FEATURE: Future Power Technology – Rehabilitating Australia’s notorious Ranger uranium mine: can it be done?

At the end of 2020, Energy Resources of Australia will embark on an ambitious five-year project to rehabilitate the Ranger uranium mine. The controversial mine must be restored to a standard that would allow it to be incorporated within the surrounding Kakadu National Park, but can it be done? Heidi Vella investigates.

“The rehabilitation of Ranger is happening against the backdrop of this failure, we as civil society groups are very seriously determined to ensure history is not repeated.”

Mine closure and rehabilitation is controversial in Australia. It’s estimated the country has over 60,000 abandoned mines that remain hazards, with only a handful having been reclaimed. Equally contentious is uranium mining. So much so that in the 80s, the government agreed to restrict licencing to only three already established projects – known as the so-called ‘three mines policy’.

One of them is Ranger. Located beside Kakadu National Park, near Darwin in the Northern Territory, uranium was first discovered here in 1969, but it was not developed until the 1980s. The mine has operated, often controversially, ever since.

This year, however, the project will process the last of its ore. When finished, an ambitious reclamation project will begin which, if successful, could transform the reputation of both mine restoration and uranium mining in Australia forever.

In only five-years, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, needs to transform the mine land to a condition ‘consistent’ with the surrounding National Park. This huge, first-of-its kind task, which the company estimate will cost A$799m, will involve filling gigantic holes, knocking down buildings, disposing of wastewater and tailings dams, as well as planting millions of trees.

A poor history of mine restoration

ERA started the rehabilitation of Pit 1 at Ranger in the late 1990’s and has been progressively restoring the site ever since. So far, the company says it has spent well over half a billion Australian dollars on rehabilitation and ‘achieved a number of progressive milestones’.

“This has given ERA substantial experience and can provide the public with confidence the rehabilitation objectives in the Ranger Mine Closure Plan will be fulfilled,” says a company spokesperson.

ERA first released its full mine closure plan in 2018. The document, however, soon received intense scrutiny from environmental groups, not just because it’s an ambitious, high profile project – but because of Rio Tinto’s previously poor reputation for uranium mine restoration. 

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Rum Jungle — one of Australia’s oldest uranium mines originally set up in the 1950s – closed 47 years ago but has never been rehabilitated. Acid and metals from the mine have been leaching into parts of the nearby Finniss River ever since. The management of the mine was contracted to a subsidiary of the Rio Tinto Group, but the company has consistently denied any responsibility for rehabilitating the site. Now the mine is to be restored at a cost of up to A$300m to the tax payer.

Therefore, reclaiming Ranger represents a ‘pivotal test’ of Rio Tinto’s corporate responsibility, as well as a significant examination of the maturity of Australia’s political and regulatory frameworks, says Dave Sweeney, a nuclear free campaigner from the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“The rehabilitation of Ranger is happening against the backdrop of this failure, we as civil society groups are very seriously determined to ensure history is not repeated,” he says.

Criticisms of the initial plan

Shortly after its publication, Sweeney and Rebecca Lawrence, a research affiliate with the Sydney Environment Institute, published a report critiquing ERA’s mine closure plans. In it they highlighted issues around a lack of transparency, poor quality benchmarking, and noted that the plan doesn’t factor in things such as climate change or address past issues, including tailings dam seepage. Most of the closure plan, they said, consists of summary documents, with much of the modelling, technical documents and important information about ‘how’ things would be done missing.