By Andrew Nette
MELBOURNE, Australia, Sep 24 (IPS) - Australia's national election on Oct 3 is being viewed as a referendum on controversial plans to expand uranium mining -- bitterly opposed by aboriginal groups -- in the country's north.
The mining project is located inside the World-Heritage listed Kakadu National Park in Jabiluka in the Northern Territory.
The upcoming poll could also go a long way to unlocking the decades-long stalemate between environmentalists and big business over uranium mining and Australia's links to the nuclear fuel cycle.
The Jabiluka conflict has pitted the area's traditional aboriginal inhabitants, the Mirrar, against one of Australia's largest mining firms, Energy Resources Australia (ERA).
ERA, which controls the Ranger uranium mine and mill on Mirrar land, wants to prolong its operations in Kakadu until 2027 by starting the new operation at Jabiluka.
The Mirrar say their struggle is for land rights, and against the social, economic and environmental problems they believe uranium mining has already brought to their tiny community.
They have been joined by environmental groups who fear the mine will link Australia further into the nuclear cycle and dump more than 20 million tonnes of radioactive waste in Kakadu's ecologically important wetlands.
A blockade that began in March against the mine's construction has resulted in more than 400 arrests, turning the struggle into one of the biggest environmental showdowns in the country's recent history.
Australia's major political parties, currently running neck and neck in the election campaign, are split on the issue.
The incumbent conservative Liberal/National party coalition government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, supports an expansion of uranium mining at Jabiluka and elsewhere. The opposition Labor Party says it will scrap the project if certain conditions are not met.
The outcome could be vital to the uranium mining industry, whose expansion plans have been thwarted by policy restrictions set by a Labor government in the early eighties.
``A Labor victory will undoubtedly have a bad impact on the industry,'' said Ian Hore-Lacy, general manager of the industry's body, the Uranium Information Centre. ``It would mean a setback for new mines and well as discouraging further exploration to find uranium.''
Uranium is a radioactive material used to fuel nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. Australia has 25 percent of known uranium reserves, the world's largest, followed by Kazakhstan with 19 percent, Canada, South Africa, Namibia, Brazil, the Russian Federation and North America.
After being the subject of massive public debate and protest in the seventies and early eighties, uranium virtually disappeared from public discourse after 1983.
That was when a Labor government was elected with a policy of restricting mines to three: Nabarlek in the Northern Territory, which was mined out in 1988; the gold, copper and uranium mine at Olympic Dam, better known as Roxby Downs, in South Australia, and the ERA-run Ranger mine, 20 km from the Jabiluka deposit.
But the 1996 victory of the conservative coalition prompted mining companies to position themselves to take advantage of the new government's supportive attitude toward uranium mining.
Australia's Western Mining Corporation has spent more than a billion dollars boosting production at its Roxby Downs mine.
Plans are moving ahead for a small mine at Kintyre in West Australia, and Beverley and Honeymoon mines in South Australia. Both companies are awaiting government approval to finalise contracts which they claim are already in place with nuclear utilities in North America, Asia and Europe.
Industry sources say approval for these mines would push Australia's uranium exports far beyond the 47,800 tonnes sold to Japan, South Korea, North America and Europe in the 10 years to mid-1998.
Charles Foldenaur, vice president of Beverley's Heathgate Resources, told the 'Australian Financial Review' newspaper a Labor victory could endanger nearly 36 million U.S. dollars in uranium export contracts his firm has with power utilities in North America and Asia.
ERA chief executive Phillip Shirvington says other firms are watching how much community opposition to Jabiluka develops and which way the government acts. ``They will be using it as an information base to assess their chances,'' he said.
ERA began construction of the Jabiluka mine, one of the world's largest known uranium deposits, in June. ERA is under pressure to get the operation up and running by the end of 1998 to beat overseas rivals.
ERA's Ranger deposit is also due to run out early next century, making corporate survival dependent on Jabiluka.
``Jabiluka is definitely a test case,'' agreed long-time anti-uranium activist Eric Miller. ``Kakadu is one of our most beautiful places. It's a World Heritage area. If a company can mine there, then there's no place in Australia they can't mine.''
Said Peter Garret, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation opposed to an expansion of uranium mining: ``We are really at a crucial point in deciding whether we want a nuclear and radioactive future in the Australian hinterland or not.''
Australia's green movement has been campaigning to pressure Labor to scrap Jabiluka.
Labor leader Kim Beazely says he will halt the mine if it does not fulfill criteria to be considered an ``existing mine'' by the time it wins office, though he has been unclear what this means.
In June, he said an existing mine is one that has ``the contracts to get the mine going - simply putting the odd shaft down here or there is not it''.
Labor's environment spokesperson, Duncan Kerr, wrote in a recent letter to the Mirrar that Jabiluka had not won the approvals to be considered an existing mine. He pledged that Labor would scrap it ``on the basis of the publicly available information,'' provided there was no ``compelling material or legal determination''.
But activists and the Mirrar say this is not clear enough and have asked Labor for a firm statement on Jabikula -- even as others fear Labor may just be posturing to woo the green vote and then reverse itself if it wins office. (END/IPS/ap-ip)