Mining Uranium

33

Scenario

On 17 April 2003 Sir Robert Wilson of Rio Tinto signed an agreement that there would be no further mining at Jabiluka without the permission of the traditional owners of the land, – the Mirrar. However, many people feel that this is a backward step for Australia, pointing out that the proposed mine would have very little impact on Kakadu National Park and an incursion of a mere 100 hectares would open up an enormously wealthy mine with consequent economic benefits to Australia as a whole and to the Northern Territory and the Mirrar people in particular.

A complicating factor is that it is uranium which is being mined. Uranium is controversial because it is used to produce nuclear energy (which may include nuclear weapons) and because its extraction and processing result in radioactive wastes which can cause long-term contamination. Moreover, it is argued, a mine would disrupt and despoil a beautiful and significant area set aside for conservation and, most important of all, infringe on the rights of the Indigenous people who are the traditional owners.

Consider

  • What ought to guide an ethical response to this problem and who has the right to make a final decision?

Finding The Facts

For a report on the decision, including two of the key points of view see the transcript from ‘The World Today’.

timeline of developments at Jabiluka since 1996 can be found on the World Information Service on Energy. This site which is anti-nuclear and cautious about the benefits of uranium neverthe less contains a great deal of information about uranium while a document prepared for Rio Tinto subsidiary Energy Resources Australia gives an indication of the contribution of uranium mining to the Australian economy.

The Australian Uranium Association, which is in favour of mining at Jabiluka, maintains a comprehensive site with many internal links relevant to the issue. A site which expresses opposition to the mining venture at Jabiluka is the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory, which clearly sets out the grounds for opposing the mine. The position of the Mirrar people, traditional owners of the land, is presented on the excellent site of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation.

Consider

  • Identify the stakeholders in the debate about uranium mining at Jabiluka and using the Circle of Viewpoints thinking routine, write a brief paragraph expressing the point of view of each.
  • Having looked at all of the recommended web sites so far, draw up a list of reasons for and against mining at Jabiluka.

Broadening Perspectives

This issue is a complex one. There are questions of the ecological significance of the actual location of the mine. There are questions about the justice of mining land occupied by Indigenous Australians. There are questions about the nuclear industry, not simply the potential for weapons production from exported uranium but also the hazards surrounding production and disposal of wastes. And, because Australia’s uranium mining industry contributes significantly to the country’s export trade, underlying all of these is the question of whether economic advantage and a flourishing economy which contributes to the well-being of the whole population should outweigh other concerns.

The question of ecology

The site Greenfuse explores concepts like deep ecology, social ecology, eco-feminism, earth-centred spirituality and some of the ethical issues we face when we think of the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

The rights of indigenous occupants of the land

The State Library of Queensland has a page which briefly outlines the successive policies – protection, assimilation, self-determination and self management – that governments have held in relationship to Aboriginal Australians. The context is the state of Queensland but the policies are representative of policies and attitudes to Aboriginal Australians in all states over the past 100 years. You might also look at the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to see what the United Nations considers the rights of native populations to be.

Nuclear Power

Frequently Asked Questions about Nuclear Energy’ has a very positive attitude to nuclear power presenting it as a sustainable, safe and useful source of power for the future generations. A question-and-answer page from a  different perspective is worth looking at too.

Consider

  • What are the possibilities of reconciling the underlying philosophies of environmentalists (conservation) and mining companies (development)?
  • Ought the comparatively small group of Aboriginal occupants have the final say on whether the country is mined or ought the democratically elected government decide on behalf of all?
  • Under what conditions is the mining of uranium justifiable?

Exploring Sacred Texts

The creation account in Genesis 1 makes it clear that creation is God’s work given to humankind to be used for the good of all. Clearly human beings have the right to use what the earth yields to benefit themselves. However, this does not imply ravaging the environment out of greed or self-interest. The Catholic Conservation Centre is a beautiful and extensive site that takes you through the Scripture that relates to the earth. An essay outlining a Scripture-based ethic of care for and use of the earth’s resources can also be found here.

Consider

  • Read Genesis 1:27–31. What rights and responsibilities flow from God’s gift of the world to humankind?
  • What light do the sacred texts throw on the problem of mining at Jabiluka?
    The Scriptures also take a strong stand on justice towards those who are small, poor or less powerful. Read Isaiah 10:1–3 for example (widows and orphans symbolise all who are defenceless or disadvantaged) and read the article entitled ‘Biblical Foundations for Justice Advocacy’ to get a sense of what Scripture says on this matter.
  • What light do the Scriptures throw on the treatment of minorities and disadvantaged people?
    The Scriptures obviously make no pronouncements on nuclear arms but their whole orientation is to peace. How this peace is to be achieved and maintained is open to interpretation. A reflection entitled ‘Tough Choices in a Nuclear Age’ shows how differently Christians have responded to the scriptures in the face of war.

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

A beautifully presented pdf document On Holy Ground intended for use in Queensland schools outlines Catholic teaching about the environment especially in Australia. Section B is particularly helpful in explaining the theological context for deep respect for the natural world.

Catholic Conservation Centre

The Catholic Conservation Centre site is also helpful in gaining an understanding of how the Church has viewed the created world, as it contains extracts from the Catechism, many quotes from papal teaching on the earth and essays and documents on many earth issues. Another interesting section holds quotations from saints and leaders in the Church down the centuries.

Pope John Paul II

Look at Pope John Paul’s Exhortation ‘Ecclesia in Oceania’. Section 6 of this speaks specifically of Indigenous people, especially Australian Aborigines. A paper entitled ‘The Roman Catholic Church and Indigenous Land Rights in Australia and New Zealand’ gives an overview of the attitude of the Catholic Church to Indigenous peoples in Australasia since European settlement.

Nuclear Energy Must Be Used Not Only Peacefully But Safely is the title of a speech given by Mgr Diarmuid Martin when he signed the Additional Safeguards Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on behalf of the Holy See.

Consider

  • What principles does the Church establish for the right use of natural resources?
  • What is the teaching of the Church concerning the rights of indigenous peoples?
  • Does the Church oppose the nuclear industry?

Respecting Other World Views

Environment

A personal statement by the Dalai Lama expresses aspects of the Buddhist response to the environment and environmental questions.
An Islamic perspective is presented on the Easily Understand Islam site while a Jewish site gives a Zionist perspective.

For a sample of the views of several different traditions on the environment visit Religion and Environmentwhich has many links to explore.

Nuclear Energy

With regard to attitudes to nuclear energy, many religious traditions are ambiguous and a variety of viewpoints are acceptable. However, most declare their opposition to nuclear weapons production, though religious extremism associated with nationalist causes lead some religious movements to demand that their governments arm themselves against threats.

While Israel possesses nuclear weapons, different Jewish points of view are expressed in discussion on the Editor’s blog of Jewish Currents Magazine.

Hinduism is a religious tradition largely characterised by its opposition to violence and symbolised by the non-violent stand against British rule taken by Mahatma Gandhi. However India currently has a nuclear weapons project and weapons testing has been carried on the sub-continent.

For a Buddhist perspective on nuclear energy see ‘Anxiety in the Nuclear Age.

Crescent Online contains a news item in which Mohamed ElBaradei argues that all nations have a right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and socio-economic development.

Consider

  • Choose a religious tradition other than Christianity and explain how a member of that tradition might weigh up all the questions surrounding uranium mining and come to a conclusion about what should happen at Jabiluka.

Examining Personal Experience

Perhaps you are an Aboriginal person deeply affected by what is happening to your land and your sacred places. Perhaps you are a son or daughter of an employee of Energy Resources Australia (ERA) who is anxious about loss of employment. Perhaps you are a city dweller who simply wants a good, clean supply of electricity. Whoever you are, your own perspective is worth exploring. You might find that after working through the materials on this page you are confirmed in your opinion, challenged to modify it or wish to change it altogether.

Consider

Articulate a response.

  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Respect other world views.
  • Examine your personal views.

You should be in a good position to articulate your own ethical response.