Nuclear security and Australia’s uranium exports Jim Green, 8 April 2014, http://onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=16197“………Australia’s uranium customers Nuclear security standards are demonstrably inadequate in a number of Australia’s uranium customer countries. Nuclear security risk factors in Russia include political instability, ineffective governance, pervasive corruption, and the presence of groups determined to obtain nuclear materials. A March 2014report by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs notes that Russia has the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles stored in the world’s largest number of buildings and bunkers, and that underfunding raises serious questions about whether effective nuclear security and accounting systems can be sustained.”
In a 2011 report, the US Director of National Intelligence discussed nuclear smuggling in Russia: “We assess that undetected smuggling of weapons-usable nuclear material has occurred, but we do not know the total amount of material that has been diverted or stolen since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We judge it highly unlikely that Russian authorities have been able to recover all of the stolen material.”
Nuclear security lapses have repeatedly made headlines in the USA over the past two years. Example include:
- the Air Force removed 17 officers assigned to guard nuclear-armed missiles after finding safety violations, potential violations in protecting codes and attitude problems;
- Air Force officers with nuclear launch authority were twice caught napping with the blast door open;
- an inspection by the Department of Energy’s Inspector General found that Los Alamos National Laboratory failed to meet its goal of 99% accuracy in accounting for the lab’s inventory of weapons-grade nuclear materials, including plutonium;
- a report by LBJ School of Public Affairs at Texas University detailed inadequate protection of US commercial and research nuclear facilities;
- at least 82 missile launch officers from an Air Force base in Montana face disciplinary action forcheating on monthly proficiency tests or for being aware of cheating and failing to report it. Former missile-launch control officer Bruce Blair said cheating “has been extensive and pervasive at all the missile bases going back for decades”;
- missile launch officers in two different incidents were found to have violated security regulationsdesigned to prevent intruders from seizing their ICBM-firing keys;
- nineteen officers at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were forced to surrender their launch authority because of performance and attitude problems;
- the Navy has opened an investigation into accusations of widespread cheating by sailors at an atomic-reactor training school in South Carolina;
- the congressionally mandated Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise says that drastic reforms are crucial to address “systemic” management shortcomings at the National Nuclear Security Administration; and
- former military contractor Benjamin Bishop will plead guilty to providing nuclear-arms secrets and other classified information to his Chinese girlfriend.
Time magazine describes the most embarrassing lapse: “In the U.S. in 2012, an 82-year old nun and two other peace protestors broke into Y-12, a facility in Tennessee that contains the world’s largest repository of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in metal form and until the incident was colloquially known as “the Fort Knox of HEU” for its state-of-the-art security equipment. The nun bypassed multiple intrusion-detection systems because faulty cameras had not been replaced and guards at the central alarm station had grown weary of manually validating sensors that produced frequent false alarms. When the protestors started hammering on the side of a building that contains enough HEU for hundreds of weapons, the guards inside assumed the noise was coming from construction workers that they had not been told were coming. She and her fellow protestors were eventually challenged by a single guard.”
The United States’ credibility is also undermined by its failure to ratify the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Moreover US federal government budget requests and allocations for nuclear security have been reduced repeatedly since 2011, with programs such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the International Material Protection and Cooperation program, Securing the Cities, and a program to replace HEU research reactor fuel with low-enriched uranium, suffering………
The March 2014 report by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs details significant nuclear security gaps in a number of countries that import uranium − or want to import uranium − from Australia. For example it states that India’s approach to nuclear security is “highly secretive”; the threats India’s nuclear security systems must confront “appear to be significant”; India faces challenges “both from domestic terrorist organizations and from attacks by terrorist organizations based in Pakistan”; India also confronts “significant insider corruption”; and the risk of theft or sabotage in India “may be uncomfortably high”……….
So what is Australia doing? So what is the Australian government doing about the vital problem of inadequate nuclear security standards in uranium customer countries? And what are the uranium mining companies operating in Australia doing about the problem? The short answer is: nothing. They adopt a head in the sand approach, just as they ignored the disgraceful nuclear safety standards in Japan that led to the Fukushima disaster.
There are simple steps that could be taken − for example uranium exports could be made contingent on customer countries ratifying the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. http://onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=16197
The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) has welcomed the formation of a task force to investigate the recent tank collapse at Ranger uranium mine. Federal Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane and Northern Territory Mines Minister Willem Westra Van Holthe announced the investigation today noting that a representative of the Mirarr Traditional Owners of the mine site will be invited to join.
GAC Chief Executive Officer Justin O’Brien said “We welcome the Government’s proactive closure of operations at Ranger and believe that mining should remain suspended until the completion of this investigation and the subsequent implementation of all recommendations.”
The investigation has been established to:
i) identify the immediate cause of the incident;
ii) examine the integrity of broader processing operations;
iii) identify any gaps in operating procedures or maintenance practices;
iv) undertake a comprehensive examination of corporate governance arrangements; and,
v) provide recommendations to the Commonwealth Minister for Industry and the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy.
Mr O’Brien continued: “This inquiry must be given full access to ensure the condition of infrastructure and the rigour of procedures at this aging mine are fully scrutinised. We look forward to assisting with the appointment of an independent investigator.”
“We are hopeful that this process will set a strong precedent for government listening to and including aboriginal landholders in decisions about the management of their land” Justin O’Brien concluded.
AUDIO Worker ‘fell in’ to radioactive slurry pit, ABC Radio AM Michael Coggan reported this story on Saturday, December 14, 2013
SIMON SANTOW: The operators of the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory are facing fresh allegations they are cutting corners on safety.
A worker told his union he sunk up to his armpits into radioactive slurry while helping to clean up a massive toxic spill caused by the collapse of part of the mine’s processing plant last weekend.
The company that runs the mine, Energy Resources of Australia, says it can’t confirm the workplace accident and is checking the validity of the claim. Michael Coggan reports from Darwin.
MICHAEL COGGAN: When a 1,400 cubic metre leach tank at the Ranger uranium mine fell apart last Saturday, workers had to evacuate to avoid being hit by the mixture of sulphuric acid and uranium it was holding…….
MICHAEL COGGAN: What does that say about the safety of the mine site?
BRYAN WILKINS: I think this is fairly typical of safety on that mine site. And it goes to show when the minister said the mine was safe the other day, he obviously wasn’t right. There still are safety issues on that site, and there needs to be that full independent inquiry that we called for…….http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2013/s3911651.htm
Kakadu uranium leak: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’ SMH,December 14, 2013 Tim Elliott To the Jawoyn people, of southern Kakadu, it’s known as buladjang, or ”sickness country”, pockets of land not fit for regular habitation.
It was here, they believed, that the creation ancestor Bula ended his travels and left his spirit underground. Only recently have scientists found a correlation between mineral deposits such as uranium and the location of major Bula sites.
Ranger uranium mine, north of the Jawoyn, unleashed its own kind of sickness last Saturday when a leach tank burst, spilling 1 million litres of highly acidic uranium slurry that engulfed the mine and breached containment lines. The mine’s operator, Energy Resources Australia, said no one was hurt, and that the spill had no effect on the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, which surrounds the site.
But photos obtained by Fairfax Media for the first time show the extent of the damage. ”I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Melanie Impey, environmental officer for the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the local Mirarr people. ”The tank was just a mangled mass of metal.”…..
Ranger has experienced more than 200 spills, leaks and breaches since opening in 1979. In 2002, ERA detected high uranium levels downstream from Ranger but failed to inform the traditional owners for five weeks. In 2004, 28 Ranger workers were found to have drank and showered in water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium. Later, an excavator covered in radioactive mud was taken to the town of Jabiru for cleaning, contaminating a mechanic and his children.
Ranger’s chief regulator is the Northern Territory government, which takes advice from the Supervising Scientists Division, a Commonwealth agency that oversees environmental standards within Kakadu. ERA says its record is good, pointing out the SSD has always given the mine a clean bill of health …. http://www.smh.com.au/national/kakadu-uranium-leak-ive-never-seen-anything-like-it-20131213-2zcy5.html#ixzz2nU8DGzF
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/kakadu-uraniu
13 Dec 13, ACF has called for a widening of the scope of the planned review into safety at Energy Resources of Australia’s Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu following last weekend’s equipment failure and spill of a million litres of highly acidic uranium slurry.
Today the federal and NT Mines Ministers have outlined the terms of reference for a joint investigation but many questions remain unclear, including:
· Details on the ‘independent expert’ who has the key role to ‘review the broader integrity of the processing plant’
- · How stakeholders including environmental NGO’s and trade unions will engage with this process and whether there will be a public hearing and submission process
- · Whether operations at Ranger mine will remain halted pending the outcome plant integrity assessment
- · How the adequacy of the remediation and clean up works and related OHS response will be assessed
- · The extent of dependence of company supplied – as opposed to independently obtained – data and monitoring results Continue reading
EDONT to watch regulator response with interest in wake of Ranger Uranium Mine incident. ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS OFFICE NT, DECEMBER 11, 2013 “………What can the Commonwealth and Territory Government do to respond to the spill?
Clearly an incident of this nature demands a strong response from regulators of the mine. Currently the Office of the Supervising Scientist and the Northern Territory Government are investigating the spill.
Under the AEA the Commonwealth Minister has the power to impose an indefinite suspension of operations at Ranger if ERA refuses or fails to comply with or observe a condition or restriction provided in its Authority. It is unclear whether the Commonwealth Minister has given a direction under the AEA or whether he has directed ERA to cease operations pending investigation and ERA have voluntarily complied.
It is interesting to note that while ERA have stated that the spill was contained on site, Ranger Environmental Requirement 1.2 requires that:
the company must ensure that operations at Ranger do not result in environmental impacts within the Ranger Project Area which are not as low as reasonably achievable, during mining excavation, mineral processing, and subsequently during and after rehabilitation.
Additionally, Environmental Requirement 12 requires the use of Best Practicable Technology (BPT) at Ranger. While it is contemplated that equipment on site may be able to fulfill its serviceable life, in light of this weekends events ERA appears to be failing in its duty to adequately review and update its equipment in line with Environmental Requirement 12.
Given that preliminary reports have suggested that the tank was over 20 years old, EDO NT would suggest that a full scale review of the mines equipment to ensure that there are no further equipment failures at the mine and compliance with the BPT requirement of ERA’s Ranger Authority is achieved.
Under the Atomic Energy Act it is an offence for a person to fail to comply with a condition of their authorisation. The maximum penalty for this offence, in the case of a body corporate like ERA, is $10,000.
Northern Territory -
The Northern Territory Government’s powers to regulate Ranger arise from the provisions of the MMA, which as stated above provides for the General Authorisation for Ranger, the Schedule to which set out the way mining operations are undertaken and the requirements for environmental protection.
In the event that the NT Government believes ERA has contravened an environmental obligation under the MMA and caused environmental harm, it is able to commence proceedings under the MMA.
The MMA provides three tiers of offences, namely for conduct causing:
- serious environmental harm (level 1 and 2);
- material environmental harm (level 1 and 2); or
- Environmental nuisance.
The penalties for the various tiers (and levels) range from about $55,000 for a body corporate who causes environmental nuisance to over $2.75 million for a body corporate that causes serious environmental harm.
The way forward
The time for taking a strong legal stance against lack luster performance at Ranger would appear to have come. The Northern Territory Government must send a message to ERA, and other mine operators within the Territory, that the Territory community will accept nothing less than strict compliance with the laws put in place to protect the environment.
In a bizarre and troubling development, Rio Tinto’s Rossing Uranium Mine in Namibia has suffered a disastrous acid spill identical in nature to that which closed the company’s Ranger mine in Kakadu on the weekend.
Breaking reports in local media indicate that within three days of the Kakadu collapse, Rio’s Namibian operation suffered a catastrophic failure which put workers and the surrounding environment at risk.
“In addition to the toxic catastrophic at Ranger uranium mine – the latest in over 200 spills, leaks and licence breaches within the Kakadu National Park precinct – Rio is also dealing with “structural failure” of a leach tank at their processing plant in Namibia,” said Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam today.
“Rössing opened in 1976, Ranger in 1981 – both of these mines are ageing and failing.
“Rio is now on the world’s radioactive radar – both in Namibia where worker and environmental safety standards are much lower than at Ranger.
“But it’s not only engineering structural failure in leach tanks. This industry is tanking economically and it’s time to shut it down and clean up these toxic blots on the landscape before they do more damage.
“Australia is blessed with perfect conditions for renewable energy generation, particularly solar, which is clean, safe and doesn’t risk contamination of workers and the environment. The future is renewable not radioactive,” Senator Ludlam concluded.
For further information on the spill in Namibia: http://www.namibtimes.net/forum/topics/rossing-shuts-operations-after-ca…
NT uranium mine suspended after radioactive leak SMH, 10 Dec 13,The federal government has suspended operations at the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory, after a major leak of acid and radioactive slurry at the weekend.
The mine’s operator, Energy Resources of Australia, insists there has been no environmental impact from the million-litre spill, but this view is contested by local indigenous people and environment groups…….
On Friday, workers detected a hole in leach tank one within the mine’s processing area, which has a capacity of about 1.5 million litres. The next day, the tank split, pouring out a slurry of mud, water, ore and sulphuric acid…….
The NT Environment Centre said it did not believe ERA when the company said there had been no environmental impacts.
”It’s clear there’s contaminated water from the burst tank on soil,” director Stuart Blanch said.
There have been more than 200 safety breaches and incidents over the past 30 years at the site, according to the centre, which says the slurry spill overflowed levee banks designed to contain it and got into the mine’s stormwater drain system.
The regional organiser of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Bryan Wilkins, said that during the construction and installation of the leaking tank, in 1993 or 1994, the welding was not properly tested. ”I know it wasn’t – I was there,” he said.
An investigation to determine what caused the tank to give way was being commissioned, ERA chief executive Andrea Sutton said……. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/nt-uranium-mine-suspended-after-radioactive-leak-20131209-2z1un.html#ixzz2n5vZT1Pe
Investigation as radioactive leak leaves Ranger uranium mine under a cloud SMH, Lucy Battersby and Peter Ker December 9, 2013 The future of Australia’s oldest uranium mine is under renewed scrutiny, after a tank holding more than a million litres of radioactive slurry burst at the weekend, sparking a federal investigation.
The accident prompted traditional land owners to describe the Ranger uranium mine as a ”hillbilly operation” with too little regulation. The mine has a history of safety breaches and unions have raised concerns about maintenance standards at the 33-year-old operation…… Continue reading
Problems at Lynas factory can cause radioactive leaks, say experts The Malaysian Insider, 24 Nov 13, Prevailing problems in waste management, storage, disposal facility and waste cleaning at the Lynas factory can lead to radioactive leakages if the Australian firm fails to address the issues, said experts t at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur today.
The mining company’s refinery near Kuantan, Pahang, has several problems, which experts said in the event of an accident or carelessness, could harm to residents near the factory. Continue reading
20 Nov 13 The Northern Territory (NT) Branch of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) is very concerned that four drums used for yellowcake transport have recently been found at a property in Darwin’s rural area, as reported in local media.
“We expect an immediate investigation into the radioactivity of these drums will follow and a further public and environmental health response will be taken accordingly. We understand these drums have since been claimed by ERA and taken to the Ranger mine,” said Dr Michael Fonda, PHAA’s NT Branch Secretary.
This current case follows a serious operational breach earlier this month where a Ranger mine vehicle left a controlled and contaminated area without authorisation.
“These latest incidents – in the context of more than one hundred reported safety failures over the last 30 years – continue to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the safety regulations at Ranger. They also come at a time when ERA is seeking approval for an expansion to uranium mining at the Ranger mine with the 3 Deepsunderground project,” explained Dr Fonda.
Of further concern are comments made by NT Mines Minister Willem Westra van Holthe yesterday, suggesting less Federal Government scrutiny in future NT uranium mining projects.
“These safety incidents, along with the inherent dangers associated with the uranium industry, reinforce the importance of strict government regulation at a federal level. The NT Branch of PHAA is calling for an urgent independent public inquiry into the safety operations at Ranger, including any proposed expansion of the industry in the region,” said Dr Fonda.
For further information/comment: Dr Michael Fonda, NT Branch Secretary, Public Health Association of Australia 0429 435 595
The Environment Centre NT and the Australian Conservation Foundation have condemned the latest in a conga line of failures at Ranger uranium mine amid revelations that four uranium barrels were discovered abandoned in Darwin’s rural area today.
Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) is currently under investigation for a serious operational breach following the recent unauthorised removal of a mine vehicle used in the controlled and contaminated area of the Ranger mine. This latest incident is further evidence of systemic failure at Ranger and highlights the need for an urgent review into the mine’s operations.
“ERA has not only lost control of a vehicle and uranium barrels, they’ve also clearly lost the capacity for responsible management and effective operations”, said Lauren Mellor from the Environment Centre NT. “Uranium mining, with its risks to public health and safety and long-term environmental contamination must be subject of greater Federal government scrutiny – not less as Northern Territory Mines Minister Willem Westra Van Holthe suggested today”.
Environmentalists are calling for a full, public and independent review of the operations and impacts of Ranger. “These drums are literally warning drums about the serious regulatory problems at Ranger and their description matches ERA’s assurances – empty, weathered and fire damaged”, said ACF nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney. “ERA is currently undergoing an environmental assessment process for their proposed Ranger 3 Deeps underground mine and these systemic breaches should be a red light to Federal and Northern Territory Government assessors that ERA does not have either the capability or credibility to mine and export uranium safely and securely.”
“While there is still uncertainty as to the outcome of the investigation into ERA’s security breach, some things are crystal clear. It is clear that ERA has failed to control its operations on or off the Ranger mine, clear that the regulatory regime is deficient and clear that there is an urgent need for an open and independent review of Ranger.”
In 2011 it was confirmed that Australian uranium was inside the failed Fukushima nuclear reactor and the UN Secretary-General called on Australia to conduct an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of uranium mining on local communities and ecosystems. Environmentalists are calling for this assessment to now be urgently implemented.
“ERA is losing vehicles, barrels and credibility and the Northern Territory community is losing confidence and patience. It is time for the regulators and those who are meant to protect the community and country of Kakadu to get serious and get to work on closing the door to this toxic industry for good,” concluded Ms Mellor.
20 Nov 13, The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) is outraged by revelations that four uranium barrels from Ranger uranium mine have been located at Noonamah south of Darwin. It is understood that the NT Department of Health yesterday notified Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) of the drums and asked that they be removed. The drums have been returned to the Ranger mine within the bounds of Kakadu National Park for safe storage. This incident comes within weeks of another serious breach of radiation management at Ranger when a potentially contaminated vehicle left the Ranger site without authorisation
GAC’s Chief Executive Officer Justin O’Brien said: “It is clear that the radiation control measures at the Ranger mine site have failed on multiple occasions. While we welcome the timely reporting of this issue by the company, ERA’s management of radiation is plainly inadequate.
“The Commonwealth Government must step in and ensure that this matter is taken seriously. To date the response by the Office of the Supervising Scientist (OSS) has been dismissive and woefully inadequate. Both the NT and Federal Governments must broaden their current investigations into the vehicle incident and examine the entire management of radiation at the Ranger mine.
“This is not a only a matter between the Mirarr and the mining company, there are significant questions of public health to be considered here. We expect these issues to be considered in a comprehensive investigation of these incidents.
“This revelation raises very serious concerns for the Mirarr Traditional Owners regarding the suggestion of further mining at Ranger,” Mr O’Brien concluded.
ACF questions Ranger uranium mine safety http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/2013/11/08/16/49/acf-questions-ranger-uranium-mine-safety 8 Nov 13 It would be a case of good luck rather than good management, if it turns out there is no radiation contamination due to an an unauthorised vehicle leaving the Ranger uranium site in Kakadu, an environment group says. At about midnight on Sunday, a controlled vehicle used in the most contaminated parts of the Rio Tinto-owned Ranger mine left the site without permission. Continue reading
Uranium contamination fears: police investigate Rio Tinto Ranger mine SMH, November 8, 2013 Peter Ker Resources reporter Rio Tinto’s relationship with an indigenous group in Kakadu National Park has taken ”two steps backward” after a safety breach at the Ranger uranium mine.
The Rio subsidiary that operates Ranger, Energy Resources of Australia, has confirmed that a vehicle used within the mine was taken out of controlled areas, sparking contamination fears among the nearby Mirrar people. Police are investigating the incident, which took place without the consent of ERA management in the early hours of Sunday morning, and which some believe may be a breach of the company’s authorisation to mine.
Like all uranium mines, Ranger operates under strict conditions to ensure dangerous levels of uranium do not contaminate the nearby area. ERA said the car – which was supposed to remain inside the mine at all times – had been checked and was ”free of contamination”.
But Justin O’Brien, who represents the Mirrar people, said it had caused great concern among the local community.
”We think it is very serious that you could take potentially contaminated material from an operational mine site, avoid all scrutiny, leave the mine site with it and then be found down the highway,” he said. ”There needs to be a broader inquiry into how on earth this could happen in the first place.”
ERA’s relationship with the Mirrar people is crucial to its survival, given the company has agreed not to restart mining at Ranger without approval from the group. Ranger ceased operating as an open-cut mine last year, and its only future lies in winning approval to become an underground mine in coming years.
The nearby Jabiluka uranium deposit will also not be mined until the Mirrar people give their full support, something that appears unlikely any time soon………Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Dave Sweeney said it was not the first breach at Ranger, and it was time for Rio Tinto to ”reconsider the project”. http://www.smh.com.au/business/uranium-contamination-fears-police-investigate-rio-tinto-ranger-mine-20131107-2x46w.html#ixzz2k5tWwFN7