Olympic Dam uranium mine extension - a tragic mistake

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Almost unnoticed this week, amidst the uproar about the carbon tax passing through the lower house, the gigantic and controversial Olympic Dam uranium mine extension was approved. In a Senate speech on Wednesday, Scott Ludlum said the decision was a colossal mistake with inevitable tragic consequences.

This motion is to take note of answers given by Senator Conroy on behalf of our hapless environment minister, who yesterday stood up and signed off on the next phase of expansion of the Olympic Dam copper, gold and uranium mine.

I mean no disrespect to Senator Conroy, who was appearing this afternoon in a representational capacity, but what on earth was he given by the environment minister? This vague and insulting verbal anaesthetic that he just read to the chamber, telling us absolutely nothing. Simply mouthing the words 'world's best practice' does not make it so, particularly when 2,000 kilometres to the north, at the Ranger debacle in the Northern Territory, cut out of the Kakadu National Park lease boundaries, we have a mine where the company is attempting, on Commonwealth prescriptions in their lease conditions, to return the radioactive tailings—the powdered carcinogenic material that BHP proposes to leave on the surface. In Kakadu, ERA is at least required to dump that material back in the hole, backfill it, cap it, revegetate it and then post some kind of guard for the next 10,000 years to look after it. Its licence conditions say the tailings must be physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years. That addresses the issues of detrimental environmental impacts and obviously the public health impacts of having tens of millions of tonnes of carcinogenic powder blowing around the landscape.

So for Senator Conroy to be sent in here with a piece of paper that talks about leaving somewhat more than a cubic kilometre of this carcinogenic material on the surface in central South Australia and says that the company will be allowed to walk away from that material after 10 years—after which that colossal liability passes to the Australian taxpayer and to the traditional custodians of that area, many of whom do not want that facility there in the first place—is insulting. There is nothing 'world's best practice' about what the minister signed off on again yesterday, and this is a decision that the Australian government will regret. I do not mean 'regret' in the timeless sense of future generations looking back and asking why this liability was left but the immediate political consequences of signing off on this monster, obviously without having even read what it is that the company proposes to do.

For the answer to the third question that I put to Senator Conroy, the minister had not even shown the courtesy of providing him with a brief. The fact is that this approval is highly pre-emptive and that Prime Minister, or Foreign Minister, Rudd—excuse the slip—would be required to sign off on a new amended treaty with China because this material is the feedstock for nuclear weapons and because the company, BHP Billiton, has come up with the novel idea of not just exporting copper, gold and uranium but exporting the jobs as well—exporting the highly skilled jobs from the smelting operations to China. This means we are not simply milling and processing this material in Australia; they propose to export a concentrate to China for smelting there. So BHP has come up with this novel idea of exporting the highly skilled employment to China, no doubt because they will be able to pay their workforce a fraction of what they would have to pay them here in Australia, and somehow that seems appropriate; I have not heard any questions raised on either side of the chamber about that.

But that means that that is a strong variation on the way that we normally export uranium to China or to anywhere else. There will need to be a treaty signed, but the negotiations for that, we understand on the basis of questions in budget estimates, have not even commenced. So this approval is highly pre-emptive of a delicate process of signing a treaty with a nuclear weapons state, China, where antinuclear campaigners are locked up, as Sun Xiaodi and his daughter were; they have not been seen in at least two years. They have been in a 're-education through labour' camp for the kind of whistleblowing activities that we would take for granted here in Australia. That treaty will need to be negotiated, signed, put to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and then put to this parliament. Senator Conroy was not even sent into this place with a brief on that matter during question time this afternoon. That is the colossal degree of ignorance being displayed by this government on a question of exports of a uranium deposit that is 10 times larger than anything else that has been discovered on the face of the earth. That is the material that we are playing with here: the world's largest uranium deposit by a factor of 10 and sales contracts to a nuclear weapons state, China. I thought that arguably our Defence white paper, in a colossal blunder, was written on the basis of some future war with the Chinese government in the 2030s. How extraordinarily foolish we are going to look from the perspective of future governments and future Australian voters for simply signing off on this thing as though it is of no future consequence whatsoever. I believe that this is a decision that the Australian government, and certainly the people of South Australia, will regret.

(This notice of motion was taken from Hansard 12/10/11 and has been republished with the approval of Senator Ludlum.)
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