The name Jabiluka has deep resonance for Australians of a certain vintage. The Northern Territory location was earmarked as a uranium mine until a blockade of the site, which is situated in the Kakadu National Park, in 1998 stopped the project in its tracks.
This put Australia’s then burgeoning uranium mining industry into stasis. However, the rising price of the ore driven by the revival in the global nuclear power industry following the Ukraine invasion and the push towards decarbonising electricity has created a conundrum in a country that felt it had long settled on an anti-nuclear stance.
That has put Jabiluka back in the spotlight. Control of what would happen at Jabiluka was handed to the Mirarr people, the traditional owners of the land that the prospect and the now defunct Ranger mine sit on, following the blockade. The Mirarr remain adamant they will never give permission to mine at Jabiluka.
The Kakadu mining licence is held by a company called Energy Resources of Australia which is majority owned by Rio Tinto. With the uranium price rising fast, minority investors commissioned a report last year that calculated a value of the uranium at Jabiluka to be worth more than a billion dollars, or perhaps substantially more. Rio Tinto countered that no such value could be attributed to the reserve as the Mirarr would never agree to it being mined.
Justin O’Brien, head of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation which represents the Mirrar, slammed the “false hope of ignorant investors” in ERA that claimed the door should be left open to mine Jabiluka. He noted the cost of rehabilitating the Ranger site was already A$2bn. “Unlike many other proposed projects on Aboriginal land, Jabiluka is utterly impossible — it is unfeasible both culturally and technically. Rio Tinto has acknowledged this. It is hardly a secret,” he said.
The Jabiluka dispute has coincided with Australia’s own nuclear reckoning. Nuclear power was effectively outlawed in 1998 — the same time as the blockade — as the Liberal-led government of John Howard agreed to ban its use to win support from minor parties to build a reactor needed by the medical industry.
Yet some politicians and investors are confident that public opposition to nuclear power has shifted over the past 25 years. They point to the need for a reliable energy source to complement investment in renewable energy. The decision by the government to form the Aukus defence alliance with the US and UK, with nuclear-powered submarines at its heart, also prompts arguments that Australia’s priorities have changed.
The Liberal party, which lost the election last year after nearly a decade in power, has swooped on nuclear power as a policy. That has set it against the Labor government’s policy to champion renewable energy as key to the country’s energy transition away from the coal and gas that it sells to other countries by the shipload.
The debate is framed by the country’s reserves of uranium. The country is a nation of miners and already exports the ore to nuclear countries, so cutting off nuclear power as a domestic option seems perverse to some.
Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign minister who sits on the board of a London-listed uranium company, argues it is “an intellectual absurdity” that the country with the largest exploitable uranium reserves in the world refuses to use it for its own baseline power. Other countries including the UK, Sweden and Japan have turned back towards nuclear to avert energy security and transition issues.
New uranium mining plans, including Deep Yellow’s Mulga Rock project in Western Australia and Boss Energy’s Honeymoon project in South Australia, have emerged as some miners smell a new yellow boom on the horizon.
But nuclear power and uranium remain an emotive issue in Australia and the recent desperate, and ultimately successful, search for a coin-sized radioactive component lost on a 1,400km stretch of desert highway highlighted the risks.
Jabiluka remains off limits for Rio Tinto which, following its destruction of a sacred indigenous site at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, needs to ensure that the damage done to the Kakadu land and its traditional owners is healed. The site now acts as a testament to the mining industry’s commitment to deliver on its ESG promises.
Kellie Parker, Rio Tinto’s chief executive of Australia, said: “We want it to be safe for the Mirrar people to walk that land again. We want money to go into rehabilitation (of the land) and not into people making profit.”