MAC/20: Mines and Communities

A Big Victory for a small island: London Calling commemorates

Published by MAC on 2007-12-03

A Big Victory for a small island: London Calling commemorates

3rd December 2007

It was just over a quarter century back that the world's longest-enduring dissident shareholders' group, People Against RTZ and its Subsidiaries (PARTiZans) cut its campaigning teeth in Ireland. One morning in 1979, Angie Aldridge, living on a smallholding in County Donegal with her two small sons, Ben and Barney, woke up to find a drilling rig over their fence.

A little research showed Angie that the world's biggest uranium miner, RTZ (now Rio Tinto) had arrived at the doorstep, looking for significant grades of the deadly stuff.

Of course, the familiar corporate platitudes were trotted out: we don't know if we'll ever mine; it'll all be done to the book; the exploration won't be intrusive. But the alarm bells had been to ring. Along with a tenacious group of allies, the Donegal Anti-Uranium Mining Campaign, Angie mustered as much information on the dangers of uranium mining as she could. In 1980 she took the local struggle from the mountains to the metropolis, becoming a single shareholder in RTZ (as it then was). Angie became one of the most knowledgeable and impassioned of the partisan crew that lobbied and barracked the company at its annual general meetings.

Shortly afterwards, in 1981, RTZ announced it would not only relinquish its Donegal licence, but abandon prospecting for uranium throughout the country.

Not the end by any means

Alas, the London mining mob wasn't to give up the ghost in Ireland altogether. During the following decade the search was on for gold and zinc, both south and north of the arbitrary political divide. In 1985 RTZ helped fund Omagh Minerals (now Galanta Gold) in setting up a significant gold mine in the north, even though it withdrew (again partly from citizens' pressure and adverse press coverage) five years later.

Meanwhile, RTZ had been exploring for uranium in Scotland, mooting an open pit mine on the isle of Orkney. Here, the deposit lies beneath the soil of a renowned beauty spot called Yesnaby and just two miles from Stromness, the island’s second largest town. Excavating it would have been as outrageous to the locals as fuelling a bulldozer with single malt Scotch whisky.

But Rio Tinto and its backers, the UK’s civil uranium procurement directorate, had reckoned without the strength of opposition from the islanders. The island council incorporated a ban on uranium in its structural development plan. And its most famous citizen, the composer Peter “Max” Maxwell Davies, launched into campaign mode

Max’s five minute, hauntingly lyrical, “Farewell to Stromness” was originally part of The Yellow Cake Revue, staged at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival in 1980. It rapidly became a paean for the anti-uranium movement, and is still broadcast to this day.

Rio Tinto abandoned its plans for Orkney without fanfare. Maxwell Davies got his in March 2004, on being appointed “Master of the Queen’s Music, the first openly gay composer to earn that accolade.

When Irish eyes are smiling

Sadly, and despite Rio Tinto’s withdrawal from uranium exploration in 1981, the Irish government still contemplated granting prospecting licences for the nuclear raw material.

- That is, until last week when Ireland’s Minister for Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan, refused to give the go-ahead to two junior companies which also had their sights on Donegal.

Ryan did so as a logical consequence of the government’s opposition to nuclear power, and the "significant environmental and public health concerns surrounding uranium mining, including contamination of ground and surface water supplies and radiation levels."

Twenty six years is a long time to win such a battle. Angie Aldridge’s sons probably now have children of their own. In the meantime, Partizans has joined in supporting others benighted by Rio Tinto’s uranium misadventures, such as workers at its Rossing mine in Namibia and those at its huge Ranger operations in northern Australia.

The skirmishing is far from done. Nonetheless, quite a few caps will have been thrown joyfully in the air last week.

And not only in the Emerald Isle.

[Sources: RTZ withdraws uranium licences from Ireland: Peace News, 27 November 1981; “Uranium Mining in Donegal”, Just Books, 1979; Orkney and Peter Maxwell Davies: “ On an overgrown Path (blog), December 2005]

Ryan refuses uranium mining licences

The Irish Press

2nd December 2007

Prospectors have been banned from mining the hills of Donegal for the nuclear fuel uranium, it emerged today.

The Minister for Natural Resources Eamon Ryan refused to grant exploration licences to two companies with their eyes set on some of the county's most wild and scenic areas.

The Green Party TD said he declined the recent applications as part of a wider stance against nuclear power in Ireland and in the UK.

"It would be hypocritical to permit the extraction of uranium for use in nuclear reactors in other countries, while the nuclear generation of electricity is not allowed in Ireland," he said.

"And particularly while the Irish Government continues to object to the operation of nuclear power generation at Sellafield and other locations."

Uranium prospecting licences were granted previously in the 1970s and 1980s, when the rare ore was discovered in Donegal, according to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

The most recent applications were made just a few weeks ago.

Minister Ryan confirmed he was signalling a wider policy decision to prohibit nuclear-related industry in Ireland during his ministerial watch.

"Granting a licence carries an implicit policy agreement permitting its extraction should a viable prospect be discovered. This is where my concern lies," he said.

"The most likely end use of any uranium extracted in Ireland would be for nuclear electricity generation.

"There are also significant environmental and public health concerns surrounding uranium mining, including contamination of ground and surface water supplies and radiation levels."

He added: "In this decision we are following the example set by other countries who remain opposed to the nuclear generation of electricity, such as New Zealand."

© 2007

Environmental groups welcome uranium mining ban

The Belfast Telegraph

2nd December 2007

Environmental groups are welcoming the decision by the Energy Minister Eamon Ryan to effectively ban uranium mining here.

Mr Ryan has issued a statement saying he will not grant licences to any companies seeking to carry out this work while he is in office.

The minister said it would be hypocritical to allow uranium to be mined here and used in nuclear reactors abroad given our anti-nuclear stance.

He also said that there were significant public health and environmental concerns.

[London Calling is published by Nostromo Research, London. Opinions contained here do not necessarily reflect those of any other author, including members of the editorial board of Mines and Communities. Reproduction is welcomed, provided full attribution is made to Nostromo Research and, where appropriate, the sources quoted.] ,

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