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Environmentalists slam proposal for former Rio Tinto executive to join uranium mine leadership

A former senior executive at Rio Tinto who stepped down after the destruction of Juukan Gorge has been appointed to the proposed leadership team that will oversee the development of a controversial uranium mine in Western Australia.

Former Rio Tinto iron ore head Chris Salisbury was one of three senior executives to step down following the destruction of the 46,000-year-old sacred site, which occurred on his watch.

Mr Salisbury was appointed chair of uranium exploration company Deep Yellow in May 2021, and was recently announced as the proposed chair of a $658 million merger between the company and Vimy Resources.

Vimy is developing WA’s first uranium mine, 240 kilometres north-east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the Goldfields region.

In November, the company rejected a $317 million offer from its rival Deep Yellow, which is developing a uranium mine in Namibia, but Vimy’s board has agreed to a beefed-up proposal and will take the merger to shareholders in June.

The merger is expected to provide the financial backing necessary to get the Mulga Rock uranium project over the line.

Uranium mining is not allowed in Western Australia, after the current Labor government reinstated a ban in 2017. 

But the Mulga Rock mine was granted environmental approval by the former Liberal National government prior to the ban, along with three other projects, which Labor said it would allow.

Mulga Rock is the only project moving forward.

Vimy Resources managing director Steven Michael said the merger would not slow progress at Mulga Rock, with the company aiming to begin production in 2025.

A closeup of a man with white hair looking at the camera.
Dave Sweeney says it is hard to track uranium shipments once they leave Australian shores. (Supplied)

Leadership concerns

Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear policy analyst Dave Sweeney said he was concerned that Deep Yellow’s managing director, John Borshoff, was the proposed chief executive of the merged group.

He cited governance issues over projects in Malawi and Namibia, operated by mining company Paladin Energy Limited or its associates when Mr Borshoff was one of Paladin’s senior executives. 

In 2013 a worker died at a mine in Malawi, and another worker died and two others were injured at a mine in Namibia.

In 2014, a truck carrying uranium oxide from a mine in Malawi overturned, spilling some of the material.

Mr Sweeney was also concerned about the appointment of Mr Salisbury as chairman due to his links to the destruction of Juukan Gorge.

“We think that neither of those is a basis for confidence or the basis for leadership of a company fit for purpose in a high-risk industrial sector like uranium mining,” he said.

But Mr Michael said the pair from Deep Yellow added “significant value to the merged group” due to their combined experience in the uranium sector.

“We’ve done extensive due diligence on Deep Yellow — we met with their board of management on several occasions,” Mr Michael said.

Environmental governance ‘front and centre’

A man looking at the camera
Vimy Resources chief executive and managing director Steven Michael says the proposed leadership team would add significant value to the merged group.  (Supplied: Vimy Resources)

The ABC approached Mr Borshoff and Mr Salisbury for comment.

A statement was received from Mr Borshoff, which said the Juukan Gorge incident was a “terrible disaster” that highlighted the importance of heritage management, community relations and environmental and social governance (ESG).

“Investigations determined the Juukan George incident was a result of systemic issues at Rio rather than the actions of individuals,” Mr Borshoff said.

“Community relations and ESG are front and centre of all our strategic decisions at Deep Yellow and we see ourselves as a sector leader when it comes to driving positive change and impact in the communities we operate in.

“Chris’s personal knowledge of the issues that gave rise to Juukan will ensure Deep Yellow builds these learnings into heritage management.”

Mr Borshoff also acknowledged the “tremendous responsibility” of developing WA’s first uranium mine.

“Starting a new uranium mine like Mulga Rock has risks, with the need for managerial experience to solve technical, construction and commissioning issues, along with community engagement, environmental and government approvals,” he said.

A woman standing in front of a black curtain in a music room
Debbie Carmody says the dangers of nuclear power are clear and uranium should be left in the ground.  (ABC Goldfields: Madison Snow )

‘Thousands of us died’

There is a native title claim over the site of the planned uranium mine in WA’s central desert.

Upurli Upurli Nguratja Native Title claimant Debbie Carmody said Vimy had not met with the group since the claim was lodged in 2020.

“We’re concerned that the work that they’ve been doing there damages our cultural heritage,” she said.

“It actually destroys important habitat for the endangered sandhill dunnart, and we’re concerned about the long-term legacy of radioactive tailings.”

While the mine would only supply uranium for nuclear energy, Ms Carmody said the group did not want the project to go ahead due to family connections to the traumatic history of British nuclear tests at Maralinga, in which 1,200 Aboriginal people were exposed to radiation.

“Our people became refugees within their own land because we were unable to go back into our country,” she said.

“Thousands of us died as a result of radiation poisoning, my grandmother died and my uncle died.

Archive footage of a nuclear test at Maralinga.
Archive footage of a nuclear test at Maralinga, which exposed 1,200 Aboriginal people to radiation. (ABC News)

Vimy has no legal obligation to meet with the group because the claim was lodged in 2020, after the tenement was approved.

But Mr Michael said Vimy had been in contact with the legal counsel for Upurli Upurli Nguratja and had made attempts to meet with the group.

Where does Australian uranium go?

While nuclear energy is banned in Australia, 7,000 tonnes of uranium is exported each year from two operational mines, supplying 10 per cent of the global market.

The Mulga Rock mine is expected to produce an additional 1,500 tonnes a year, valued at $300 million.

“About half of our uranium goes to the US and about 25 per cent to north Asia, to Japan – although less so since Fukushima – and to Korea and Taiwan,” Mr Sweeney said.

Exploring for uranium in Namibia
Perth company Deep Yellow is exploring for uranium in Namibia, Africa.(Supplied)

“The remaining 25 per cent, or thereabouts, goes to the European Union and the UK.”

Mr Sweeney said Australia only exported uranium to countries for exclusive use as an energy source, which was important because it was a “weapon-sensitive fuel”.

“It can power a nuclear reactor but it can equally be enriched and concentrated and power a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Mr Michael said while the company had no control over what a facility did with uranium once it left Australia, there were strict safeguards in place for the use of nuclear fuel in the places they planned to sell to, including North America, Western Europe and Japan.

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