Ragged tear in nature's gown


IN THE MIDDLE of Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, the uranium mine startled me, even though I knew it would be there. The giant pit was a zigzag of scars in the earth. I could not avoid being jolted by its disfiguring intrusion in an area of such biological and cultural significance that it is listed by the United Nations as a globally unique World Heritage site.

Yet Kakadu Park and the Ranger Uranium Mine disturbingly co-exist, starkly juxtaposing preservation of a wilderness deemed almost sacred and production of a substance of great potential danger.

Kakadu Park is truly one of nature's spectacular gifts. It was home to Australian aborigines as early as 55,000 years ago, and today's aboriginal people retain title to much park land, leasing it to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The park, a tropical river system of about 7,700 square miles, comprises marshes, gorges and forests. It contains about 1,500 plant species, a third of all known Australian bird species and a wealth of other life in a diverse natural system protected forever for all the world.

But just as Australian conservationists were pressing in the early 1970s for the creation of the park, large uranium deposits were found in the region. After intensive study, a special commission recommended that both park and mining proceed, with the mine confined to a 30-square-mile area and subject to strict environmental controls.

Based on my recent visit to the Ranger mine, I believe the Australian government is dedicated to safe operation, given present technology. There is a no-leak policy, and ambient radiation levels are constantly checked. The tailings dam where radioactive waste ore is stored is regularly monitored and theoreticially secured against earthquakes.

Sampling of plants and animals for miles around has so far turned up no sign of seeping radioactivity. And the land torn apart by the mine is to be restored once mining has ceased.

Therefore the physical reality of the uranium mine does not disturb me as much as the inherent contradictions posed.

Australia contains 30 percent of the world's known uranium supply. Yet all uranium mined in Australia is sent abroad, there being a national policy of no domestic use of radioactive material for other than medical purposes. Thus, export value justifies the country's uranium industry. As a mine spokesman told me, "atoms do not have a flag."

In addition to thousands of jobs, Australia earns more than $500 million annually from uranium production. And of the millions earned by the Ranger mine alone, 4.25 percent is paid as royalties to the Aboriginal Benefit Trust Fund in exchange for the right to mine on aboriginal land. The revenue is used for community purposes like schools.

It is difficult for me to begrudge the bonanza uranium provides. Yet, to take the extreme view, I am uneasy at the thought of aboriginal well-being sustained -- and the Australian economy enriched -- by such a potentially lethal substance.

Though Australian uranium is intended strictly for peaceful purposes, such as the production of nuclear power, spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed into highly toxic plutonium and used to make nuclear bombs.

Added to the possibility of nuclear terrorism or weapons proliferation is the continuing unresolved question of nuclear wastes. No nation has yet figured out how and where to safely store or dispose of the thousands of tons of nuclear wastes generated by civilian and military nuclear plants.

The problem should haunt every leader and citizen of the world, for these wastes could plague future generations for longer than human beings have lived in the Kakadu region. Are we to tell our children "this was the best we could do, this was the marriage we had to make"?

For now we live with the dilemma. The mine functions inside Kakadu park, indeed is one of its tourist attractions. Visitors can as easily gape at the ugly pit as at the beauty of a cormorant in flight, can listen to the crushing of earth as ever present as the rushing sound of water falling from cliffs in the park's untouched woods.

The geographical boundary between the park and mine is fixed. It is only in the mind that they mingle. Let us hope the heritage of the park will not be nullified by the heritage of nuclear waste and bombs being born in Kakadu's ragged and vast hole in the ground.

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