Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Uranium mining

Overview

This Fact Sheet explains how exploration and mining of uranium, thorium, and other radioactive substances are regulated in the Northern Territory.

Uranium mining in the Northern Territory can have adverse impacts on the environment.  Pollution from mining operations can have damaging impacts on the environment. There are also environmental risks with the use of uranium ores to fuel nuclear power stations.

What is uranium?

Uranium is a type of metal which is radioactive.  The Commonwealth Government owns uranium, thorium and other radioactive substances.  Exploration and mining of uranium and other radioactive substances, such as thorium, are controlled by Commonwealth laws and by Northern Territory mining laws.

Where does uranium mining occur in the Northern Territory?

Uranium exploration and mining takes place throughout the Northern Territory.  One of the main areas for uranium exploration and mining in the Northern Territory is the Alligator Rivers Region.  Within the Alligator Rivers Region, uranium mining has occurred since 1959.  Uranium mining pre-dates the creation of Kakadu National Park.

What are the laws?

The laws which control exploration and mining of uranium, thorium and other radioactive substances are:

  • The Northern Territory Mineral Titles Act and Mineral Titles Regulations.  This is the law under which exploration and mining approvals can be granted to mining companies to allow them to explore and mine for uranium.  The Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy can only grant uranium exploration and mining approvals and exercise powers in accordance with the advice of the Commonwealth Minister administering the Atomic Energy Act.
  • The Northern Territory Mining Management Act.  This is the law under which Authorisations are granted, which allow a mining company to undertake exploration and mining activities.  This law imposes environmental requirements on mining companies. Before exercising a power or performing a function under in relation to an Authorisation that relates to uranium or thorium, the Minister for Mines and Energy must consult with the Commonwealth Minister about matters agreed in writing between them relating to the mining of uranium or thorium; and must act in accordance with any advice provided by the Commonwealth Minister.  Before granting or varying an Authorisation that relates to the Ranger Project Area, the Minister must ensure that the Authorisation incorporates or adopts by reference (with the necessary modifications) the Ranger Project Environmental Requirements.
  • The Commonwealth Atomic Energy Act 1953.  This law mainly gives the Commonwealth Government of Australia the power to grant uranium exploration and mining projects in the Ranger Mining Area.
  • The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  This law prohibits mining or milling uranium ore and other activities that have or are likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance, unless an approval has been granted by the Commonwealth Minister for Environment.
  • The Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 applies to Aboriginal land under that Act. This law gives traditional Aboriginal owners the power to refuse consent to exploration on their land (and in doing so has important powers to stop mining on Aboriginal land)..
  • The Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 applies if there are native title rights and interests on the land.  This law gives people with registered native title rights and interests the rights to be consulted about exploration and mining proposals that may affect them.

Who regulates the mining laws?

The Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy is responsible for approving exploration and mining under the Northern Territory laws.  The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy is responsible for administering the laws and enforcing breaches.

The Commonwealth Minister for Environment is responsible for granting approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  Under the Commonwealth Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978, there is a Supervising Scientist who is responsible for supervising uranium mining in the Alligator Rivers Region (which includes mining in Kakadu National Park).

What approvals does a mining company need?

Before a mining company can explore or mine for uranium or other radioactive substances, it needs the following approvals:

  • Mineral exploration licence under Mineral Titles Act
  • Mineral lease under Mineral Titles Act
  • Authorisation and approved mining management plan under Mining Management Act
  • Approval under Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

In the Ranger Mining Area, exploration and mining is permitted according to an authority under the Commonwealth Atomic Energy Act.

What do the approvals allow a mining company to do?

Mineral exploration licence

A mineral exploration licence allows the holder of the licence to occupy the area in the licence and to explore for minerals.  Whilst these activities may seem quite harmless, exploration activities could have significant environmental impacts.  For example holders of exploration licences or exploration licences in retention can:

  • Dig pits, trenches and holes, sink bores and tunnels
  • Extract and remove mineral samples for analysis
  • Drill and use other methods to determine the quality, quantity and extent of the mineral
  • enter and occupy land in the licence or approval area with people, equipment, and vehicles
  • use water – including to take or divert water, sink a bore or a well, for use in the exploration or mining and for domestic use for workers
  • use land outside the area and within the area to build an access road across any land that is the shortest route from the exploration site or mine to another road, a railway, an airstrip, the sea or a waterway
  • use land outside the licence area to build, maintain and use infrastructure for the exploration if the person who is conducting the exploration is granted an Access Authority

Mineral lease

A mineral lease is an approval that allows the lease holder to:

  • mine for minerals
  • explore for minerals in the title area
  • enter and occupy land in the licence or approval area with people, equipment, and vehicles
  • use water – including to take or divert water, sink a bore or a well, for use in the exploration or mining and for domestic use for workers
  • conduct activities related to the mine, such as operate a treatment plant
  • treat tailings for example by having a tailings dam
  • store waste
  • process and refine minerals
  • use land outside the area and within the area to build an access road across any land that is the shortest route from the exploration site or mine to another road, a railway, an airstrip, the sea or a waterway
  • conduct tourist fossicking with mechanical equipment
  • use land outside the licence area to build, maintain and use infrastructure for the exploration if the person who is conducting the exploration is granted an Access Authority

A mineral lease gives a mining company a lot of rights.  Once a mining company has finished mining a part of land within the title area, it does not end the life of the mine.  Because a mineral lease also approves exploration, this means that even when one part of a mining site is closed and is being rehabilitated, the company can start new exploration within the same title under the mineral lease.  This means that mining activities could last for a very long time.

Authorisation under Mining Management Act

An Authorisation is the legal approval to actually conduct the exploration or mining activities for which a mining company holds an exploration licence or mineral lease.  Authorisations may be subject to conditions and can only be granted if the Minister for Mines and Energy has approved a mining management plan for the site.

Approval under Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

This is a approval from the Commonwealth Environment Minister which allows the mining company to undertake the actions in the approval subject to any conditions that are imposed on the exploration or mining.

Approval under Atomic Energy Act

An approval under the Atomic Energy Act allows a mining company to do the following activities (subject to any conditions or restrictions in the authority) in the Ranger Project Area:

  • enter and take possession of land with workers, machinery, vehicles and things
  • exploration, mining, recovery, treatment and processing of uranium
  • bore or sink for water, raise or use water and cut and construct dams and drains
  • cut and construct roads
  • erect or install buildings and demolish or remove buildings

Can I object?

Landowners can object to the grant of an exploration licence and/or a mineral lease.     Landowners in the Mineral Titles Act are:

  • the Land Trust for any Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act
  • the holder of the native title for any native title land
  • an Aboriginal Community Living Area Association
  • people recorded as being the owner in the Land Register
  • a lease holder of a pastoral lease under the Pastoral Land Act
  • a lease holder of a grazing licence or occupation licences or another types of licence granted under the Crown Lands Act or Special Purposes Leases Act.
  • the land manager for a park or reserve
  • the Conservation Land Corporation

Other people who are not landowners can make a submission opposing the grant of an exploration licence and/or a mineral lease.

Objections and submissions must be made within 30 days of the newspaper notice in which an exploration licence or mineral lease is notified to the public.  The Minister for Mines and Energy has to take objections and submissions into account when deciding whether or not to grant an exploration licence or mineral lease.

There are no rights of objection to Authorisations under the Mining Management Act.

As the proposal to mine for uranium is a nuclear action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, a company must refer the proposed action to the Commonwealth Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities. When a proposal is referred, the Commonwealth Minister of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities will decide whether or not the proposal needs to have an environmental impact assessment and what form that will take.

All proposals referred are placed on the website of the Department for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities. Members of the public and environment groups can comment on a proposal within 10 business days.  There are rights for members of the public to make submissions when proposals are referred.

For information about the environmental assessment process, read our Fact Sheet on Environmental impact assessment.

Can I appeal?

There are no rights in any of the mining laws for any third parties (objectors, submitters) to apply for a review (often called an appeal) of the merits of a decision to grant a uranium mining approval.

The only legal way third parties may challenge a uranium exploration or mining approval is to apply for judicial review. This type of legal case is about whether or not the decision made by the Minister is legally valid.

For decisions made by the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy, judicial review would be in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.

For decisions made by the Commonwealth Minister for Environment, judicial review would be in the Federal Court of Australia.

For more information, read our Fact Sheet on Judicial review and merits review.

Does the mining company need consent from occupiers or landowners?

A person (or mining company) may need to get consent for:

  • Preliminary exploration.  This is when a person may enter land to investigate whether or not there is potential to explore for minerals. Read our Fact Sheet on Mining for minerals and extractive minerals for information on when consent is needed.
  • Consent from the traditional Aboriginal owners to exploration under the legal process in the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.  The traditional Aboriginal owners of Aboriginal land under this Act have a right to refuse consent to exploration on Aboriginal land (and through this can prevent mining) (read our Fact Sheet on Mining on Aboriginal land).
  • Consent for an Access Authority to enter land outside the title area (read our Fact Sheet on Mining for minerals and extractive minerals). This consent is needed from landowners of Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, private land and Aboriginal community living areas for the mining company to enter their land in order to construct, maintain and use infrastructure associated with conducting authorised activities under the mineral title.  For example, building roads.

Transporting uranium

Once radioactive material (including uranium ores and concentrates) leaves a mining site, the Radioactive Ores and Concentrates (Packaging and Transport) Act control how it must be transported, stored and packaged within the Northern Territory.  This law does not apply to low-level radioactive ores.

A person (or company) may only transport or store radioactive material if he or she has a licencefrom the Northern Territory Chief Inspector. A licence is subject to any conditions that the Chief Inspector considers necessary for the safe packaging, storage or transport of radioactive material.  Conditions can include details about:

  • the motor vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft that is allowed to carry the material
  • the person who must transport it
  • the times of day that it can be transported
  • the number and weight of loads that can be transported

If radioactive material is being transported, the person who is in control of the vehicle must notify an inspector if:

  • the vehicle is in an accident
  • the vehicle is delayed
  • there has been a leakage or spillage of radioactive material that has caused or may cause contamination of the environment or a danger to a person

If the Inspector thinks that a leakage or spillage of radioactive material that has caused or may cause contamination of the environment or a danger to a person during transport, packaging or storage, the Inspector must notify the Northern Territory Chief Health Officer and the Chief Inspector.

The Chief Inspector has the powers to remove radioactive materials or to do works to reduce damage to the environment. People who are in danger of radioactive contamination can be made to have health checks by the Northern Territory Chief Medical Officer.

The Radioactive Ores and Concentrates (Packaging and Transport) Act does not provide any requirement for a company to clean-up environmental damage.  However, it the inspector does work to reduce or prevent damage, the owner of the radioactive materials is liable to pay the inspectors costs.

How to report complaints or concerns

The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy has Mining Officers responsible for receiving complaints and investigating complaints about mining sites. Complaints are confidential.  The Mining Officers are not allowed to disclose your name to anyone.

Concerns or complaints about operational mineral or extractive mineral mines can be reported to:

Director of Mining Environmental Compliance
Department of Mines and Energy
GPO Box 3000
Darwin
NT 0801

Or by email to: mineral.info@nt.gov.au.

It is helpful to include the following details about your complaint:

  • Your name
  • Your contact information
  • Details of the complaint including:
    • the mine(s)
    • what happened
    • where
    • when
    • who was involved
    • How long has it been going on
    • copies of any supporting documentation that may assist the Department of Mines and Energy to resolve the matter (for example photographs, GPS coordinates)
  • what you would like to see happen as a result of the complaint