May Nango and Mark Djandjomerr at Magela Creek, downstream from the Ranger uranium mine. Photo: Dominic O'Brien
In the skies over Kakadu, a 67-year-old man peers from the window of a tiny plane as it wheels over the mining town of Jabiru and the nearby open-cut uranium mine.
The vista is breathtaking: the wide sweep of flood plains butting up against the stone ramparts of the Arnhem Land escarpment. Now in the tail end of the dry season, remnant water lies in creek-beds and billabongs, and a light haze from dust and sporadic burnoffs in the national park hangs in the shimmering air.
But this particular man, former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is more interested in the mine than the view.
Annie Ngalmirama greets former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Jabiru, Kakadu National Park. Photo: Dominic O'Brien
Kan, a trained physicist, was once convinced that nuclear power was the future. That conviction changed in March 2011 when the threat of nuclear armageddon bore down on greater Tokyo from Fukushima on the east coast, and Naoto Kan faced the prospect of evacuating 50 million of his fellow citizens from their homes. "Japan as a country would have lost its capability to function for decades," he says, adding that only luck and "the mercy of God" stopped the crisis from reaching such a scale.
Three and a half years later, more than 100,000 Japanese remain displaced, and the toxic legacy of the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima – triggered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami – will linger for generations.
Kan has spent the week touring Australia and campaigning for large-scale renewable energy. Ironically, as he wound up his visit, news broke on Thursday that a review of the nation's renewable energy target commissioned by the Abbott government had recommended abolishing or scaling back the scheme.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan surveys the mine. Photo: Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation
Canberra's policies, Kan warns, are "going in a backwards direction".
There was a deliberate symbolism to choosing the Northern Territory as the starting point for his journey.
Just a few kilometres from Jabiru lies the Ranger uranium mine, almost certainly the source of some of the uranium oxide that found its way to the Fukushima plants.
Neither Energy Resources Australia – which owns the mine – nor ERA's majority owner, Rio Tinto, will confirm this, citing commercial confidentiality.
But the publicly known facts are that Australia has been the largest supplier of uranium to Japan; ERA produces more than half our uranium ore; and Canberra's nuclear safeguards office confirmed in October 2011 that Australian uranium was present in the Fukushima plants.
In Kan's mind, there's no doubt some of Fukushima's pollution originated at Ranger.
There was another deep symmetry to this visit. Forty years ago, it was the impending visit of another Japanese Prime Minister, Kakuei Tanaka, which hastened GoughWhitlam's Labor government towards an agreement which would become the springboard for Ranger's later development.
Tanaka was hungry for Australia's uranium. The Whitlam government was hungry for a deal to bolster its economic credentials. A late night meeting at the Lodge in Canberra in October 1974 produced an agreement with the site's then-owners, which gave the Commonwealth a 50 per cent stake in the venture (since relinquished) and allowed Whitlam to assure Tanaka of supply.
Two years later a landmark environmental inquiry into Ranger, chaired by Justice Russell Fox, recommended the mine go ahead with stringent safeguards.
In a second report, dated 1977, Fox noted that "the evidence before us shows that the traditional owners... are opposed to the mining of uranium on that site".
Nevertheless, he said, "we form the conclusion that their opposition should not be allowed to prevail".
While expressing hope that the mine would improve the "general happiness and prosperity of the region", Fox acknowledged "the arrival of large numbers of white people... will potentially be very damaging to the welfare and interests of the Aboriginal people there".
Based on his recommendations, a national park was declared at Kakadu – its boundaries carefully drawn to exclude the Ranger site – and an Aboriginal veto on mining there expressly disallowed.
Flying over the mine, Kan notes the yellow tint to the water in the vast tailings dam, a bilious shade you only see clearly from directly overhead.
He remarks on its "peculiar, unusual sort of colour" and the "huge contrast between the natural landscape and the mine".
Fresh in his mind are the private talks he's just held with the Aboriginal elders of the Mirarr clan, the people on whose traditional land the mine was developed in the late 1970s.
They've shown him a documentary shot more than 30 years previously, featuring Toby Gangale, a Mirarr man who talked of ancient sacred sites nearby, and his fears that "something might go wrong if the mine goes ahead... snake might come... big rainbow... he might kill all over the world".
Gangale's daughter, Annie Ngalmirama, tells reporters, "Mr Kan's country is hurting because of uranium; here he will see that the nuclear industry is hurting Mirarr people also".
The Ranger site, which processes uranium ore around the clock, sits on the edge of the Magela Creek flood plains which are swept by monsoonal rains every wet season. ERA says its tailings dam "operates under a strict maximum operating level which has been approved by regulators [ and is ] monitored continuously".
The company also insists it abides by world's best practice and that environmental safeguards are policed by both the Northern Territory government and the federal government's Supervising Scientist. Nevertheless there have been a string of mishaps at the site.
One of the worst occurred last December when a giant leachate tank burst, disgorging more than a million litres of acidic uranium slurry over parts of the site.
Mine operations were closed for several months before the federal government declared no harmful effects had been detected from the spill. But a close reading of the technical documents reveal an admission that there is "insufficient hydrogeological information in the area south of the spill site" to definitively rule out contamination of groundwater.
Downstream from Ranger, inhabitants of the small Aboriginal settlement of Mudginberri are anxious about what the mine may one day send their way.
Mark Djandjomerr and May Nango, speaking through an interpreter, say they live in "constant fear there could be an accident. We know that a lot of jobs have been created by the mine. But we are the people who have to live downstream from it, we are always frightened something could go wrong".
ERA chief executive Andrea Sutton says the company is "proud of the Ranger's contribution to the Alligator Rivers Region economy and community" while a company spokesman points out that ERA has paid a total of $345 million to "Aboriginal interests" since the mine started operating in 1981.
Some of that has gone directly to the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, the body which represents the Mirarr.
Royalty dollars have funded a gleaming new residential college for local Aboriginal children, (there are 13 there at present) which allows them to live in town and attend school from Monday to Friday, and return to their families at weekends. The emphasis, says supervisor Robyn Stockton, is on supporting literacy and numeracy "without compromising connection to family, country and culture."
A similar premise underlies the pioneering Children's Ground project in Jabiluka. Aimed initially at indigenous children below the age of six, it uses a range of outreach programs to draw in parents and grandparents, helping children develop proficiency in their own languages (primarily Gundjeihmi and Kunwinjku) as well as English. CEO Jane Vadiveloo sees it as a 25 year project, hoping to turn around a generation of disadvantage. Royalty money has been a key funding source.
The real dilemma for the Mirarr now is whether to endorse expansion of the Ranger mine underground, as the open-cut pits at the surface have been exhausted of ore ( the plant currently processes stockpiled uranium.). ERA can only mine for another 7 years, and must then rehabilitate the site by 2026. Extensive rehabilitation of the pits has already begun. But conservationists are alarmed by signals in the most recent company report that funding the clean-up might be more difficult without income from the underground ore body, known as "3 Deeps".
The Mirarr remain wary, too, that even richer uranium deposits at Jabiluka, 20 kilometres away and also on their land, might become a fresh target for development. A strong protest movement in the 1990's has so far kept that site off- limits to mining.
Both sides are shadow-boxing, with the Mirarr saying they have yet to reach a consensus decision on 3 Deeps, and ERA saying its still conducting a "prefeasibility" study. Whether the Mirarr could legally veto an extension of the mine underground is unclear, though Gundjeihmi corporation CEO Justin O'Brien insists "the jury is out on that".
Japan's experience, he says, illustrates that "there are obviously universal consequences for the decision that the Mirarr may or may not make in the months ahead".
No doubt the company's decision will be influenced by what happens to the uranium market internationally - including whether Japan re-starts its reactors under the more hawkish government which replaced Kan and his successor, and whether Australia starts selling uranium to India. With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi due to visit in November, it may well be a gift that Tony Abbott, like Gough Whitlam forty years earlier, is more than willing to offer.