifetime's radiation dose, to pour borated sands or borated fluids onto the reactor pressure vessel to prevent it from blowing itself apart. The reason that I suspect no-one in this chamber has ever heard of Narora is that in that instance they were successful in preventing a catastrophic meltdown in India.

So we have to consider the consequences locally and internationally of engaging in the nuclear trade. I can tell you the Japanese are some of the best engineers in the world. The trains really do run on time in Japan. They know how to build things that Australia does not have the manufacturing capability for. A lot of the devices that we carry around to communicate with each other contain components from Japan. These are some of the best engineers on the planet; and, when the time came, they were not able to control the impacts of this technology, which has now led to the evacuation of thousands of square kilometres and 160,000 people in what was arguably before the disaster one of the best regulated nuclear industries in the world. Going back now, the Japanese government's high-level inquiry into the disaster said: 'The Tohoku earthquake and the tsunami that followed were natural disasters, and about that we can do nothing. The meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi was man-made. We caused that, and it could have been prevented.'

When we travel from Kakadu and follow the course of this trade, perhaps senators will understand why it is opposed so passionately not just here in Australia but everywhere it touches down. The people in Japan now have nowhere else to go. Mr Hasegawa had nowhere else to go. He has lost his farm. He has lost his livelihood. Now he becomes a messenger, travelling to Australia on a speaking tour to tell us, 'Whatever you people can do to close the tap, turn it off at its source, will be appreciated in the client countries whether they know it or not.' We do not want to have more memorials, as we did on Monday the 11th with Mr Hasegawa and his colleagues who travelled from Japan, for Kudankulam, Indian Point in the United States, any of the reactors across Eastern and Western Europe, any of the blatantly unsafe facilities that still litter the former Soviet Union, countries in Africa like South Africa that now propose to build them or, perhaps most interestingly, our largest potential client: China.

Senator Back was nodding when I spoke before about the safety record of the Indian nuclear industry, and that is because there is something on the safety record, but I invite senators to investigate the Chinese nuclear industry safety record, because there is absolutely nothing. 'Nothing to see here. Everything is fine.'

The only named antinuclear campaigners that I know of in China blew the whistle on uranium mine impacts in western China and are currently in a re-education-through-labour camp. Nobody knows of their wellbeing.

This is the industry that Mr Lee stood up against and beat. It is very encouraging to see the Australian government taking this step on his behalf and to hear Senator Birmingham's words backing that up. I wish that could happen more. I hope it happens at Jabiluka when the time comes. I hope that when the time comes-which may well be soon-we have the same kind of cross-party resolve on the issue of extending mining operations at Ranger indefinitely. Senator Wright has to contend in South Australia with the open-ended toxic legacy of the largest uranium mine in the world in central South Australia. It may not be as pretty as Kakadu, but nonetheless the possibility of leaving tens of millions of tonnes of carcinogenic uranium tailings on the surface at that facility is a daunting legacy that we are leaving for future generations.

When you look a little bit closer at the area surrounding the Olympic Dam uranium mine, you will find exquisite desert ecosystems based on the mound springs which the mine has had a devastating impact on, desert life and desert culture. This is not a case of not in my backyard. Whether it is me as a Western Australian campaigner or Jeffrey Lee fighting for his block in Kakadu or Senators Wright and Hanson-Young contesting uranium operations at Roxby Downs, this stuff is not safe for anybody's backyard. It is nice just once for this chamber to acknowledge that in honour of Jeffrey Lee.


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