Fairfax: ERA head says Ranger spill damaged trust

Publish Date:
8th March 2014

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by Peter Ker

Rio Tinto’s troubled subsidiary  Energy Resources of Australia fears the toxic spill at its Ranger mine in December has awoken ‘‘latent opposition’’ to uranium mining near Kakadu National Park, and also hampered the development of trust with an important group of trad itional landowners. Writing to shareholders in the company’s annual report, ERA chairman Peter McMahon said the spill had marred an otherwise strong year for the company. 

Radioactive uranium particles and industrial acids were leaked around the processing area at Ranger – which is entirely surrounded by Kakadu – after an ageing tank split open on December 7. Mr McMahon said despite none of the toxic material leaking into Kakadu and it posing no harm to humans, the incident had been a negative for ERA. ‘‘The incident reawakened latent opposition to uranium mining at Ranger and it has at least interrupted the developing trust between ERA and its community stakeholders, including representatives of the Mirrar people,’’ he said. 

A strong relationship with the Mirrar people is crucial for ERA, which requires their approval to conduct any further mining on site. Processing has been halted ever since the incident and ERA has not previously given guidance for when that ma y begin. But Mr McMahon said ERA was hoping to agree with regulators on the timing of a restart and he said that was hoped to be in 2014. 

The restart of processing at Ranger is taking much longer than at another Rio uranium mine in Namibia, which suffered a similar tank failure in the same week as Ranger. Processing at Rossing restarted in the first half of January. The uranium sector received a morale boost last week when the Japanese government – which closed its 54 nuclear power stations in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster – said it was committed to nuclear power as a long-term source of baseload power.

 ERA said yesterday it expects the Japanese government to reopen three or four reactors before July, and between five and 10 in every year thereafter. It did not source the information to anyone in particular, but the company is known to have long-term contracts with Japanese buyers. While the short-term market for uranium still appears challenged by low prices and weak demand, ER A said it expects demand to increase significantly over the longer term. ‘‘Demand growth from 2015 to 2025 is forecast to be higher than at any period since the 1970s, mainly due to new reactor growth in China,’’ the company said.