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Open Cut Mine at Ranger.
Photo: Chris Johnson

October 4, 2001
Kakadu and Uranium
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Kakadu.

The other day while exploring the unique wilderness of Kakadu National Park, we drove through an area of vast wetlands on the way to an Aboriginal rock art sight at Ubirr. It comes as a shock to many when they learn that this unique wilderness area is also the site of a controversial uranium mine.

Mining began in the Northern Territory, amid the most heated debates ever held on the uranium issue anywhere in the world. For Australians, it proved to be one of the most divisive political issues of the post-war era.

As an Australian, I have taken part in lengthy discussions and arguments over this issue for as long as I can remember. It is one I have brought up time and again with my Odyssey crewmates. The other day the crew had the opportunity to tour the mine currently operating at Ranger, as well as the site of a second mine, Jabiluka. The fight to stop the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine in 1998, saw one of the largest land rights and environmental public political arguments Australia have ever seen.

So exactly what is all the fuss about? Well, that depends on who you talk too. Our tour guide today was an employee of Rio Tinto, the company who owns both mine sites. We drove around behind the scenes of the processing plant, along the rim of the open cut mines and tailings site. Our guide was extremely upbeat, informative and continuously bestowing the virtues of the uranium mine for the Aboriginals in the area and for all Australians at large. He praised the mines impeccable safety record, while paying tribute to its negligible impact on the surrounding environment, which also happens to be a World Heritage area. We were concerned about the mine tailings, the byproduct and waste produced when the uranium is extracted from the ore. We asked him what he thought would happen to the tailings in the future, considering the potential effects of mining in an area that experiences heavy rains for six months of the year? His response did not inspire confidence, "Who knows what will happen in the next two thousand years."

Trucks removing ore for processing.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The perceptions and opinions about mining uranium on Aboriginal land, in an area that has since been declared a National Park and World Heritage Area vary between interest groups. But it would be fair to say that most conservation organizations, concerned members of the public, not to mention the traditional owners, the Mirrar people are very much opposed to any form of mining in this area.

The Ranger Agreement was first signed after passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976. This Act officially recognizes the ownership rights of Aboriginals to their traditional land. Subsequent Governments have tried to dilute and even do away with some of the key clauses in the Act to the point where traditional owners have now been stripped of their right to 'veto' in relation to farming leases, oil, gas and other mining projects if the Government deems it is in the national interest of Australia.

The Mirrar people are adamantly apposed to any further mining on their land, maintaining that the elders were pressured and coerced into agreeing to the mines in the first place. Galarrwuy Yunupingu of the Mirrar people believes, "we are not getting anything from the mine, while the mining companies are getting everything they want." He says most Aborigines believe they have not been adequately informed about the dangers of uranium, while several are anxious and confused about the effect of mine tailings on their water supply.

The Ranger uranium mine is located in the Alligator River region of the Northern Territory. This river system is almost entirely contained within the Kakadu National Park. It's a hot "wet-dry"area, with monsoonal climate and highly variable water flows. Ranger is located in the catchment of a creek system that teems with wildlife both on land and in the water. This area includes the Arnhemland escarpment, as well as lowlands, flood plains and tidal flats.

As we toured the Ranger mine, our guide explained to us that its uranium supply would be exhausted over the next ten years. Following this, the next mining lease sight, Jabiluka would be developed and opened for uranium extraction. It has yet to be decided whether the ore will be trucked back and processed at the existing Ranger site, meaning road and bridge construction through pristine wilderness, or that the processing facilities currently at Ranger will be relocated to the Jabiluka site.

Chris Johnson overlooks the proposed Jabiluka Uranium Mine site. Although within the outer boundaries of Kakadu National Park, the lease is not legally part of the park and therefore, subject to the legal prohibition on mining within Kakadu.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

It would seem there are many causes for concern about any further mining here. A number of sacred sights will be threatened by any exploration and mining in the Jabiluka area, while it is estimated that operations at the Jabiluka sight will create 20 million tonnes of radioactive tailings. These tailings could continue to pose a significant hazard for hundreds of thousands of years by potentially seeping and eroding into Kakadu, contaminating the natural resources of the region. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Ranger mine has already experienced leaks involving the movement of over two million litres of contaminated liquid.

From a conservation perspective this would appear to highlight the incompatibility of uranium mining and world heritage protection. After spending such a short time amongst the wildlife and wetlands of Kakadu, it is our hope that the interests of the environment will triumph over the short-term profits of commercial uranium mining interests - a scheme that could have an irreversible effect on this unique ecosystem - forever.

To learn more about Kakadu National Park, visit the PBS Living Edens - Kakadu website.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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