Australian government orders uranium mine to close

CANBERRA, Australia, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- The Australian government has suspended processing operations at a uranium mine following a leak of more than 26,000 gallons of acid-laced radioactive material.

The leak followed the failure of a leach tank Saturday at the Ranger Uranium Mine in the Northern Territory, operated by Energy Resources Australia, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. The mine is located within the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, known for its Aboriginal cultural sites.


"I have told ERA today that they cannot resume processing at Ranger until the company demonstrates the integrity of the processing plant to the satisfaction of the regulatory authorities," Ian Macfarlane, Australia's industry minister, said in a statement Monday.

Macfarlane said the Office of the Supervising Scientist, part of the federal Department of Environment, is investigating the spill.

In its first statement Saturday regarding the spill, ERA said it had ceased operations at the site and "was continuing to monitor the incident," adding that it maintains its production forecast for 2013, between 2,800 tons to 3,200 tons.

In a subsequent statement, the company said Ranger Mine's containment management systems had fully captured the slurry material that escaped. "These systems are in place to separate processing areas from Kakadu National Park."


ERA said it "is confident that Kakadu National Park will not be impacted as a result of this incident."

A report in The Australian newspaper Tuesday quoted the Greens party nuclear issues spokesman Scott Ludlam as saying the mine has had more than 150 spills, leaks and license breaches since it opened in 1981.

The spill happened as the Australian federal government considers allowing states and territories to assess mining applications, as part of its overhaul of environmental approvals.

Noting that "the existing regulatory regime is failing," the Australian Conservation Foundation's anti-nuclear campaigner, Dave Sweeney, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "there can be no justification at all in that context to further weaken it by handing over controls to states and territories that are clearly lacking the capacity, the capability and the will to do the job responsibly and to the level that Australians expect."

In an editorial published Monday in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sweeney called uranium mining "one of Australia's most contested and contaminated industrial activities" and pointed to its role in Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

"Australian uranium directly fueled the Fukushima nuclear crisis," Sweeney wrote.

"It has been confirmed that it was a load of radioactive rocks from Kakadu and northern South Australia that were inside the Japanese reactor complex when it failed in March 2011. These rocks are now the source of radioactive fallout across Japan and beyond," he stated.


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