Back to All News

Dept. of Resources and Energy on uranium mining & radioactive waste dump

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 6 Jun 2011

Economics Committee - 31 May 2011

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. I might stay on the subject that I was on. It is mainly around the Rum Jungle Mine. I understand that we are still spending about $1.2 million this year and $2.4 million next year on the Rum Jungle remediation up in the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory. Can you update the committee on the work that taxpayers are still funding to remediate a small mine 40 years after it closed?

Mr Davoren: That is correct, broadly. About $7 million is being provided over four years, under a national partnership agreement, to the Northern Territory government to conduct a series of assessments of the current state of the Rum Jungle site and to put the site under an appropriate management regime.

Senator LUDLAM: So obviously I am incorrect. The $7 million is not for remediation at all; it is just for assessment.

Mr Davoren: That is right.

Senator LUDLAM: What is the estimated cost of cleaning up that site?

Mr Davoren: That is one of the things that these studies are designed to work out. The process involves characterising the site, describing the hazards that are there and then coming up with a range of costed options for any further work that is required for the government to consider.

Senator LUDLAM: So there is no point in trying to get you to estimate what the final remediation cost will be. When do you hope to have those answers?

Mr Davoren: In 2013. There is a fairly good website that is run by the project through the Northern Territory Department of Resources, which has a Gantt chart for the whole project.

Senator LUDLAM: I asked the Supervising Scientist last week about negotiations over the extended application of ERA's rehabilitation and closure bond for the Ranger Mine in the Northern Territory and Kakadu. I was told that that was the subject of current discussions between ERA and DRET. Obviously, in 40 years time, after the Ranger Mine has closed, we do not want to be still forking out millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to clean that one up. Can you provide us with an update for the closure planning for the Ranger Mine, to the extent to which you are involved in that?

Mr Davoren: I am not involved in it at all.

Ms Constable: Perhaps I can answer that question. The ERA is required to produce an annual plan of rehabilitation; that is managed by the department. The department holds a bond in relation to the annual rehabilitation plan. It is updated on a yearly basis. That plan is reviewed by the Supervising Scientist, the Northern Territory Department of Resources and the Northern Land Council. After they look at the plan, we have an independent contractor assess the plan and advice is then provided back to the Commonwealth for consideration.

Senator LUDLAM: The Supervising Scientist told me the other day that that is essentially so that if the mine is forced to close for any reason on the spot they have a remediation plan-ready to pull out of the box.

Ms Constable: That is correct, yes.

Senator LUDLAM: How much bond does the company have squirreled away in the event that that plan needs to be executed? How much money is there in the bank?

Ms Constable: The company does not have any moneys put away.

Senator LUDLAM: Do they deposit a bond with the NT department?

Ms Constable: It is deposited with the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, so we hold the bond in trust. At the moment we hold, in the form of cash, $54,389,515.34. Bank guarantees held by HSBC are $34,520,678.94 and BNP Paribas $80,379,659.72, making a total of $169,289,854.

Senator LUDLAM: What was the last figure? I missed that.

Ms Constable: It was $169,289,854.

Senator LUDLAM: That is in total?

Ms Constable: Yes, that is correct.

Senator LUDLAM: How much of the final bill for closure and complete remediation of that site is that estimated to cover?

Ms Constable: It is the complete site closure.

Senator LUDLAM: One hundred per cent?

Ms Constable: One hundred per cent, yes.

Senator LUDLAM: And they top it up a little bit every year, as the mine gets larger.

Ms Constable: It is assessed every year. It is based on a risk assessment. So, if there are changes to the mine, if more is required, a new assessment takes that into account.

Senator LUDLAM: Have you seen that final closure document, or is that just between the OSS and the NT government and the company?

Ms Constable: It is provided to the department every year.

Senator LUDLAM: Who assesses whether $169 million is enough to bring that site, which is huge-the ground disturbance there is extraordinary-back to values compatible with the site pre-mining?

Ms Constable: As I have mentioned, it is independently verified, but there is also oversight by the Department of Resources in the Northern Territory, by the Northern Territory Land Council and by the Supervising Scientist. So a range of people contribute to that final assessment.

Senator LUDLAM: Who is your independent verifier?

Ms Constable: For the current program, it is QS Services.

Senator LUDLAM: And everybody is completely confident that $169 million is enough to bring that site back into harmony with the values of the park before mining?

Ms Constable: We are confident that that is a figure that reflects the rehabilitation of the Ranger Mine site.

Senator LUDLAM: How much greater is the area of ground disturbance at the Ranger Mine compared to Rum Jungle? I do not expect you to have that right in front of you.

Ms Constable: I would have to take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: I appreciate that. Has a uranium mine the size of Ranger-anything of that order of magnitude-ever been rehabilitated before anywhere in the world?

Ms Constable: Mines certainly have. Again, I would have to take on notice that specific question as it relates to uranium mines.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. Not every mine is stockpiling tens of millions of tonnes of carcinogens; that is what is different about these kinds of mines. The licence condition on this one says that not only does it have to be restored to the values equivalent to those in the surrounding environment but also it needs to be isolated for a period of not less than 10,000 years. That, as far as I know, is unique in rehabilitation conditions.

Ms Constable: Many mine sites around the world have been successfully rehabilitated. This is the most strictly regulated industry in the world and, in terms of environmental assessments, a very close eye is kept on Australian uranium mines. So we are very confident that the Supervising Scientist, in its technical capacity, is providing very solid environmental advice about the rehabilitation of the mine and the surrounding areas of the Alligator Rivers Region.

Senator LUDLAM: I will move on; but I am interested to know that, 40 years after we closed Rum Jungle, we still have not managed to assess how to properly rehabilitate that one. Yet everyone is supremely confident that a mine that is probably 100 times the size or thereabouts-you will tell us exactly what it is-can be perfectly rehabilitated.

Ms Constable: We have learned a lot in the last 40 years around the world about mining in terms of environmental management. Yes, at the time it was considered appropriate. All of the work that is being done, even in Australia, on making sure that we have leading practice on environmental management is certainly a focus for the Australian government and the Northern Territory government.

Senator LUDLAM: I wonder what people in 40 years time will think of this transcript. But I will wait and see what you can provide for us. Mr Davoren, while we have you at the table, I will turn to your other area of expertise, which is the radioactive waste management side of things. Are any other sites, besides the land identified at Muckaty Station by the NLC, under any form of scrutiny, observation or research as potential sites for a national radioactive waste dump?

Mr Davoren: As you are aware, the current legislative framework was established under the Howard government, and this government has said that it would not proceed under that legislation. So there has been no scrutiny in the field or anywhere else since the Parsons Brinckerhoff reports were submitted to us.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, which we have spoken of before. So no other sites have been submitted to the department for evaluation?

Mr Davoren: No, none at all.

Senator LUDLAM: You are not aware of anything else out there?

Mr Davoren: No. I would know if they had been.

Senator LUDLAM: I would hope that you would. Are there any other sites on Muckaty Station itself, apart from the one that is identified in the PB study?

Mr Davoren: Other areas there were looked at. One other area was looked at as a regional investigation site in the Parsons Brinckerhoff studies. But there has been no further study of the nominated site or the regional investigation site.

Senator LUDLAM: That is pretty clear; thank you. Are you aware of documents sourced from the National Archives that reveal substantial inconsistencies in submissions and evidence provided to Senate committees by your department and by others that show that one Aboriginal family group does not exclusively own the land that was nominated by the Northern Land Council?

Mr Davoren: I am aware of those documents and I have been for some years. They were reports relating to the Aboriginal Land Commissioner's examination of the Muckaty site. The basis of those reports is that they can be subsumed by better and more complete evidence subsequently taken into account by the Northern Land Council when it was identifying the owners of the land. They may have been surprising to the counsel for Mr Lane, but they were certainly no surprise to the NLC or to this department.

Senator LUDLAM: That is interesting-'subsumed'. Were you asked to provide any advice to the minister on that matter?

Mr Davoren: I am sure we have.

Senator LUDLAM: Would you be able to confirm what form that advice took and when it was tendered?

Mr Davoren: I am sure that would have been in advice to our previous minister, Minister Bishop.

Senator LUDLAM: Sorry; I think you misunderstand. You are saying that it was no surprise whatsoever to you when those documents came to light. Were you asked to provide any advice to your minister in this more recent-

Mr Davoren: In relation to that, no. But I am sure that issue has been raised with the minister before. This was no great discovery. It may have been news to the counsel representing Mr Lane, but it certainly was not news to anyone else.

Senator LUDLAM: It is just surprising that it appeared to directly contradict evidence that had been tendered to two consecutive Senate committees.

Mr Davoren: There was a thorough examination of all evidence undertaken by the Northern Land Council. That evidence included the work of three anthropologists, one of whom has had a long association with that community. Taking into account all of the available evidence, the Northern Land Council, which has responsibility for these matters, reached the conclusion that they did.

Senator LUDLAM: I think where you have me at a disadvantage is that nobody has seen those anthropological reports, because the NLC will not release them to anybody, not even to the Aboriginal families that-

Mr Davoren: I am referring to the Land Commissioner's reports. The Land Commissioner's reports summarised that material.

Senator LUDLAM: I am interested in seeking your views on an issue that I think has been neglected. We spoke to ANSTO yesterday about the reactor core from Lucas Heights that eventually will be decommissioned and taken up to Muckaty. We also spoke again and got another update on the long-lived intermediate-level material that is due to be returned from Europe. They confirmed for us-I will seek your views on this-that the Muckaty site, if it goes there, or the remote site that we eventually land on, is not the final resting place of that material at all. That is just an interim store for the really dangerous, long-lived material. Is that correct?

Mr Davoren: That is quite true, and that has been the consistent position of this department and its precursors for 30 years.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you want to put on the record for us why that is the case?

Mr Davoren: It amounts to the inventory being quite small. ANSTO has about 400 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste. With the decommissioning of HIFAR, it will have another 500 and the arisings are only several cubic metres a year. For us to proceed to geologic disposal of that material would be rather excessive. We would be the only country with a projected inventory up to, say, the next 50 years of between 1,000 and 1,500 cubic metres to be taking that step. It is a very small inventory.

Senator LUDLAM: So in the meantime it is to be taken to wherever-to the national store. When we put this to ANSTO yesterday, they referred us quite emphatically to you: in the interim, who is doing the thinking about where this material will actually end up?

Mr Davoren: It will be stored for a long time until we have a sufficient quantity to warrant the effort of putting it into deep geologic disposal. At an increase of two cubic metres a year, that will be some time away.

Senator LUDLAM: When you are talking about nuclear waste, you have to be a bit careful about using phrases like 'a long time'. Are we talking centuries, or millennia or decades? What do you mean?

Mr Davoren: Certainly it depends a lot on our nuclear profile about future activities. But with two cubic metres a year it is a very small inventory, and indefinite storage is a very reasonable option. I do not think anyone internationally would disagree with that approach.

Senator LUDLAM: So we are not using the term 'interim'; it is 'indefinite'. It is just going there until whenever.

Mr Davoren: That is right.

Senator LUDLAM: That is very, very interesting. I will leave it there. I might come back later. Thank you, chair.

Back to All News