The battle to keep Western Australia uranium free

Mia Pepper and Jim Green

Toro Energy has submitted an application to build Western Australia's first uranium mine, at Wiluna, the beginning of WA's iconic Canning Stock Route.

The debate over the proposed uranium mine has far-reaching ramifications. The construction of WA's first uranium mine is likely to be the 'thin edge of the wedge' whereas a strong show of public opposition can significantly increase the likelihood of keeping WA uranium-free. That, in turn, is important in the context of the national debate over uranium mining.

The WA Labor Opposition reaffirmed its opposition to uranium mining at its state conference in June. Recent legal advice states that an incoming Labor Government may not need to pay compensation to uranium miners if it wins the 2013 election and reinstates the uranium mining ban lifted by the Barnett Liberal Government in 2008.

The position of anti-uranium Labor Party members has been bolstered by a strong community campaign led by groups such as the WA Conservation Council and the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of WA. The August-October 'Walk Away From Uranium' walk from Wiluna to Perth, organised by Footprints for Peace, is drumming up further support for the anti-uranium cause.

Public opinion also supports a ban on uranium mining in WA (and nationally). A poll of 400 voters in four marginal Liberal-held WA seats in April found that 46% opposed uranium mining, with 34% in favour and 20% undecided.

The poll also found that among swinging voters, support for uranium mining was only 28%. Voters strongly opposed to uranium mining (32%) exceeded those strongly in support (8%) by a factor of four.

At least two WA uranium projects have been delayed this year. In June, Mega Uranium delayed a feasibility study for uranium mining at Lake Maitland, and BHP Billiton put on hold the environmental approvals process for its Yeelirrie uranium project because it did not meet 'internal standards'. The West Australian newspaper reported in June that Toro's Wiluna project "will have to overcome weak investor sentiment in the face of a depressed uranium price and opposition to uranium mining".

Toro's junk-science

Toro is notorious for peddling junk-science. As nuclear radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos noted in The Age earlier this year: "There seems to be a never-ending cabal of paid industry scientific 'consultants' who are more than willing to state the fringe view that low doses of ionising radiation do not cause cancer and, indeed, that low doses are actually good for you and lessen the incidence of cancer. Canadian Dr Doug Boreham has been on numerous sponsored tours of Australia by Toro Energy, a junior uranium explorer, expounding the view that 'low-dose radiation is like getting a suntan'. Toro must have liked what it heard because it made him a safety consultant for the company in 2009."

As Dr Karamoskos goes on to note, Toro's claims do not stand up to scrutiny: "Ionising radiation is a known carcinogen. This is based on almost 100 years of cumulative research including 60 years of follow-up of the Japanese atom bomb survivors. The International Agency for Research in Cancer (linked to the World Health Organisation) classifies it as a Class 1 carcinogen, the highest classification indicative of certainty of its carcinogenic effects."

Lake Way (one of the two deposits near Wiluna that Toro wants to mine) holds a number of sacred sites. Toro has not completed Archeological and Ethnographic studies and does not have a comprehensive Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan.

Remarkably, Toro's application states that the company has relied on information provided by third parties and "Toro has not fully verified the accuracy or completeness of that information except where expressly acknowledged".

The application goes on to say that that the company "gives no warranty or undertaking, express or implied, in respect of the information contained in this Environmental Review and Management Plan". Second-hand car dealers inspire more confidence.

There are many specific, local concerns with Toro's application to mine uranium at Wiluna. These include inadequate water supply plans and transport plans, and long-term radioactive tailings management.

But the greatest problem with uranium mined from Wiluna − or anywhere else − is that in the best-case scenario it will end up as high-level nuclear waste. At worst it will end up as fissile material in nuclear weapons or spewing from a nuclear disaster such as that unfolding in Fukushima, Japan.

Please spare a minute to submit a response to Toro's application via the WA Conservation Council website. You can simply add your name to the 'proforma' submission and there is also an option to add further comments. Submissions close on October 31.

Mia Pepper is the Nuclear Free Campaigner with the Conservation Council of Western Australia. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.