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?