Original classification rating: PG.
This clip chosen to be PG
The Chauvels have gained entrance to one of the well-guarded secrets of 1950s Australia: Rum Jungle, a uranium mine said to be the richest in the world.
It’s fascinating to hear these people of the 1950s talk about the future of uranium in our world. Not for bombs, even though this is only a few years after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but for peaceful purposes like heating, health and agriculture. There’s no mention of radioactive contamination, or of the need to protect workers.
The Chauvels were best known for their feature films, and this material has echoes of that work, with beautiful and dramatic camerawork. I particularly like the striking shot of the vehicles driving under the great geometric awning covering the ore.
This black-and-white clip shows filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel touring the Northern Territory’s Rum Jungle uranium mine in 1957. It includes shots of the treatment works, a huge canopy for storing high-grade uranium in the wet season and the floor of the mine from which uranium ore was extracted. A geologist shows Charles how to use a Geiger counter to test for uranium in the rock. Charles, who narrates the clip, predicts that because of its uranium the Northern Territory ‘will play an important part in our lives’.
Educational value points
- Rum Jungle was Australia’s first large-scale uranium mine and the NT’s largest industrial undertaking in the 1950s. Located about 64 km south of Darwin, the mine operated between 1953 and 1971 and produced some 3,530 tonnes of mainly high-grade uranium ore. The Australian Atomic Energy Authority (AAEA) had responsibility for the mine. At the time of filming, the British company Wimpey was under contract to the AAEA to operate the mine.
- The Rum Jungle mine was initially developed to fulfil a uranium supply contract between the Australian Government and the British–USA Combined Development Agency (CDA) from 1953 to 1962. The CDA was responsible for obtaining uranium for the US and British nuclear weapons programs during the Cold War (1945–89), when the USA and its allies were locked in an escalating arms race with the Soviet Union and reliable uranium supplies were vital.
- Chauvel’s narration gives an insight into a period in Australia when attitudes to uranium mining and nuclear energy were very positive. He describes the site of the mine, the headwaters of the East Finniss River, as a 'great wasteland’ now finding 'its usefulness’. There is a clear hint, however, that the Australian public is uneasy about the uranium’s use in bombs when Chauvel disingenuously explains that 'today the accent’ is on peaceful purposes.
- Uranium was originally mined underground at Rum Jungle, but at the time Australian Walkabout was filmed there were two open-cut pits in operation. The first was known as White’s open cut. Mining began there in 1953 and it was mined out by November 1958 at a depth of more than 100 m. The second pit – Dyson’s open cut – was mined from 1957 to 1958. By the time of the Chauvel visit, nearly enough ore had been stockpiled to fulfil the CDA contract.
- At Rum Jungle there was little concern about the effects on the environment of the residue from the mine’s uranium-ore treatment process. The tailings were released into the shallow dam seen in the clip. As a containment procedure this was never likely to succeed – 2,300 tonnes of manganese, 1,300 tonnes of copper, 200 tonnes of zinc and 450 curies of radium escaped into the East Finniss and Finniss rivers, and 100 sq km of the flood plain are still contaminated.
- No measures appear to have been in place in 1958 to protect visitors and miners against the dangers of radioactive ore. Dust control is particularly important in the mining and tailing areas of a uranium mine to ensure people don’t inhale potentially radioactive dust. Exposure to direct radiation and radon daughters (radioactive decay products of radon) should also be limited. Protective suits and breathing apparatus are not required in naturally ventilated open-cut mines.
- This clip is from Australian Walkabout, a series made by Australian filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and also shown on the ABC. The series was filmed over a year during a trip from Sydney to Broken Hill, through central Australia to Darwin and back again. It introduced British and many Australian viewers to the outback and continued an interest in the Australian landscape evident in the Chauvels’ feature films.
Filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel drive through the gates of the Rum Jungle uranium mine. There are panoramic shots of the treatment works.
Charles Chauvel, narrator and filmmaker (voice-over) Our letter of authority is examined, the barrier is raised and we’ve entered Rum Jungle. We’re looking across the treatment works as we stand on a huge stockpile of uranium ore. We have complete freedom now to move with our cameras to enable you to see that, at last, this great wasteland has found its usefulness and from now on the Northern Territory will play an important part in our lives and also in yours as Australia becomes one of the largest uranium-producing countries in the world.
The cars drive past a large canopy.
Charles Chauvel (voice-over) This large canopy we’re travelling through has been erected for storage of the highest-grade uranium in the wet seasons.
The cars now drive down into a large quarry. The Chauvels get out of their car. Earthmoving equipment is at work.
Charles Chauvel (voice-over) We have now travelled down about 300ft to the ground floor where great shovels tear into the shelves of overburden and thatches of uranium-bearing earth. You know, most people think of bombs when they think of uranium but today the accent is on energy and heat and medicine and agriculture.
A geologist shows Charles how to use a Geiger counter to test for uranium in the rock.
Charles Chauvel (voice-over) I joined one of the geologists to see his method of reading the Geiger counter. Every third shovel and truckful of earth must be tested for uranium and this hardy instrument registers electrical impulses caused by the radiation emitted by radioactive materials. There’s nothing like learning to do things oneself, really.
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