Howard OK with Bush Jnr plan to turn Maralinga into world's major dump for spent nuclear rods Print E-mail
 June 14 2006

Howard pushes for uranium enrichment

Doug Lorimer

[Scroll down to read also: Aboriginal, environmental alliance against uranium and Radioactive racism: 'The promises don’t last, but the problems always do’

On June 6, PM John Howard announced the appointment of former Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski, who is also a board member of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), to head a six-member task force to “review” Australia’s uranium mining industry and the possibility of building nuclear power plants in Australia.

Australia’s current involvement in the nuclear industry is limited to the mining and export of “yellowcake” (powderised uranium ore) and the operation of a small research reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney. However, Australia has 40% of the world’s known low-cost recoverable uranium reserves.

While promising that the task force would carry out an “objective, scientific and comprehensive” review, Howard argued that the establishment of nuclear power plants would be good for Australia’s economy. “Energy prices and energy security are key considerations for future economic growth in a lower [carbon dioxide] emissions future”, he said.

The review will begin this month, with a draft report planned for public consultation by November and the final report due by the end of the year.

The corporate media has focused on Howard’s remarks since returning from Washington on May 19 about nuclear power being the solution to climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations. The government is most keen on massively expanding exports of Australian uranium, and adding value by turning the yellowcake into nuclear fuel rods. To do this, however, would require building a uranium enrichment plant.

“It doesn’t seem to me to make a lot of sense to favour the export of uranium without looking at enrichment”, Howard told ABC TV’s June 3 Insiders program. “There is significant potential for Australia to increase and add value to our uranium extraction and exports”, he repeated on June 6. He also noted that recent developments in global energy markets have renewed international interest in nuclear power as a technology that “can help meet growing demand for electricity without the fuel and environmental costs associated with oil and gas”.

Australian Greens energy and climate change spokesperson Senator Christine Milne said that everything about Howard’s announcement “points to enrichment of uranium as the prime minister’s real agenda ... During his recent visit to the United States, Prime Minister Howard had talks in Washington with President [George] Bush about the president’s desire to set up new nuclear fuel supply centres around the world with a view to having these supply centres enrich uranium and lease it with an agreement to take back the spent fuel rods.”

The Bush administration is pushing a massive expansion of the nuclear power industry as the “best” solution to global warming. Last year, Bush won from the US Congress a host of “incentives” for the nuclear power industry, including tax breaks and insurance against regulatory and legal delays in constructing new plants. On May 22, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that 16 US corporations had expressed interest in building 25 nuclear reactors in the US.

Bush has also proposed that Australia and Canada ­ the world’s major uranium exporting countries ­ join with the US to form a marketing cartel, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). They would enrich the uranium, then “rent” their nuclear fuel rods out to user countries and take back the waste.

According to the June 6 Australian Financial Review, before and during his visit to Washington, Howard was briefed by US officials about the role they expect Australia to play in the GNEP. This would involve “mining and enriching uranium at Olympic Dam in South Australia, exporting it to India and China via the Adelaide-Darwin rail line and re-importing the waste the same way for storage at the former nuclear test site at Maralinga ... The GNEP could create immediate profits for any private firm building an enrichment plant at or near the Olympic Dam uranium mine.”

The Olympic Dam mine, owned and operated by BHP Billiton, holds the world’s largest known uranium ore deposit, with about 66% of Australia’s proven reserves. Under the Bush plan, Maralinga would become the world’s principal site for dumping used nuclear fuel rods.

 July 5, 2006

Aboriginal, environmental alliance against uranium

The Alliance Against Uranium, a network of Aboriginal and environmental organisations which was formed in 1997, declared after a September 2005 meeting in Quorn, South Australia, that current and future generations have a right to a clean environment. Further, it said that Indigenous people have right to “clean water and safe bush tucker, a strong culture and healthy communities and protection for their sacred lands and burial grounds”.

Attendees from the Adnyamathanha, Kokatha Moola, Warlpiri, Anmatyere, Kungarakun and Gurindji nations took part, as well as representatives from Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, the Mineral Policy Institute, the Campaign Against Nuclear Dumping (SA), the Australian Student Environment Network and the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia.

The alliance called on the federal government to “stop forcing nuclear projects on unwilling communities” and affirmed that “consultation and informed group consent is an essential precondition to the consideration of nuclear projects”. Participants also committed themselves to share information, and to build the links to reduce nuclear risks to people and country.

 July 5 2006

Radioactive racism: 'The promises don’t last, but the problems always do’

Jim Green

The military and its civil arms have a history of forcing uranium mines, nuclear reactors, radioactive waste dumps and nuclear weapons tests on Indigenous peoples’ lands. This history of radioactive racism is one of oppression, but also one of struggle and, sometimes, remarkable victories.

From 1952 to 1963 the British government, with the support of the Australian government, conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia and on the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. It is likely that some of the uranium used in the tests in SA came from mines on Aboriginal land. The tests included 12 nuclear bomb tests and a large number of “minor” tests involving radioactive materials. Permission was not sought from the affected Aboriginal communities such as the Pitjantjatjara, Tjarutja and Kokatha.

A major test, named Totem I, was detonated on October 15, 1953 at Emu Field. The blast sent a radioactive cloud ­ which came to be known as the “Black Mist” ­ over 250 kilometres, north-west to Wallatinna and down to Coober Pedy. Totem I is considered to be responsible for a sudden outbreak of sickness and death among Aboriginal communities. The 1985 report of the Royal Commission into the British Atomic Tests in Australia found that this test was fired under wind conditions which would produce unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the firing criteria did not take into account the people at Wallatinna and Melbourne Hill down-wind.

So-called Native Patrol Officers covered thousands of square kilometres before the nuclear tests took place to remove Aboriginal people. But with signs erected only in some places, and written in English, this had little effect.

A number of Aboriginal people were moved from Ooldea to Yalata, a mission station 150 kilometres west of Ceduna, prior to the 1956-57 series of tests at Maralinga. Yalata was outside the tribal lands of the Pitjantjatjara, who comprised the majority of the relocated people. The trauma of forced relocation, combined with the conditions at Yalata, drove many to rebellion, crime, violence and alcohol.

Despite the forced relocation to Yalata, movements by Aboriginal people still took place throughout the Maralinga region during the tests. It was realised only later that a traditional Aboriginal route crossed through the testing range. There are tragic accounts of families sleeping in the bomb craters. For the Aboriginal people who still walked the Western Desert, many living traditionally, radiation exposure caused sickness and death.

In the mid- to late-1990s, the Australian government undertook a clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site. But it was done on the cheap, and even now kilograms of plutonium remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology. As nuclear engineer and Maralinga whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the “clean-up” on ABC radio on August 5, 2002, “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land”.

Despite the residual contamination, the federal government is attempting to off-load responsibility for the clean-up onto the Maralinga Tjarutja, dressing up this self-serving manoeuvre as an act of reconciliation. The real agenda was spelt out in a 1996 government document that stated that the clean-up was “aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination”.

Nuclear dump
In February 1998, the Howard government announced it would build a radioactive waste dump in central South Australia. But a campaign waged by Aboriginal people and their supporters prevented this from happening. The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta ­ a senior Aboriginal council comprising women who suffered the effects of the British nuclear testing program ­ played a leading role, as did the Kokatha and Barngala traditional owners.

Aboriginal people were coerced into signing clearances for the test drilling of short-listed sites for the proposed dump. The federal government made it clear that if these clearances were not granted, the drilling would take place anyway. Aboriginal people were between “a rock and a hard place”, according to Stewart Motha from the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. “If Aboriginal groups do get involved in clearances they face the possibility that the government will point to that involvement as an indication of consent for the project. If they refuse to participate, who will protect Aboriginal heritage, dreaming and sacred sites?”

Aboriginal groups did, reluctantly, engage in surveys that resulted in the signing of so-called Heritage Clearance Agreements. The risk was the federal government would misrepresent those agreements as Aboriginal consent to the construction and operation of the dump, which was what happened.

In 2002, the federal government tried to buy off Aboriginal opposition to the dump. Three native title claimant groups ­ the Kokatha, Kuyani and Barngala ­ were offered $90,000 to surrender their native title rights, but only on condition that all three groups agreed. The Kokatha and Barngala refused, foiling the government’s ploy. Dr. Roger Thomas, a Kokatha elder, said, “Our native title rights are not for sale. We are talking about our culture, our lore and our dreaming. We are talking about our future generations we’re protecting here. We do not have a 'for sale’ sign up and we never will.”

On July 7, 2003, the federal government used the Land Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native Title rights and interests were annulled. This took place without forewarning and with no consultation of Aboriginal people, or the SA government.

On July 14, 2004, the federal government abandoned its plan to build a radioactive waste dump in SA. The campaign victory was also helped by a June 2004 ruling of the full bench of the Federal Court that the government had illegally used the urgency provision of the Land Acquisition Act.

The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta wrote in an open letter: “People said that you can’t win against the Government. Just a few women. We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up. We told Howard you should look after us, not try and kill us ... We always talk straight out. In the end he didn’t have the power, we did.” (Talking Straight Out, a book about the Kungka Tjuta’s campaign, is available via <>.)

New laws
The Howard government is now planning to construct a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. Four sites are being considered: Harts Range and Mt Everard near Alice Springs, Fisher’s Ridge near Katherine and the Muckaty station north of Tennant Creek. None were short-listed when environmental and scientific criteria were used to locate potential dump sites in the 1990s. The government’s failure to get the radioactive waste dump built in SA was in large part due to its heavy-handed, undemocratic and racist handling of the issue. But it doesn’t seem to have learnt from the experience. 

In December 2005, draconian legislation was steamrolled through parliament allowing the government to bypass normal decision-making processes relating to the proposed dump. The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 undermines environmental, public safety and Aboriginal heritage protections. It prevents the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 from having effect during the investigation of the sites, and it excludes the Native Title Act 1993 from operating at all.

A number of Aboriginal groups, including the Central Lands Council, oppose the construction of the dump. Many were incensed by former science minister Brendan Nelson’s repeated claim that the proposed dump sites were “in the middle of nowhere”.

Director of the Central Land Council, David Ross, said on July 15, 2005, “We have all watched the courageous struggle of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjutas to stop this dump being built on their country nearby in SA, and some of those women have recently visited Alice Springs to talk about their experience. It would seem that the Australian government has not learnt anything from the defeat of the waste dump proposal in SA.”

Steven McCormack, a traditional owner who lives near the Mt Everard site, said last November 3: “This land is not empty ­ people live right nearby. We hunt and collect bush tucker here and I am the custodian of a sacred site within the boundaries of the defence land. We don’t want this poison here.”

Racism in the uranium mining industry typically involves ignoring the concerns of traditional owners insofar as the legal and political circumstances permit; using divide-and-rule tactics and bribery; exerting persistent and unwanted pressure on traditional owners until the company gets what it wants; providing traditional owners with false or misleading information; and threats, most commonly legal ones.

Mining company Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and the Howard government were determined to override the opposition of the Mirrar traditional owners to the Jabiluka uranium mine in the NT. But they were defeated after an extraordinary international campaign led by the Mirrar. The Jabiluka mine site has been rehabilitated and the Mirrar has a veto over any future development. However ERA, which operates the Ranger uranium mine near Jabiluka, still hopes to mine the latter at some stage.

In a 2005 submission to a parliamentary uranium inquiry, Yvonne Margarula, senior Mirrar traditional owner, wrote: “Along with other Aboriginal people, the Mirrar opposed uranium mining when the Government approached us in the 1970s. The old people were worried about the damage mining would do to country and the problems that mining would bring for Aboriginal people.

“The Government would not listen and forced the Ranger uranium mine on us, but the old people were right and today we are dealing with everything they were worried about. Uranium mining has completely upturned our lives ­ bringing a town, many non-Aboriginal people, greater access to alcohol and many arguments between Aboriginal people, mostly about money.

“Uranium mining has also taken our country away from us and destroyed it ­ billabongs and creeks are gone forever, there are hills of poisonous rock and great holes in the ground with poisonous mud where there used to be nothing but bush.

“Mining and the millions of dollars in royalties have not improved our quality of life ... None of the promises last but the problems always do.”

Heathgate Resources, owned by General Atomics, succeeded in imposing the Beverley uranium mine on the Adnyamathanha people in north-east SA in the late 1990s. The company negotiated with a small number of Native Title claimants, but did not recognise the will of the community as a whole. This divide-and-rule strategy, coupled with the joint might of industry and government, resulted in inadequate and selective consultation with the Adnyamathanha people. 

In May 2000, South Australian STAR force police responded brutally to a peaceful protest at the Beverley mine site, and used pepper spray on an 11-year-old Adnyamathanha girl.

Adnyamathanha woman Jillian Marsh wrote in a submission to a 2002-03 Senate inquiry: “Initial negotiation was misrepresentative, ill-informed, and designed to divide and disempower the Adnyamathanha community ... The resulting meeting was held under appalling conditions. The company [Heathgate Resources] censored the entire meeting with the assistance of [a Liberal member of the SA Parliament] and the State Police. One Adnyamathanha man ... [who] asked for an independent facilitator .......