refuse (v)(n)(–)   ✕

by Kerri Meehan + Alex Ressel
refuse (v)(n)(–) contains many high-res image + video works and should be experienced on larger screens.

In July 2017, we went to Australia in order to research nuclear culture. Australia is a major exporter of uranium despite not using nuclear power or weapons itself. Uranium mined in Australia is exported to; Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, UK, Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Indian and others. The places in Australia where uranium has been found are often regarded as sacred or inviolable by the indigenous Australians who have lived on the same country for tens of thousands of years. On our journey from the Northern Territory to South Australia, every Aboriginal culture we met has a word for uranium and a story describing where it is on their country. Mining often has negative impacts on the traditional culture of indigenous Australians, as well as the natural environment in proximity to the mines. These less spectacular aspects of nuclear culture are frequently overlooked.

Below is a presentation of recordings made during or after our visit to Ungurrookoolpum (Rum Jungle), a former uranium mine situated on the edge of Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory. We went there because we had read that a recreational lake made from the old open cut mine had been closed due to high levels of radiation. When we visited the main site, the Operations Manager told us the lake was open and a beautiful spot to check out. We went to the lake and met a local family who were enjoying a sunny day. They knew the lake was formerly a uranium mine, but were pretty sure it was safe. Our Geiger counter started to alarm while we were talking, but both we and the locals were unsure what it meant. It became clear that we needed to learn more about the site and how radiation can affect both our bodies and the environment.

We spoke to scientists at Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Association (ARPANSA), a scientist working at the Northern Territory Government mining department, Gavin Mudd an associate professor in Environmental Science at RMIT, Justin Tutty a local environment activist, and Helen Bishop Chairperson of the Kungarakan Culture and Education Association, who is writing a PhD on "Ngirrwut - for Mookununggunuk the Survival of Koongurrukun Gini: Knowledge Transfer in the 21st Century”.

Rum Jungle was the first uranium mine in the Northern Territory. It opened in 1953 to provide uranium for the UK and USA during the Cold War. It operated until 1977, and pioneered open cut mining techniques. The mine was closed without rehabilitation, meaning that the strong acids, heavy metals and radioactive tailings leaked into the nearby Finniss River. Despite a number of subsequent rehabilitation attempts, the local environment remains fundamentally altered and less safe. There are ongoing proposals for further rehabilitation of the old mine site.

We present you with a range of voices speaking on Ungurrookoolpum (Rum Jungle), a remote place in a large country, where distance can lead to forgetting. If the unseen potential dangers of an old mine can be overlooked in 40 years, how, at the other end of the nuclear cycle, will radioactive waste be remembered in 1000 years?

The Lake
The Miner
Justin Tutty
Helen Bishop
The Archive

Bulldozer costeaning at Rum Jungle mine site 1955, National Archives of Australia, A1200, L19450

Dyson’s open cut pit flooded (1960), National Archives of Australia- A1200, L35453

Geologists at Rum Jungle mine site (1955), National Archives of Australia- A1200, L19446

Geophysicist Don Dyson (left), Jack White (middle) and Geologist Hector Ward examining ore sample at Rum Jungle using Geiger counter (1955), National Archives of Australia- A1200, L19445

Jack White, prospector who discovered the first uranium deposit at Rum Jungle in 1949 (1955) National Archives of Australia, A1200, L19444

Loading a haul truck in White’s open cut pit, Rum Jungle mine site (1957), National Archives of Australia- A1200, L23111

Treatment plant area in foreground with White’s open cut pit in the background (1958), National Archives of Australia A1200, L25505

White’s open cut pit with White’s overburden heap in the background (1958), National Archives of Australia, A1200, L26916

Gavin Mudd
NT Gov. Mining Dept

Kerri Meehan and Alex Ressel’s practice is broadly concerned with time, technology and communication. Kerri and Alex began working together in 2012 on Superlative TV, a pirate television station they co-founded which broadcast in the frequencies left fallow following the digital switchover. More recently, they created a time capsule with global online communities, the first video intentionally transmitted into deep space and a project about chimeric objects that defy definition in museums. Alongside their practice they run public events, reading groups and workshops.

Alex and Kerri are presently working on a project about nuclear culture and storytelling. In order for future generations to be warned of the dangers of nuclear waste, living stories that last as long must be told. As part of a research trip, they visited sites in Australia where uranium is mined and nuclear waste is proposed to be stored. They also ran workshops in Australia and UK to collaboratively create stories to communicate with future generations about the environment. Jawoyn paintings of people with signs of radiation poisoning and dreamtime stories that have been passed on for more than 20,000 years continue to warn against digging in “sickness county”, a part of the land rich in Uranium deposits. Every Aboriginal culture throughout their trip from North to South of Australia revealed they have a word for Uranium and a story about where it is on their land. In 2018, Alex and Kerri are following the story to Arnhem Land.