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A journey to the heart of the anti-nuclear resistance in Australia: Radioactive Exposure Tour 2018

NUCLEAR  MONITOR  – A PUBLICATION OF WORLD INFORMATION SERVICE ON ENERGY (WISE)   AND THE NUCLEAR INFORMATION & RESOURCE SERVICE (NIRS  Author: Ray Acheson ‒ Director, Reaching Critical Will, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom)   NM859.4719, May 2018 

Looking at a map of South Australia’s nuclear landscape, the land is scarred. Uranium mines and weapon test sites, coupled with indications of where the government is currently proposing to site nuclear waste dumps, leave their marks across the desert. But amidst the devastation these poisonous activities have left on the land and its people, there is fierce resistance and boundless hope.

Friends of the Earth Australia has been running Radioactive Exposure Tours for the past thirty years.Designed to bring people from around Australia to meet local activists at various nuclear sites, the Rad Tour provides a unique opportunity to learn about the land, the people, and the nuclear industry in the most up-front and personal way.

This year’s tour featured visits to uranium mines, bomb test legacy sites, and proposed radioactive waste dumps on Arabunna, Adnyamathanha, and Kokatha land in South Australia, and introduced urban-based activists to those directly confronting the nuclear industry out in country. It brought together about 30 people including campaigners from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Reaching Critical Will, environmental activists with Friends of the Earth Australia and other organisations, and interested students and others looking to learn about the land, the people, and the industries operating out in the desert.

The journey of ten days takes us to many places and introduces us to many people, but can be loosely grouped into three tragic themes: bombing, mining, and dumping.  Each of these aspects of the nuclear chain is stained with racism, militarism, and capitalism. Each represents a piece of a dirty, dangerous, but ultimately dying nuclear industry. And each has been and continues to be met with fierce resistance from local communities, including Traditional Owners of the land.

Testing the bomb   The first two days of the trip are spent driving from  Melbourne to Adelaide to Port Augusta. We pick up activists along the way, before finally heading out to the desert. Our first big stop on the Tour is a confrontation  with the atomic bomb.

The UK government conducted twelve nuclear weapon

tests in Australia.1 Nine took place in South Australia, at

Emu Field and Maralinga. All of the tests used plutonium ‒ some of which may have been produced from uranium

mined at Radium Hill in South Australia. The UK and

Australia also conducted hundreds of so-called ‘minor

trials’ to test the effects of fire and non-nuclear explosions

on atomic bombs, which spread plutonium far and wide.

One of the tests at Emu Field in 1953 resulted in a

radioactive cloud spreading over 250 kilometres northwest

of the test site. This “Black Mist” is held responsible for a

sudden outbreak of sickness and death amongst Aboriginal

communities.2 A Royal Commission in 1983–1984 found

that the test had been conducted under wind conditions

known to produce “unacceptable levels” of fallout and did

not take into account the existence of people down wind

of the test site. The Commission reported that regard

for Aboriginal safety was characterised by “ignorance,

incompetence and cynicism”.3

The government has so far conducted four “clean ups”

of Maralinga over the years.4 Each one finds that the

previous effort was insufficient. The latest “clean up”

in the mid-1990s found plutonium buried in shallow,

unlined pits ‒ and much of that plutonium remains in

that condition today. Nuclear engineer and whistleblower

Alan Parkinson told the ABC: “What was done at

Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t

be adopted on white-fellas land.”

While our Tour didn’t take us to the Emu Field or

Maralinga sites this time, we did visit people and lands

affected by the testing in Woomera, a small town about

450 km north of Adelaide. Established as a base for a

missile and rocket testing program, it is full of the ghosts

of both people and weapons.

On our first night at Woomera we were joined by Avon

Hudson, a nuclear weapon test whistleblower who as a

Royal Australian Air Force serviceperson was assigned

to work at Maralinga during the time of the ‘minor trials’.

Avon gave testimony to the Royal Commission

investigating UK nuclear weapon testing in the 1980s

after disclosing classified information to the media starting

in the 1970s. His stories, told to us around the campfire

and while visiting various sites in Woomera, were full of

pain. He described how those serving in the Australian

military were not given information or protection against

the nuclear tests, how the radioactive fallout affected

Aboriginal and other local communities, and how the

radioactive racism by the government continues to leave

a lasting mark on current and future generations.

We visited the Woomera Cemetery, where a disturbing

number of babies and children are buried. Journalist Bryan

Littlely notes that the cemetery “contains 23 graves for

stillborn babies born in the hospital between December

1953 and September 1968, and a further 46 graves for other

children who died around that period.”6 While there has

not yet been enough research to definitely prove a causal

link between the weapons testing and the high numbers of

stillbirths and early childhood deaths in the region, more

than 100 South Australians joined a class action lawsuit

against the British Ministry of Defense in 2010, demanding

answers to the cause of death of their babies.7 However,

“the case was not allowed to proceed8 because it was

deemed impossible to prove radiation caused their illness

While it has so far escaped having to answer for the

deaths in Woomera, the UK government did pay A$13.5 million in compensation to the Maralinga Tjarutja

Traditional Owners in 1995. But other known victims of

British testing, including members of the Kupa Piti Kungka

Tjuta, have not been compensated.

Responding to the UK court’s decision against the

survivors, then Greens Senator Scott Ludlam wrote in

a letter to the UK parliament in 2013: “Of the British and

Australian veterans who were involved in the testing,

and the Aboriginal people in the area at the time of the

blasts, only 29 Aboriginal people have ever received

compensation from the Australian Government and

veterans continue to struggle to obtain the medical

support they need despite experiencing unusually high

rates of cancer and other ill effects associated with

exposure to radiation.”9

One of those who never received compensation or an

apology was Yami Lester, Yunkunytjatjara elder and activist,

who was blinded by the Emu Field nuclear weapon test in

1953 when he was ten years old. He was a key player in the

Royal Commission, and went on to be a powerful advocate

for land rights and against nuclear waste dumps. We didn’t

get to meet Yami on this Tour, because he passed away in

July 2017, just two weeks after the United Nations adopted

the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.10

Yami’s daughters Karina and Rose Lester played an

important role in raising support for the Treaty in Australia

and participating in its negotiation in New York. Working

with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear

Weapons (ICAN), Karina delivered a statement on behalf

of more than 30 indigenous groups from around the world

at the negotiations, successfully advocating for provisions

on victim assistance and environmental remediation, as

well as a recognition of the disproportionate impact of

nuclear weapons on indigenous populations.

Several of us from ICAN, the civil society coalition that

advocated for years for the nuclear ban treaty, were on

this year’s Rad Tour. We joined to connect with and learn

from those resisting other pieces of the chain of nuclear

violence, and to sit on country that has been so harmed

time and again.

Digging up the poison

After two days of learning about the effects of British

atomic testing and visiting disturbing sites in Woomera,

we headed further into the radioactive nightmare to visit

a quintessential site related to the starting point of the

nuclear violence chain: the Olympic Dam uranium mine

near Roxby Downs.11

As of April 2018, two uranium mines are operating in South

Australia: Olympic Dam and Beverley Four Mile. These

mines produced and exported 5,493 tonnes of uranium

oxide in 2016 ‒ 63% of Australia’s total production that

year.12 The only other operating uranium mine in Australia

is Ranger in the Northern Territory, where mining has

ceased but stockpiled ore is being processed until the

mine’s final closure a few years from now.

After days spent camping on the red earth of this region,

it was devastating to see the massive Olympic Dam mine

displacing the ground, burrowing into it with machines and

metal, bringing poison up from the depths. We went on a

tour conducted by BHP, the mine’s operator. We were not

allowed to take photos, or leave the vehicle we were on.

In addition to the uranium ore, Olympic Dam has

generated over 150 million tonnes of uranium tailings

‒ radioactive sludge that is left over after extracting the

uranium-bearing minerals from the ore. Friends of the

Earth describes it as a “toxic, acidic soup of radionuclides

and heavy metals.”13 The tailings, and the processes

used in extraction, risk the safety of workers and local

communities. In the mid-1990s it was revealed that about

three billion litres had seeped from the tailings dams

over two years.14 Between 2003 and 2012, BHP reported

31 radiation leaks at the mine. On our tour, we were not

permitted to see the tailings dams.

The mine is also a drain on natural resources. It uses around

37 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin every

single day. This is the largest and deepest artesian basin ‒ a

confined aquifer containing groundwater ‒ in the world. It

provides the only source of fresh water through much of

inland Australia

. The government and various industries use it, but Olympic Dam has been increasing its use since its

founding. While the BHP tour guides showing us around the

mine assure us that they are responsibly using the water and

that it can continue to rely on the basin for at least the next

85 years of the mine’s anticipated lifespan, environmental

activists have serious and legitimate questions about the

sustainability of this level of water usage.15

After our trip to the mine, we visited the Mound Springs

near Lake Eyre, in Arabunna country. These are natural

springs sustained by the underlying Great Artesian Basin.

We were accompanied by Kokatha Traditional Owner

Glen Wingfield, who, while not Arabunna, has spent his

life visiting the springs. He lamented the depletion of the

springs, explaining that it gets sadder to visit each time

because the water levels are down more and more each

and every time. Studies have shown that the pressure in

the Great Artesian Basin has declined due to increased

extraction.16 As the water table drops, springs have started

drying up across South Australia as well as Queensland.

Uranium mining companies, and federal and state

governments, typically ignore the concerns of Traditional

Owners, use divide-and-rule tactics to split local

communities, provide false or misleading information, and

even use legal threats ‒ all to ensure that the uranium

industry gets its way. When it comes to Olympic Dam, this

racism is enshrined in legislation. WMC Resources Limited,

which started the uranium mine, was granted legal privileges

under the South Australian Roxby Downs Indenture Act.

This legislation overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the

Environment Protect Act, the Water Resources Act, and the

Freedom of Information Act.17 The current mine owner, BHP,

has refused to relinquish these legal privileges.

The problems of uranium mining, however, are not just

local. Australia’s uranium is exported around the world.

It was in the Fukushima reactors that suffered a meltdown

in 2011. It is converted into high-level nuclear waste in power reactors across the globe. Australia’s uranium exports have produced over 176 tonnes of plutonium ‒

enough to build over 17,600 nuclear weapons.

On the tour of Olympic Dam, it wasn’t clear the BHP

guides knew where their uranium was going. “Europe,”

said one. “I think maybe China,” said another. It’s a sad

fact that BHP’s customers include nuclear weapons states

as well as countries refusing to sign the Comprehensive

Test Ban Treaty or the Treaty on the Prohibition of

Nuclear Weapons.

Aboriginal communities and environmental activists

have long resisted the mine, from before it was even

constructed. The night after we visited Olympic Dam, Glen

Wingfield told us about his family’s consistent activism

against the mine ‒ as well as his brief time spent working

there. Conditions at the mine were awful for workers,

he argues, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The

Traditional Owners were not consulted before the mine’s

construction, and have fiercely opposed it. They have been

joined by others concerned about the mine’s environmental

impacts. In 2016, the Desert Liberation Front organised a

“party at the gates of hell,” following a protest in 2012 that

saw hundreds travel from around the country to shut down

the main road into the mine for four hours.18 Protests have

also been held outside BHP’s Melbourne headquarters,

and resource and environment ministers’ offices.19

years, opposition to its operation will continue. And while

that opposition has not yet seen the closure of the mine, it

likely did play a role in BHP’s decision not to go ahead with

its planned mega-expansion of the mine in 2012. For now,

at least, the gates of hell have not been enlarged.

Dumping radioactive waste

From the gates of hell we travelled to what might be

described as the gates of paradise. For now.

The federal government of Australia wants to build

a facility to store and dispose of radioactive waste in South Australia, either at Wallerberdina Station near

Hawker or on farming land in Kimba.20 Wallerberdina

Station is located in the Flinders Ranges, the largest

mountain range in South Australia, 540 million years old.

Approaching from the north on our drive down from Lake

Eyre can only be described as breathtaking. The red

dirt, the brown and green bush, and the ever-changing

purples, blues, and reds of the mountains themselves are

some of the most complex and stunning scenes one can

likely see in the world.

Most people might find it shocking that the federal

government would want to put a nuclear waste dump

smack in the middle of this landscape. But after visiting

other sites on the Rad Tour, it was only yet another

disappointment ‒ and another point of resistance.

What is known is that the Wallerberdina site is of great

cultural, historical, and spiritual significance to the

Adnyamathanha people.21 It borders the Yappala Indigenous

Protected Area, which is a crucial location for biodiversity

in the Flinders Ranges. Its unique ecosystem provides a

refuge for many native species of flora and fauna, contains

many archaeological sites as well as the first registered

Aboriginal Songline of its type in Australia, and is home to

Pungka Pudanha, a natural spring and sacred woman’s site.

In case that isn’t enough, the area is a known floodplain. Our

travels around the proposed site contained ample evidence

of previous floods that sent massive trees rushing down the

plain, smashing into each other and into various bridges and

other built objects. The last big flood occurred in 2006.

The Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners were

not consulted before their land was nominated for

consideration by the government for the waste dump.

“Through this area are registered cultural heritage sites

and places of huge importance to our family, our history and our future,” wrote Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners

in a 2015 statement.22 “We don’t want a nuclear waste

dump here on our country and worry that if the waste

comes here it will harm our environment and muda

(our lore, our creation, our everything).”

We met Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners Vivianne and

Regina McKenzie, and Tony Clark, at the proposed site.

They invited us into the Yappala Indigenous Protected

Area to view the floodplains and swim in the beautiful

Pungka Pudanha. We’d just been camping at Wilpena

Pound in the Flinders Ranges National Park only a

few kilometres away. It is impossible to understand the

government’s rationale for wanting to build a toxic waste

dump on this land so cherished by its Traditional Owners,

local communities, and tourists alike.

The McKenzies have been working tirelessly to prevent

the proposed dump from being established, as have other

local activists. Fortunately, they have some serious recent

successes to inspire them.

In 2015, the federal government announced a plan to import

138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste from around the

world to South Australia as a commercial enterprise. But

Traditional Owners began protesting immediately, arguing

that the so-called consultations were not accessible and

that misinformation was rife.23 In 2016, a Citizen’s Jury,

established by then Premier Jay Weatherill and made up

of 350 people, deliberated over evidence and information.

In November that year, two-thirds of the Jury rejected

“under any circumstances” the plan to import or store

high-level waste.24 They cited lack of Aboriginal consent,

unsubstantiated economic assumptions and projections, and

lack of confidence in the governmental proposal’s validity.

Other battles against proposed nuclear waste dumps have

been fought and won in South Australia. From 1998 to 2004,

the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal

women from northern South Australia, successfully

campaigned against a proposed national nuclear waste

dump near Woomera.25 In an open letter in 2004, the

Kungkas wrote: “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.”26

Connected communities

The attempts by the Australian government and the

nuclear industry to impose a waste dump in the Flinders

Ranges, just like their attempts to impose waste dumps

and uranium mines elsewhere in the country, or their

refusal to compensate victims and survivors of nuclear

testing, are all mired with racism. They are rooted in

a fundamental dismissal and devaluation of the lives

and experiences of indigenous Australians, and of proximity to cities but more importantly, to power.

The industry and government’s motivations for imposing

nuclear violence on these people and this land are

militarism and capitalism. Profit over people. Weapons

over wellbeing. Their capacity for compassion and duty of

care has been constrained by chronic short-termism ‒ a

total failure to protect future generations. The poison they

pull out of the earth, process, sell, allow others to make

bombs with, and bury back in the earth, wounds us all

now and into the future.

But nuclear weapons are now prohibited under

international law. New actors are challenging the

possession of nuclear weapons in new ways, and nucleararmed

states are facing a challenge like never before.

The nuclear energy industry ‒ and thus the demand for

uranium ‒ is declining. Power plants are being shuttered;

corporations are facing financial troubles. Dirty and

dangerous, the nuclear industry is dying.

This is in no small part due to the

relentless resistance against it.

This resistance was fierce throughout all of the country

we visited, from Woomera up to Lake Eyre, from Roxby

Downs to the Flinders Ranges. We listened to stories

of those living on this land, we heard their histories,

witnessed their actions, and supported their plans.

And, we were able to share something special

with many of them: ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Awarded in 2017, the Prize recognizes ICAN’s efforts to

highlight the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons

and to work with governments to negotiate and adopt the

nuclear weapon ban treaty. But the Prize is not just for those

advocates directly involved in that aspect of the campaign’s

work. It’s a recognition of all the efforts of anti-nuclear

activists through the long history of the atomic age, activists

who have put their bodies on the line in defence of the earth

and human health, in protection of our planet, in opposition

to governments that pull poison out of the ground and drop it

on human beings and animals around the world.

Sharing the Nobel Prize with the resisters in South

Australia was a deep joy. It seemed to bring inspiration

and invigoration to many who have fought for so long

against impossible odds in difficult places against

powerful corporations and governments. It was a

humbling reminder of the collective effort of all our

advocacy and activism across time and space. We’re

all connected, and we cannot do this alone. Movements

are made of people, reaching out across borders, across

struggles, to cultivate solidarity and strength in one

another. Resistance is fertile.

Information on previous Rad Tours is posted at


May 12, 2018 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA, opposition to nuclear

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