Courtesy Stephen Codrington/wikipedia.org
Figure 3.21 Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu National Park, east of Darwin, Australia.

Uranium Mine’s Radioactive Leak on Aboriginal Lands to Be Investigated

Rick Kearns
12/19/13

The leak of over 264,000 gallons of radioactive acid slurry onto aboriginal Mirrar territory in northern Australia will be investigated, officials announced on December 13, almost a week after the event.

Federal Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane and Northern Territory Mines Minister Willem Westra Van Holthe announced the investigation on Friday, noting that a representative of the Mirarr Traditional Owners of the mine site will be invited to join.

The leak at the Rio Tinto Ranger Uranium mine, located in the Kakadu National Park on Mirrar territory, was first noticed Saturday morning, December 7. By later that same day the leak of radioactive slurry, made up of uranium ore and sulfuric acid, had covered a 328 feet by 656 feet area which had flowed beyond the containment banks and into the mine's drainage system.

The federal government suspended operations at the mine three days later, announcing that there would be an official investigation.

While the mine's operator Energy Resources Australia (ERA) had initially said that the site's "multiple containment systems" kept the radioactive slurry from reaching other parts of the Park, Mirrar leaders were not convinced.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC), which represents the Mirarr Traditional Owners of the area, called for a comprehensive audit of the entire Ranger operation including the aging plant facilities.

"This is a major nuclear accident, and comes within a month of two other high-risk operational incidents, leaving the Mirarr Traditional Owners in the region concerned for the safety of the Park and its residents and visitors," according to a GAC press release of December 7, the day of the leak.

GAC’s Chief Executive Officer Justin O’Brien said: “People living just a few kilometers downstream from the mine don’t feel safe. How can we trust the assurances of a company which has repeatedly failed to safely manage this highly toxic material? What may happen next?”

According to press reports, Ranger has experienced more than 200 spills, leaks and breaches since opening in 1979. In the days after the Rio Tinto spill it was noted that a virtually identical problem happened at Rossing, Rio Tinto's other uranium mine, in Namibia where a ''catastrophic structural failure'' resulted in the spilling of a large quantity of radioactive slurry.

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