Who pays BP’s disaster bill? You do

If you thought the multi-billion dollar costs of destroying refineries and oil rigs (and killing workers, ruining livelihoods and wrecking the environment in the process), might have a chastening effect on BP, you might need to think again.

An entry in the blog of nationally syndicated US journalist Thom Hartmann notes: “It looks like the ironic outcome of the BP mess will come in the form of a truly poetic gesture that involves a middle finger offered by BP’s treasurer to British and American taxpayers.”

It cites the Financial Times, which reported that “BP is forecast to pay about $10bn less tax over the next four years as it meets the costs of its huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, hitting the revenues of Britain and the US that receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the company each year.”

Because the laws of both the US and the UK allow companies to deduct from their taxes what are called “business expenses” – and that includes cleaning up messes caused by doing business the wrong way, cutting corners and violating safety and environmental laws – “BP will transfer about a third of all their costs of dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster away from the company and directly onto the taxpayers of the US and the UK by deducting all these costs from their taxable profits,” says the blog.

The Financial Times noted: “Of its principal expected liabilities, only the fines that might be imposed by the US authorities would definitely not be tax-deductible.”

It’s one reasons why jail terms on the oil giant’s directors for their safety and environmental crimes might have a more salutary effect on BP’s boardroom behaviour. It would certainly be a rare bonus for the rest of us.

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Cancer surge supports case against pesticides

GROWING PROBLEM Pesticides might make your garden grow, but they also do the same for childhood and occupational tumours.

A ‘dramatic’ increase in a range of occupational and childhood cancers has been linked to pesticide exposures.

Public health researchers, writing in a new report for the Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring Trust (CHEM Trust), call on the UK government to step up action to ban the most harmful pesticides and to bring in a duty for the public to be informed before spraying takes place.

They add that safer alternatives are available and are preferable to attempting to avoid occupational or environmental exposures to inherently dangerous substances.

A review of the role pesticides play in some cancers: Children, farmers and pesticide users at risk?’, published on 2 July 2010, links exposure prior to conception or during pregnancy to higher rates of childhood cancer and warns that farm workers could also be developing cancers caused by pesticide exposures at work.

The report says several studies “strongly suggest” that pesticide exposures are associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), leukaemia, prostate cancer and other hormone-related cancers. It adds that environmental factors “must be partly to blame” for massive increases in the incidence of certain cancers since 1975 – because genes in a population do not change that quickly.

Since the mid-1970s, cases of NHL have more than doubled in Britain, prostate cancer has tripled, testicular cancer has doubled and breast cancer in women has increased by two-thirds, and in men has quadrupled, the report notes. In the 35 years up to 1998, childhood cancer in Britain increased by 35 per cent, it adds. Although the increasing numbers may be in part a result of better diagnosis, the report authors believe environmental factors, including pesticides, are a contributory factor.

Stirling University’s Professor Andrew Watterson, a co-author of the report, commented: “Occupational and environmental cancers have been a neglected public health issue in the UK for decades. The report highlights the substantial nature of the threat from pesticide exposure.

“In the UK, oversight of pesticides has continued to err on the side of products rather than people and of course relies on data generated initially by the pesticide manufacturers. The regulatory response has usually been ‘if in doubt, do continue using pesticides’ when the scientific literature is littered with examples of products that have been cleared in the past emerging as known or suspect human carcinogens.

“There is a long-overdue and urgent need to mount a cancer prevention campaign on pesticides based on effective precautionary principles.”

Gwynne Lyons, director of CHEM Trust and co-author of the report, commented: “Research suggests that pregnant women, in particular, should avoid direct exposure to pesticides, if possible.”

She accused the UK of dragging its feet on risks posed by chemicals. “It is high time that the UK was more supportive of EU proposals to take a tougher approach to reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals,” she said. “If the UK is to shed its image of being the laggard in the EU, then the UK government must robustly implement the new EU pesticides legislation in order to try and reduce the burden of cancer in children, farmers and others exposed to pesticides.”

Professor Watterson said it was not realistic to expect the public to avoid farms and other areas where pesticides may be used. Instead, he said, the government needed to strengthen regulation to remove the risks in the first place. “There are substitutes available,” he said. “There are less hazardous alternatives.”

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Workers see red at ‘green’ hotels

TAKE A BREAK Workers at this Westin hotel in Vancouver say there is nothing 'green' about back-breaking workloads.

Hotel workers are paying a high personal price so their employers can claim they have gone ‘green’.

Last year, US hotel staff complained they faced a back-breaking increase in workload as a result of a hotel chain’s move to reduce laundry and related energy consumption.

While management claimed fewer bedding and towel changes were good for the environment, the move was accompanied by staffing cuts which left the remaining outsourced staff facing more work and more strains.

Now workers in Canada are reaching the same painful realisation about their ‘greener’ jobs. Staff at the US-based Starwood Hotels chain, which includes Sheraton and Westin hotels and which is touting a ‘Make a Green Choice’ programme in its hotels across North America, say the initiative is a bogus green plan that does nothing for the environment.

But it does result in reduced shifts and more work for housekeeping staff, said Michelle Travis of the union Unite Here Local 40, which represents staff in British Columbia, Canada. “It’s just a cost-cutting measure on the part of the hotel employer,” she told The Province.

“Guests don’t realise this particular programme has a negligible impact on the environment but a detrimental impact on housekeepers.”

She added that the union was taking up the issue in contract negotiations.

In June 2010, Starwood said it was “targeting a 30 per cent reduction in energy use per available room by 2020; the company will also work toward a 20 per cent decrease in water consumption per available room by 2020. The initiative will apply to all of Starwood’s owned, managed, and franchised hotels around the world.”

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UK government to adopt BP business model

BROWNE STUFF In 2007, Hazards magazine suggested BP's Lord Browne should be behind bars. Now he's the UK's unelected Czar.

John Browne, Tony Hayward’s predecessor as chief executive of BP, has been appointed by the UK government to oversee moves to make Whitehall “more businesslike.” Lord Browne was the architect of the much criticised BP cost- and safety-cutting strategy implicated in the Texas City refinery disaster, which killed 15, and a sequence of other safety and environmental crimes.

The scope of the peer’s shake-up of government will include all ministries, including those responsible for workplace and environmental safety and the energy industry.

Commenting on his appointment as a ‘lead non-executive director’ in government, Lord Browne said: “This is a role within government but also independent of it. Its purpose is to assist in the delivery of policy using relevant experience from business. There is a great need for the best of the business community to be involved during these challenging times for the UK.”

Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, said: “His experience will be a real benefit in our drive to make Whitehall work in a more businesslike manner and I am looking forward to working with him to implement our vital reform programme.”

The Conservative Party, which leads the UK’s coalition government, is wedded to the idea of a business-friendly, “burden” lifting, programme of deregulation. The coalition has already embarked on a review of health and safety regulation, and a Conservative policy paper pre-election promised “the powers of government inspectors will be drastically curbed”, adding the party’s objective was “taming regulators” by “replacing regulator-run public teams of inspectors with a model closer to financial controls and audits.” In the UK, far and away the two biggest regulators are the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The model is, in effect, that secured by BP and other oil interests in the Gulf of Mexico, where firm regulation was sacrificed in favour of paper agreements and oil industry self-regulation.

The worker safety standards in place for offshore oil rigs before the Deepwater Horizon blast were voluntary and developed in consultation with the oil industry, a senior official at the retooled Minerals Management Service (MMS) – in a seemingly premature move renamed last month as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement admitted to US lawmakers on 23 June.

Doug Slitor, now the acting chief of offshore regulatory programmes at the reorganised agency, told members of the House Education and Labor Committee that his office is working to turn the worker safety guidelines – drafted with the oil industry lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute – into a mandatory programme.

Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, commented that BP was “a multinational corporation with a dismal safety record in this country.” A share of the more egregious crimes occurred while the company was under the direction of Lord Browne – Tony Hayward took over the reins in 2007.

Questions have already been raised about the company’s safety record in the UK, where the troubled oil giant has been caught breaking health and safety regulations 54 times over the past five years. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforcement database show the official action against the British multinational relates to a series of maintenance and operating lapses which put workers and the environment at risk from major leaks, fires and accidents in the North Sea and elsewhere.

As a result HSE has served BP companies with 21 legal enforcement notices since 2006, requiring lax and dangerous practices to be improved. The company, however, has not been prosecuted by the watchdog since 2005.

The analysis of the HSE enforcement database shows that four BP companies – BP Exploration, BP Oil UK, BP Chemicals and BP Shipping – have been hit with legal notices in the last five years. There have been 54 breaches of eight health and safety laws or regulations. A BP spokesperson said the company’s safety record compared well to that of others, adding: “We are never complacent and are continually looking at ways to reduce even the smallest of leaks.”

But Juliet Swann of Friends of the Earth Scotland said: “Companies like BP have for years been taking shortcuts with safety that risk human life, the environment and people’s pensions.”

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Oil companies all fail the safety test

WELL WELL BP global CEO Tony Hayward has agreed to President Obama's demand for a compensation fund. This year's $5bn payment will still leave the UK-based oil giant with change of $600 million from its 2010 first quarter profits.

Members of the US Congress tore into the big energy corporations on 15 June for filing almost identical Gulf of Mexico oil spill response plans – which included contact details for a deceased scientist and steps to protect marine mammals not found in the region’s waters.

Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell all have identical response plans to BP, said House energy and commerce committee chair Henry Waxman. The verbal assault by committee members undermined attempts by the oil giants to suggest that their working practices differ from those of BP; and that the catastrophe, which killed 11 workers, would not have happened if the well had been theirs.

Leading the committee’s questioning of energy executives, Democrat Ed Markey focused on their spill response plans. “They cite identical response capabilities and tout identical ineffective equipment. In some cases, they use the exact same words,” he said. He added: “Like BP, three other companies include references to protecting walruses, which have not called the Gulf of Mexico home for three million years.”

Under pressure from US president Barack Obama and ahead of a congressional grilling for BP’s London-based chief executive Tony Hayward this week, BP agreed to the president’s demand for the creation of a $20bn (£13.5bn) compensation fund for victims of the Gulf oil spill. The company also told the president it would not pay shareholders a dividend this year – the first time this has happened since World War II. BP’s shares rose sharply on news of the deal.

The agreement requires BP to pay $5bn into the fund this year, significantly less than its first quarter profits. A week after the rig exploded on 20 April, BP announced profits from January to March 2010 of $5.6 billion (£3.6bn).

The US president has expressed renewed interest in a clean energy plan in the wake of the Gulf disaster.

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Europeans get their say on green jobs

As oil laps on the US coast, there’s renewed energy in discussions of green jobs. And that means new opportunities and, potentially, new risks, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) says.

“New work situations bring new risks and challenges for workers and employers, which in turn demand political, administrative, technical and regulatory approaches to ensure high levels of safety and health at work,” the Bilbao-based organisation reports.

In response, its European Risk Observatory (ERO) “has commissioned a foresight study to explore the potential impact that key technological innovations may have on workers’ health and safety, both positively and negatively, in jobs in the green economy (‘green jobs’) and what new and emerging risks to occupational safety and health (OSH) this may bring by 2020.”

The Agency says it wants contributions from “people involved in the implementation of the greening policy agenda, as well as from any other areas where key drivers of change may impact the introduction of new technologies in green jobs and create new occupational safety and health risks.”

It is inviting anyone interested in contributing to complete an online questionnaire – which shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. The results will be available in October.

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Competition: Spot the idiotic inconsistency

OILY PROBLEM David Cameron tries to grease UK-US relations in a post-BP sliming phone call to US president Barack Obama. But the prime minister also wants to remove legal 'burdens' on business - like safety and environmental regulations.

It’s a story that owes more to the ostrich than the oil covered pelican.

The 14 June screen grab from the front page of the UK Prime Minister’s website shows David Cameron in a phone call to US President Barack Obama, discussing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill calamity.

Cameron’s spokesperson commented: “The prime minister expressed his sadness at the ongoing human and environmental catastrophe in Louisiana,” adding: “President Obama said to the Prime Minister that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity. The Prime Minister stressed the economic importance of BP to the UK, US and other countries. The President made clear that he had no interest in undermining BP’s value.”

The disaster, which observers increasingly accept was a product of inadequate regulation, oversight and enforcement, has hobbled a major UK-based firm, caused incalculable economic and environmental damage, has strained relations between the US and the UK and has led for calls for directors of BP to face criminal charges.

There have already been less celebrated casualties, notably the 11 workers who died when the rig exploded on 20 April. Since then many workers involved in the cleanup operation – possibly hundreds – have fallen sick as a result of heat stroke, chemical exposures and other hazards.

Still, with the phone call over it was back to business as usual for the UK Prime Minister – pandering to the business lobby and announcing a review of health and safety legislation, the next headline on the 10 Downing Street website.

Commenting on the review, which forms part of a wider commitment to deregulation targeting all government departments and regulators, the Prime Minister said: “The rise of the compensation culture over the last ten years is a real concern, as is the way health and safety rules are sometimes applied. We need a sensible new approach that makes clear these laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm businesses with red tape.”

Only there has not been a rise in compensation culture and businesses are not overwhelmed with red tape. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the UK trade union body TUC, said he was “surprised the government is addressing the ‘compensation culture’ again as successive reports show there is no such thing and claims have been falling over the past ten years.” He added: “This will not be an open and frank review aimed at achieving better regulation. Instead it is an attempt to undermine the already limited protection that workers have by focusing on the needs of business.”

The UK union leader concluded: “Businesses are responsible for a working culture that injures a quarter of a million workers every year and makes a further half a million employees ill. The review should by investigating this instead. Rather than focusing solely on the ‘needs of business’, the government should protect workers by increasing inspections and enforcement action against employers who put their staff at risk by ignoring existing laws, as well as introducing a legal duty on directors to protect their workers.”

Whether you are talking the mine deaths at Massey Energy, the refinery deaths at Texas City or the offshore deaths in the Gulf of Mexico, the common theme is a failure of responsibility and accountability on the part of companies. You can pair that each time with a failure of official regulation and oversight on the part of government.

Hand-wringing from Cameron and other political leaders over the “sadness” unleashed by BP, Transocean, Halliburton and the litany of deadly businesses from Union Carbide to Massey to McWane, is a seriously unsatisfactory alternative to protecting lives, livelihoods and the environment.

To do that governments must behave responsibly, and that means more than just demanding responsibility from business. It means less time spent appeasing regulation averse boardrooms and more time regulating them. What business calls “red tape” is for many workers their lifeline. Removing or not enforcing legal protections makes a government an accessory to the crime.

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Don’t demonise BP bosses, jail them

Can you have serial crimes but no criminal? BP’s well-heeled directors have proved as slippery as the gulf’s oil smeared coastline, with none so far facing criminal charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster or other deadly incidents.

THE BUCK STOPS HERE: Decisions made in BP's London boardroom have led to disasters. Shouldn't BP's directors be held accountable in the courts?

BP’s cavalier but usually profitable management practices have been implicated in a series of disasters. The company has been tried and found guilty of environmentally damaging, sometimes deadly and certainly criminal safety offences. But bullish denials, occasional (fleeting) acts of contrition and a short period of calm have seen the company swiftly rehabilitated in the eyes of politicians, regulators and the media.

This time, with oily-footprints leading with each successive staggering blunder all the way to BP’s London HQ, will the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe result in company executives being held personally liable for corporate safety and environmental crimes? Will BP’s directors for once be called to account to the bereaved and dispossessed, and not just the financial markets?

LIFE LINE: BP chief executive Tony Hayward says he wants his life back. Eleven workers died on 20 April in the incident that prompted his outburst.

BP’s current chief executive, Tony Hayward, has shown none of the assured grace of his predecessor, Lord John Browne, who survived with reputation unsullied the deaths of 15 workers in a 2005 blast at the company’s Texas City refinery.

Browne was certainly culpable, but instead of facing jail time was feted for turning around a company which posted a loss in 1992, the year he joined the global board. After taking the helm in 1995, his leadership led to an unprecedented period of profitability, the soubriquet of ‘Sun King’ in the financial press and, on his resignation in 2007, a payout from the company reputed to total £72 million.

It took some time after the 20 April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion for it to become apparent Hayward lacked the deft teflon touch of his mentor. Certainly, initial reports on the 11 fatalities on the rig had caused little discomfort to BP and its board – the deaths of roustabouts and roughnecks was a news story, not a disaster. In reputational and therefore monetary terms, those deaths just didn’t count.

And at first there was sufficient confusion about responsibility – BP owned the well, Transocean operated the rig – for Hayward to attempt what turned out to be his biggest strategic mistake. It wasn’t BP’s fault, it was just BP’s oil, the chief executive intimated.

Hayward told the US Today show on 3 May: “It wasn’t our accident. But we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up and that’s what we intend to do. The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig, it was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people with their processes. But our responsibility is the oil and it is ours to clean it up.”

The BP chief was facing a different sort of headache to his mentor – a disaster that would not die down coming on the heels of a sequence of massive safety and environmental fines. The saga of BP’s blundering on the sea bed fed more bad news stories about the company and allowed sufficient time for more probing questions to be asked.

So, instead of concentrating on just what bit of equipment failed, the spotlight fell on why a multinational making massive profits was involved in such a devastating incident and why it had neither the foresight to prevent it nor the systems to cope with the aftermath. The ongoing scrutiny and growing criticism of BP drove an exasperated Tony Hayward to ask fellow executives at the company’s London HQ: “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”

According to Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen: “’Deserve’ in this context is a strange sentiment. But if Hayward had asked what in the hell BP did to cause the disaster, emerging evidence suggests the answers are straightforward: recklessly proceed with extreme deepwater drilling that far exceeds the ability of industry to control problems; fail to invest properly in safety, including in relatively cheap safety equipment; fail to oversee its contractors sufficiently; and order drilling operations to skirt safety measures.”

A month into the story, there were even murmurings of concern that 11 families had lost a loved one, a breadwinner, in the Gulf of Mexico. Shouldn’t someone put their hands up and admit guilt for that? Don’t the families deserve an explanation? Don’t they deserve justice?

Hayward by this time was floundering. On 30 May, commenting on the impact of the Gulf of Mexico spill on affected communities, he told CNN: “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” Eleven workers had died in the explosion. Hayward’s comments smacked of at best insensitivity, at worst indifference, something that didn’t escape the media.

But Hayward is only human, and shouldn’t be castigated for making crass comments when clearly under stress.

It’s the decisions Hayward and his fellow executives made in the calm of BP’s London boardroom that deserve forensic scrutiny and criticism. The Gulf of Mexico disaster and others like Texas City were a consequence of an explicit drive to increase profits while cutting costs, a plan masterminded and implemented by Lord Browne and his protégé, Tony Hayward. The sort of policies that guarantee profits now, but that just as surely increase risks.

It may be Hayward was in one respect unlucky; that the 20 April disaster was the tipping point. After a decade in which the company had received the largest ever safety fines in both the US and the UK, maybe the blood-stained slick spreading across the gulf was just one disaster too many.

It was no accident that 11 workers died in the Gulf of Mexico, no more than it was an accident when 15 died at BP’s Texas City refinery. Tony Hayward should be sorry. He should also be in court, explaining why a company that was making profits of $2.6 million every hour around the clock in the months before the gulf disaster, again and again spills blood for oil.

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Rig explosion killed, spill made workers sick

BLOOD PRESSURE: Workers cleaning up the oil spill for BP say they are suffering irritant effects and high blood pressure. Eleven died when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.

A chemical dispersant being used to fight the gulf oil spill is making workers sick, recent reports suggest. The disaster, where BP has repeatedly failed to stem the oil gusher and which started with a 20 April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, has led to an increasing clamour for criminal charges to be levelled at the London-based multinational, which owns the well and is responsible for the cleanup.

Last week seven crew members aboard fishing vessels who had been working to cleanup Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, blamed the dispersant chemicals for health complaints including nausea, shortness of breath and high blood pressure. All were working on a cleanup crew south of Venice, Louisiana, and were admitted to hospital. Doctors who examined them said that their conditions were “related to some kind of irritant, combined with dehydration”.

The US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had earlier asked BP to stop using the dispersant, known as Corexit, and find a safer alternative. BP disputed the agency’s assessment of its level of toxicity.

The Los Angeles Times reports a 25 May memo from David Michaels, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the incident commander, expressed “serious concerns” for the safety of workers involved in the spill cleanup.

The problems, Michaels wrote, “appear to be indicative of a general systemic failure on BP’s part to ensure the safety and health of those responding to this disaster.'” He complained that OSHA had repeatedly asked BP to develop a plan for protecting employees during inclement weather, but had yet to receive one, that the oil company had been slow in reporting sickness among workers, and that heat-related illness remains a serious concern.

Expressing growing frustration, Michaels wrote that the BP official in charge of worker safety “does not appear to operate with the full support of the company, nor does he seem to have the authority necessary for the job which he has been tasked.”

Like previous BP-related disasters in Alaska and Texas, evidence has emerged that appears to show BP knowingly cut corners on maintenance and safety on Deepwater Horizon’s operations, which some commentators believe could amount to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

Others say that because people were killed, BP and company officials should face prosecution for negligent and reckless homicide, although charge the deaths have been largely overlooked as the focus has been on the environmental catastrophe.

“The worker safety issue has been completely lost in this story,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s one of the biggest industrial disasters in recent history, and yet Congress [views it] the same as the public: They’re not seeing it as a worker safety issue.”

Federal statistics support O’Connor’s call for concern. Between 2003 and 2008, 646 US oil and gas workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including 120 in 2008.

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Australian union bans nuke work

An Australian union has banned its members from working in uranium mines, nuclear power stations or any other part of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) says other unions have expressed strong support for the campaign against uranium, which it has labelled the “new asbestos” of the workplace.

“We’re sick of hearing about nuclear power as the panacea of global warming, we’re sick of people sweeping safety issues under the carpet,” ETU secretary Peter Simpson said. “Our view is there’s enough ETU labour in the place… that we’ll be able to starve the industry out.”

He was speaking at the launch in Brisbane of an anti-uranium DVD, When the Dust Settles, alongside paediatrician and anti-nuclear campaign Dr Helen Caldicott. The DVD, to be sent to ETU members in Queensland and the Northern Territory, is a warning about the health risks the union says come with working with uranium. On the video, he says it is an issue about the future and about families, adding: “We are in the business of safety, and this is one way of showing it.”

Mr Simpson said Australian workers had already faced decades of exposure, and uranium was the new asbestos of the workplace. “Over the next 10 or 15 years we’re going to see the downside of (uranium),” he said.

Dr Caldicott said Australia’s uranium export industry meant the nation was “selling cancer and we’re selling nuclear weapons.”

She said Muckaty Station, near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, would likely become a nuclear waste dump and eventually the waste would leak into the environment and food chain.

Australia has about 20 per cent of the world’s known uranium deposits and the largest known deposits of high-grade uranium ore.

US-based campaign group Beyond Nuclear notes: “Studies have shown increases in cancer around nuclear facilities and uranium mines. Radiation mutates genes which can cause genetic damage across generations.”

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