Uranium mining in the Alligator Rivers Region

Jabiluka uranium mine

The Jabiluka mineral lease, 230 km east of Darwin and covering 73 sq km, is owned by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd (ERA), a Rio Tinto group company. It abuts the northern boundary of the Ranger Mineral Lease. The Jabiluka lease pre-dates and is surrounded by the world famous Kakadu National Park, which has been inscribed on the World Heritage list due to its outstanding natural and cultural values (World Heritage Reports). The project was placed in long-term care and maintenance in February 2005 and Rio Tinto has entered an agreement with Traditional Owners stating that no further development will occur at Jabiluka without their approval.

Jabiluka project

Jabiluka project

Source: E Madon and S Davis-Hall

ERA bought the Jabiluka lease from Pancontinental in 1991. In October 1996, ERA completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for their preferred option for Jabiluka which is to transport ore by truck 20 km south to the existing Ranger Mill and extract the uranium there, rather than build a mill and process plant at Jabiluka. This is called the Ranger Mill Alternative (RMA). The Minister for the Environment approved the EIS for this alternative in August 1997 and attached 75 environmental recommendations to the approval which were adopted as EIS Requirements by the Minister for Resources and Energy. These cover all aspects of the mining operation and are designed to ensure that the development has no adverse effects on the surrounding Kakadu National Park.

The current senior Aboriginal Traditional owner of the Jabiluka has stated her opposition to the Jabiluka project. This has impeded the company in developing the RMA. Consequently, the company put forth an alternative which involves building a mill and process plant at Jabiluka. This option is called the Jabiluka Mill Alternative (JMA), was subject to a Public Environmental Review (PER) and approval was given by the Minister for the environment in 1998 with 17 recommendations. These recommendations were adopted by the Minister for Resources and Energy as per requirements.

At the request of the World Heritage Committee, the Supervising Scientist submitted a report to the Committee in April 1999 on the Jabiluka Project. This report was assessed by the Independent Science Panel (ISP) of ICSU in May 1999 and the Supervising Scientist provided a response to the ISP review to the World Heritage Committee in June 1999.

View west of Jabiluka mine site

View west (approx) of Jabiluka mine site taken from within the Lease boundary. Note that the ridge between the two outliers separates the mine site from the Oenpelli Road and the Magela floodplain beyond and blocks visibility of the mine site from the ground.

The World Heritage Committee met in Paris in July 1999 and resolved not to place Kakadu National Park on the list of World Heritage in Danger. In making its decision, the World Heritage Committee asked the Independent Scientific Panel (ISP) of the International Council for Science (ICSU) to continue to work with the Supervising Scientist and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to resolve any remaining scientific issues. The role of the ISP was to review the response of the Supervising Scientist to the first report of the ISP and report back to the World Heritage Committee on scientific issues associated with the development of the Jabiluka project.

The ISP reviewed the Supervising Scientist's response in May 2000 and provided a progress report which was considered at the June 2000 meeting of the Bureau of the World Heritage Committee.

The ISP visited Kakadu National Park, Jabiluka and Ranger from 3 to 7 July 2000. A representative of the IUCN accompanied the ISP. The visit was in response to concerns raised by the ISP in July 1999 that it had not had the opportunity to visit Jabiluka and that such a visit would greatly assist it in determining whether the development of Jabiluka posed a threat to the natural World Heritage values of Kakadu National Park. The program for the visit included tours of Ranger and Jabiluka, a flight over Ranger, Jabiluka and Kakadu National Park, and meetings with the Supervising Scientist and his staff, Energy Resources of Australia, Park Managers, and various Australian scientists. These meetings were structured to address particular scientific issues and allow the ISP to obtain additional information sufficient for it to report on whether the development of the Jabiluka uranium mine posed a threat to the natural World Heritage values of Kakadu National Park.

Looking west towards the Jabiluka mine site

Looking west towards the Jabiluka mine site from the tourist air route over East Alligator River at approx 700 ft altitude. The mine site is approx 8 Km away. The Magela floodplain is visible in the far distance beyond the ridge separating outliers.

The ISP of ICSU provided its final report to the World Heritage Centre in September 2000. The ISP report included as an annex, the report of the IUCN representative who accompanied the ISP on its visit to Kakadu in July 2000. The key finding of the ISP of ICSU, which takes into account the report of the IUCN representative was:

Overall the ISP considers that the Supervising Scientist has identified all the principal risks to the natural values of the Kakadu World Heritage site that can presently be perceived to result from the Jabiluka Mill Alternative proposal. These risks have been analysed in detail and have been quantified with a high level of scientific certainty. Such analyses have shown the risks to be very small or negligible and that the development of the JMA should not threaten the natural World Heritage values of the Kakadu National Park.

The ISP and IUCN made a number of recommendations related to processes that should, in its view, be followed in the final design of the project and the ongoing regulation and monitoring process. The Australian Government supports the intent of these recommendations. The ISP report was considered by the World Heritage Committee when it met in Cairns in November 2000.

View east towards the Jabiluka mine site

View east towards the Jabiluka mine site above Magela floodplains from the aerial tourist route at 700 ft. The tourist route is within the lease boundaries. Magela floodplain and Oenpelli Road is in the foreground and the mine site is approx 3.5 Km away.

On 25 February 2005, the Jabiluka long-term care and maintenance agreement was signed, which obliges Rio Tinto to secure Mirarr consent prior to any future mining development of uranium deposits at Jabiluka.

See also

World Heritage reports