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As the radioactive dust settles and the cleanup of the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl continues, Dave Sweeney reflects on Australia’s role in the Fukushima disaster.
On 11 March, 2011 a large earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan’s Pacific coast causing widespread destruction and dislocation of lives, property and infrastructure. In a matter of minutes, large areas of one of the planet’s most advanced nations were literally swept away and along with the inundation came the contamination.
One of the key pieces of infrastructure crippled by the natural disaster was the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. In the days following the disaster the world held its breath, crossed its fingers and waited on news of the extent of the damage and the release of radiation.
In September 2011 a United Nations special session on Fukushima detailed some of the massive impacts: ‘hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage’, ‘serious radioactive contamination of water, agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries’ and ‘grave stress and mental trauma’ to a swathe of people.
Fukushima was, and remains, a profound human and environmental tragedy. Its impacts will continue to resonate and contaminate for many years and in many places
Following the nuclear disaster ACF highlighted the role played by Australian uranium stating:
“Australia has a direct link to this tragedy as TEPCO, the company that operates the Fukushima reactors, buys and burns Australian uranium. BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto sell Australian uranium to Japan.
“Australian companies should not be allowed to push this contested and contaminating industry in developing nations when this sort of situation can occur in a country as rich and technically advanced as Japan.
“Australia must stop fuelling trouble overseas through our uranium sales and stop dancing with danger closer to home through ill-considered plans for domestic nuclear energy reactors.”
Australia is home to 40 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves and supplies around 20 per cent of the global market for mined uranium. All Australian uranium is exported and issues such as reactor safety, nuclear waste management and nuclear security and proliferation are legitimate and direct concerns that deserve attention from government, regulators and uranium producers.
But too often it is not. Dollar signs are prioritised over danger signs and the environmental, cultural and human impacts of the uranium sector are poorly understood and managed.
The uranium industry is unsustainable and provides no net benefit to Australia. The last reasonably independent assessment of the industry was a 2003 Senate Inquiry which found the sector characterised by a pattern of underperformance and non-compliance, an absence of reliable data to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment, an operational culture that gives greater weight to short term considerations than long term environmental protection and which concluded that changes were necessary in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from ‘serious or irreversible damage’.
In this context and in the shadow of Fukushima it would be hoped that the industry would have the self-awareness and the government the courage and capacity to examine the domestic and international implications of Australia’s uranium trade.
Aldous Huxley maintained that ‘experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you’. Sadly those who dig and those who allow the digging of Australian uranium seem committed to the offensive fiction of disaster denial and business as usual
The Australian Uranium Association, the uranium industry’s primary promotions body, was highly critical of our efforts to highlight Fukushima’s Australian connection stating, ‘ACF is still trying to blame Australian uranium companies. This is utter nonsense.’
Others in the uranium sector echoed this response with the head of Paladin Energy, a Perth based uranium miner active with mines in Namibia and Malawi, calling the Fukushima crisis a sideshow. Nuclear industry advocates and apologists lined up from A (Andrew Bolt) to Z (Ziggy Switkowski) to explain, excuse, reassure and deride.
In Canberra Prime Minister Gillard’s response was business as usual and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has happily marched to that drumbeat pushing increased domestic uranium mining and uranium sales to India while undermining the credibility of the world’s fastest growing energy sector — renewable energy.
The Australian government oversees one of the world’s largest uranium industries. Since the Fukushima crisis began its only assessment of Australia’s framework for the mining and export of uranium has been to drop the long standing requirement that countries which buy our uranium must be signatories to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in order to clear the way for possible uranium sales to India.
The Australian government’s indifference to responsible policy development and industry accountability is truly extraordinary. Uranium export contracts have been renewed with European nations with no reference to any lessons from Fukushima. A United Nations call for a dedicated review of the impacts of uranium mining has been ignored despite highest level confirmation that Australian uranium was not just sold to TEPCO but was actually in the Fukushima reactor complex.
Fortunately not all Australians are as craven and careless and many understand the simple and profound reality that rocks dug from the South Australian desert and the heart of Kakadu are now causing radioactive fallout in Japan and beyond
In January the Japanese city of Yokohama was host to a major international gathering of people affected by and determined to end the nuclear age. Australian Indigenous and environmental representatives were among the more than 10,000 who attended the conference and Peter Watts — an Arabunna man from South Australia — told of the impacts of uranium mining on his country and community.
Following the Fukushima disaster Yvonne Margarula, the Mirarr senior Traditional Owner whose land includes Energy Resources of Australia’s troubled Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu, wrote to the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, stating:
‘…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…We are all diminished by the awful events now unfolding at Fukushima.’
Yvonne and Peter’s stories have been amplified recently by the large numbers of people who engaged with rallies, events and actions to mark the disaster’s first anniversary on Sunday 11 March.
The extent of the Fukushima crisis and legacy is unclear but some of the lessons are crystal clear.
Nuclear is a high cost, high-risk electricity option that has no place in a sustainable energy future. When things go well the process leaves high-level long-lived radioactive waste and when things go badly people are left with a disaster.
No other industrial activity poses the risks and threats the nuclear trade does: long lived waste, links to nuclear weapons production and proliferation and the potential for catastrophic accidents and uncontrolled radiation exposure.
Australian uranium should be kept where it is safest and can do least harm — in the ground. The nuclear industry threatens the present, burdens the future and belongs in the past.
For more information visit: www.acfonline.org.au/nuclear
This article was originally published in ACF's habitat magazine. ACF members receive habitat as part of their annual membership.