Battles For Hearts And Mines


For people against uranium mining at the Angela Pamela site near Alice Springs, Friday December 4 was  a good night .

The Super Raelene Brothers, a popular local band, teamed up with a group of Arrente-western Luritja musicians to sing a catchy little ditty that says no (“wiya”) to Angela Pamela in Luritja and Western Arrente – and has already been downloaded on to dozens of mobile phones around the town. There was some fire in the speeches, but mostly it was the sausages that sizzled, as a couple of hundred people enjoyed the balmy summer evening, the rich cool grass of the Town Council lawns and the cameraderie of being united against a common foe.

To top it off, outspoken and articulate independent MLA Alison Anderson got up and spoke against the mine in public for the first time.

In the struggle for Angela Pamela it looked like a clear victory for the Nos.

But today and next week the war will go on, and anti-mine campaigners will have to consider what the best tactics might be for future battles. If they are to win, they may have to pay more more heed to what is happening in the minds of not only Governments and opposition parties, but also those who have little or no commitment to their agenda.

Cameco will soon publish a new “information bulletin” in the local media. It will include what Cameco considers hard facts, some of which already are seeping into the public domain. In last Friday’s Centralian Advocate, for example, one of the most vocal and articulate opponents of the project bravely acknowledged that he had got one of his facts wrong, and the distance between the bottom of the uranium ore at Angela Pamela and the water table was in fact 700 metres. The latest studies suggest that it may be even more. That’s at least seven hundred metres of ‘impermeable’ rock. With that kind of evidence it will become harder to raise a sense of outrage by repeated claims that a mine would be ‘directly over our water supply’. The uncommitted punter would like to know what the risks actually are, however small. And what about the tailings?

Then there is the dust issue.  Jess Abrahams from the Arid Lands Environment Centre  stated unequivocally  Alice Springs would  have radioactive dust clouds if mining went ahead.   A  scary prospect, but it’s also a big call. Not ‘could’ or ‘might’, but “we’re gonna have”. Basil Schild talked of town camp residents getting “lungfuls of radioactive nucleides every time the wind blows the wrong way.”  In response, Cameco can argue that dust from mines like Ranger and Olympic Dam has been constantly monitored and found to be consistently well below the danger threshhold. They will present studies that show people who live near uranium mines in Australia do not suffer higher rates of cancer and other diseases than other people. Opponents must produce studies that disprove them or  face accusations of fear-mongering. If it turns out that the mine is not open-cut, as Basil asserted it would be,  but underground, as it may be,  the argument is in more trouble. Perhaps “could” is more effective than “will” , at the risk of losing short-term (but short-lived) dramatic impact.

Of course there are other statistics in this debate that go back a lot further in time – to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Long Island, to the high rates of cancer that occurred among miners before proper ventilation was introduced to extract radon gas. But many people  – including some in Alice Springs – have accepted nuclear power and uranium mining not as they were, but as they are in 2010: a fait acomplis on which many millions of people rely. And the reality is that in recent decades, the safety record of uranium mining has been way better than that of coal.

And yet there have been accidents that have seriously affect local environments close to towns, and one of the most effective planks in the Alice Springs campaign has involved the detailing of those accidents –  some of which have involved Cameco. Campaign strategists will have to assess what emphasis to give to Cigar Lake and Port Hope as world-wide pressure to extend nuclear power, and hence mine more uranium, increases. Not only has the new federal opposition leader jumped on the nuclear power bandwagon immediately after his election, but lefties like Philip Adams are weighing the evidence as they hear about the latest kinds of reactors, or discuss the possibiilty of thorium reactors, which can reportedly solve the problem of nuclear waste from traditional power stations by simply incinerating it.

Campaigners may have already decided it’s best not to muddy the debate with science – science that is only likely to get complicated. That’s risky, and ignores the reality that many ordinary people endeavour to understand the science of all sorts of complicated things, including climate change (which, ironically, leaves them open to considering the alleged benefits of the nuclear cycle). It’s true that supporters of uranium mining have been relatively quiet in the letters pages of the local newspapers in Alice Springs. This might be seen as an argument that, as Jess Abrahams says, opposition to Angela Pamela is growing.  But it might also point to a flaw in the campaign:  the fact many letter-writers have inhibited free and open discussion among assumed equals. There has been a stated or unstated assumption that the neutral or pro-mining people don’t care about Alice Springs and the environment, only about money.

One letter-writer suggested that people who presented arguments in favour of mining, should be suspected of being  Cameco stooges, funded out of its lavishly appointed publicity campaign. Others have consistently assumed the high moral ground, often with a palpable sense of righteous anger.  A recent letter accused people who favoured a mine of being morons, despite himself  appearing to think that minesite was also to be used as a nuclear waste dump.

Of course the anti-mining coalition cannot control the output of every letter-writer, but there has been a conspicuous shortage of letters that acknowledge people’s right to hold a different opinion without being considered morally bankrupt. In my opinion such an attitude is not only likely to discourage people from expressing their views or doubts in the paper, but also increase the resentment many people in the town already feel towards the “intelligentsia”. Threats by doctors to leave town if the mine goes ahead may have a similar effect.

Recently on this site the CSIRO’s Mark Stafford-Smith said he thought there had to be a “huge discussion” about the role of nuclear power in our society, and that it “would be helpful if we could have it in reasonably sober terms, supported by data, rather than emotionalism”. The Angela-Pamela debate is about one aspect of nuclear power: mining uranium near a large town like Alice Springs. We know all that uranium mining and nuclear power is an emotional subject, but that doesn’t mean we should give open slather to feelings with no regard for facts or others’ opinions.  Feelings won’t necessarily win the battle, and apart from that, we owe ourselves the right to rational and informed discussion. If we don’t take it up, we risk creating an even more divided town – whatever happens to Angela-Pamela.


5 Responses to “Battles For Hearts And Mines”

  1. Isabelle Kirkbride Says:

    There are many issues in this uranium debate and the biggest in my mind is that the Angela Pamela case is an unprecedented one, being so close to an existing town/ community.
    Jabiru (near the Ranger u-mine) and Roxby-Downs (near Olympic Dam) are mining towns and those living there have chosen to live there for the mine work. To impose a uranium mine on a community (no matter how informed they are of the risks associated with u-mining) is also unprecedented.
    That is why we are seeing such immense concern from families, doctors, professionals etc..
    And we are not alone! Communities around the globe have and are speaking out against uranium mining! And for good reason – the risks are too great. Residents want to live here in Alice Springs without the risks. Alice doctor’s are not alone against uranium mining. This last Friday 20 doctors from Quebec have also threatened to resign if a proposed uranium mine 13kms from their town of Sept Îles gets the go ahead. They also believe it will harm the environment and the health of area residents.

    Uranium mining at Angela Pamela will not benefit Alice Springs residents. We will not see the economic returns from such a dangerous and polluting industry.

    Uranium mining is not the answer to Global Warming/ Climate change.
    Solar power and renewable industries are.

    Angela Pamela – not worth the risk!

  2. adam dingo gurruwiri Says:

    ha ha- i sit back and wait for the “activists” to sort this thing out. i look forward to seeing the intelligentsia create some lavish action that achieves little and losses support. i will feel for my people when they lose this one as the government wont be swayed on this one- or any other uranium plans they have as the next decade is a big one for the uranium industry. when this has happened, then i will act, and in a way that does have little support, but is effective! infrastructure- supply- transport- workers- companies- company employees- that is the target- they are the problem. keep playing the “activism games” until you run out of options – land- people – clean environment! or you could take it up a notch, if your so sure of the danger this poses, the short amount of time to act you speak about, and the seriousness of it all. good luck to you all. i feel like i am watching the titanic set sail. and a big hello to ELF and EARTHFIRST. hmmmm, what does he mean?

  3. Hal Duell Says:

    Ah, Angela Pamela how I wish I had never met you. I could and would have continued happily on my way without having to re-evaluate my objections to uranium mining and nuclear power, and the certainties I formed 40 years ago would have held true for a lifetime.
    But if wishes were horses beggars would ride.
    The uranium debate and the realities attached to it are not the same as they used to be. At a minimum. the safety features used in mining have changed. Reactors now eat their own waste. And while I am not yet ready to eat my own portion of humble yellow cake, unless someone can come up with a killer argument, I can see it showing up on the menu any day now.
    If Cameco can provide independent verification that at least 700, and possibly 1300, meters of impermeable rock separates the ore from the aquifer, they will have won the water debate.
    If they go for an underground mine, they will have won the dust debate.
    The necessary tailings dam is contentious, but let’s face it: Cameco and other international mining corporations employ people who knock off environmental impact statements over breakfast. They have experience satisfying shrewd and intelligent politicians, and the pollies in the NT are anything but shrewd and intelligent.
    So what’s left?
    I can think of only one possibility, and that is that Angela Pamela is a Trojan Horse. We are told there is not a large amount of ore to be mined out there, and what is there is not of the highest yield. Perhaps 1100 parts per million compared to perhaps 30,000 ppm at Cameco’s sites in Canada? So what’s the attraction?
    Could it be a processing plant situated oh so conveniently right on the Darwin rail line? There will probably be uranium mined at several other sites in central Australia, and a processing plant will be needed to turn the raw ore into yellow cake. Or perhaps they will take it to the next stage, whatever that is.
    Is that a good argument against the development of Angela Pamela, or will most people just look at it as money for jam?
    Or for yellow cake?
    Also, I sincerely hope Dingo rethinks what he seems to be implying in his post. The Monkey Wrench Gang was a glorious book in its day, but with the terrorist laws and forensic technology now available, anyone taking that road would be behind bars before they got the second fuse lit. Not a clever option, and not a wining argument.

  4. Ross Peterkin Says:

    I’m not in favour of going up (above 14M) in the Alice but I can’t see that going down to mine uranium 25Km south of town presents any great hazard given the stringent safeguards which will necessarily accompany the issuing of any licence to mine there. I am reassured that the frequently posed threat of radioactive contamination to our water supply has been safely disposed of by the aquafa fortuitously having a 700M+ thick hard rock roof. Nor am I persuaded that radioactive dust will rain down upon us – our bush flies will continue to win that prize for personal invasion and nuisance. Will the vistors stay away?. Hardly likely if Kakadu is any example.

    I think if we are to solve our energy needs as a nation in a post coal era nuclear power generation needs to be in the mix. To that end I am heartened by this article which appeared in The Australan last week:
    Worth a read.

    I’ve joined the “morons” and I won’t be leaving town anytime soon (except to go on holiday)!

  5. Phil Walcott Says:

    Even when the mining company offers to build a child-care and early education centre later in this development cycle as a ‘bribe’ to the community, I believe that we must stand firm in our resolve if we oppose it. We, as a community committed to a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle for ourselves and the generations to follow should resist attempts to extract stuff from the ground that is controversial and unnecessary. Lhere Atepye does not approve the proposed mining on cultural grounds. A significant number of Greatorex residents oppose the proposition for a variety of reasons as do, I believe, a substantially significant number of Alice Springs’ and Central Australian residents.

    If the NT Government was ‘fair dinkum’ about the seeking people’s opinion, there really should be a referendum on this question as part of the next NT elections. I predict that would give a clear signal to government and the mining companies involved and certainly establish credibility within the debate. If the stuff has been in the ground for millions of years, no need to dig it up now.

    According to those who know and understand this stuff, if all fossil fuels were turned off tomorrow and the planet was fuelled solely with nuclear energy, there is about enough of the stuff to run the planet for around 4 years – total!! Then what???

    Solar, wind and water – all those waves in plentiful supply around the planet (distribution taken into account). Let’s learn better how to capture the energy and use it for sustainable good rather than capture the profits and use them for unsustainable greed.

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