One Step in a Chain Reaction: how a Grassroots movement stopped nuclear in Australia

Australia would look very different if it wasn’t for sustained intergenerational effort to resist the nuclear option. In the country that is home to around 35 per cent of the world’s uranium—the basic fuel for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons—it is a tribute to the protest movements of recent decades that the landscape is not littered with legacy and operating uranium mines, or with multiple sacrifice zones of nuclear processing, waste and weapons sites. In one of the most urbanised nations on Earth, it is tribute to resistance that we are not dependent on nuclear reactors for hot showers and cool drinks.

Our land does contain failed and failing uranium mines, warehoused radioactive waste and continued contamination at nuclear test sites, but the scale is far less than it would have been if the atomic agenda pushed and promoted by nuclear proponents had succeeded. And we have also dodged the worst bullet—nuclear weapons—along with commercial nuclear power reactors and the hosting of high-level international radioactive waste. However, powerful political, corporate and media interests are now joining forces with international actors and influences to prosecute a vision of an Australia that is fully integrated into a civil and military nuclear platform.

The nuclear story starts with uranium, the radioactive rock that fuels the fire. Described variously as a Midas mineral and a metal of menace, uranium is plentiful and mining has been and remains a clash point. Enthusiasts in the Australian resources sector have spoken of Australia as the ‘Saudi Arabia of nuclear’ and boasted of a sector akin to ‘iron ore on steroids’. However, the industry has never come close to delivering on the dreams of its promoters. This can be seen in the hard metrics of tonnage, jobs and dollars. It is also reflected in other ways, including the plaintive title of the Mineral Council of Australia’s advocacy pack (‘Untapped Potential’) and the vitriol directed at anti-nuclear perspectives.

Industry advocates have enjoyed high levels of inside-track political preferencing and administrative fast-tracking, with ‘streamlined’ approvals processes, significant subsidies and rebates and exemptions from legal and reporting requirements. But even as a beneficiary of disproportionate political and media support the uranium sector has been flatlining.

The modern era of uranium mining is well into its autumn. Australia’s longest-running uranium mine, Rio Tinto/ERA’s controversial Ranger mine in Kakadu, ceased commercial operations in January 2021. Attention there has moved from extraction to remediation, with the site the focus of the most complex and costly mine rehabilitation in Australia’s history, its price tag currently hovering north of AU $2 billion. Uranium’s long tail can also be seen in problems at other former mine sites, including Nabarlek in West Arnhem Land and Mary Kathleen in western Queensland. Rum Jungle, another former Rio Tinto group operation near Batchelor in the Northern Territory, continues to pose a direct environmental threat to the Finniss River decades after closure. The most recent federal budget allocated a further round of (non-disclosed) public funding to assist with another repair effort there. The allocation was recorded as nfp—not for publication (some have suggested noxious forever poison would be more apt). Nuclear-free groups have welcomed this along with a further allocation for continued remediation works at the former Maralinga nuclear test site, but have raised concerns over cost-shifting from private companies to the public purse.

The heavy lifter in the uranium sector is BHP and its massive Olympic Dam copper-uranium-gold project in northern South Australia. The world’s largest miner is also one of the world’s largest industrial users of underground water, with a license to consume over forty million litres a day—without charge—in the driest state of the driest continent. Increasingly aware of sustained Aboriginal and growing community concern over its water use, BHP is exploring new desalination supply options, as well as moving to consolidate its control of the region and dominance of the copper market with a takeover of OZ Minerals.

Australia’s newest uranium entrant brings with it some of the worst of the sector. Deep Yellow is a junior miner with a limited capacity which likes to make big claims. Last year it took control of the Mulga Rock project east of Kalgoorlie. This project, fast-tracked by the former Barnett state government, is the only one that could advance to commercial production in Western Australia. The Deep Yellow management team is cause for special concern. CEO John Borshoff, who described Fukushima as a ‘sideshow’ and has bemoaned the Australian community’s ‘over-sophistication’ around uranium issues, has a history of over-promising and under-performing in uranium operations in Malawi, and particularly in Namibia, while Chairman Chris Salisbury was the head of Rio Tinto Iron Ore at the time of the Juukan Gorge destruction. Environmentalists and the local Upurli Upurli Native Title claimants have been sounding the alarm about Deep Yellow’s capacity and credibility and the risks the planned mine poses, including to the endangered sandhill dunnart.

All of Australia’s uranium is exported, and increasingly to risky regions with low transparency and poor governance, including the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and India, and to the nuclear weapons states, all of which are in breach of their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty disarmament obligations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has also confirmed that Australian uranium directly fuelled Fukushima and was the fuel in the reactor complex at the time of the 2011 meltdowns. Later this year Japan intends to begin a decades-long plan to discharge contaminated Fukushima wastewater directly into the Pacific. What began as radioactive rocks in the back of big yellow trucks in Australia is intended to end up as a liquid threat to the ecology and culture of the Pacific.

All uranium becomes radioactive waste, and opposing politically driven short-term waste dump schemes has been a successful staple of Australian radioactive resistance. Radioactive waste management is a growing and unresolved global challenge. The nuclear industry has been storing nuclear waste for over seven decades, but there remains no assured way to isolate such waste from people or the planet for the extensive time periods during which they remain a hazard.

Finland is arguably the most advanced nation regarding nuclear waste, with its Onkalo underground high-level waste disposal facility. Onkalo means cavity, and advancing this one has cost more money, time and political capital than most nations either have or would ever be prepared to commit. Further, on paper the facility is already full—before it has even accepted its first waste consignment.

For nuclear utility executives sitting in Europe, Tokyo, Seoul and elsewhere, Australia appears to be a good waste disposal option: a big country, a long way away with politically stable government, a small population, a toe already in the cooling water via uranium exports, and dry and old ground and rock. There have been several serious pushes to locate international high-level radioactive waste in Australia. A consortium of mainly European radioactive waste-makers and managers called Pangea Resources was sniffing around WA’s Officer and Savory basin regions in the 1990s before environmentalists blew their cover and scuttled the plan. More recently, former South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill flirted with the prospect of hosting high-level international waste. This move was supported by an SA Royal Commission chaired by former governor and nuclear proponent Kevin Scarce. Raised in the rocket-testing outback town of Woomera against the shadow of British nuclear tests, and having cut his teeth in the Royal Australian Navy and polished them in Washington, this former Rear Admiral is part of a connected fraternity of nuclear promoters.

Both these waste pushes failed, in large part because of sustained community opposition spearheaded by First Nations concerns and voices, including from the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance. These successful rebuffs were hard won and are a credit to those who acted, but as with radioactive waste itself, the idea of an eternal nuclear waste sacrifice zone in Australia remains undead. It is not just democracy that requires eternal vigilance.

Now the federal government is circling to have a fresh go at a very tired waste plan. In the early 1990s the aptly named DOPIE—the Department of Primary Industries and Energy—decided a remote or regional co-located facility would be the best way to manage Australia’s radioactive waste. Low-level wastes that need isolation for 300 years would be drummed, interred and left in a disposal facility. Next door, intermediate-level waste requiring isolation for up to 10,000 years would be containerised and stored above ground pending a decision about future underground burial. In the thirty years since this approach was first suggested, it is the only one that has been maintained by successive federal governments.

Radioactive waste management has become a calcified policy zone. The co-location approach is one way to manage waste, but it is only one, and arguably far from the best one. Over decades, however, this approach has solidified into an article of faith. There has never been a wider options assessment or review, and alternative policy approaches and processes have not been explored. In a manner reminiscent of ‘Sydney or the Bush’, Australia’s approach to radioactive waste management has simply been the search for a vulnerable, compliant or politically expedient postcode.

This approach has seen multiple fights at multiple sites, mainly in northern South Australia and the Northern Territory. The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta and community resistance in Alice Springs, Katherine and Muckaty near Tennant Creek are all deserving of greater public recognition and acknowledgement. These David v Goliath battles have shown the power of sustained community collaboration and campaigning.

The list of federal ministers who have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and effectiveness, pursued this single-minded approach is long and includes Julie Bishop, Peter McGauran, Nick Minchin, Brendan Nelson, Martin Ferguson, Gary Gray, Ian Macfarlane, Keith Pitt and Matt Canavan. They have all disappeared from politics or the portfolio, but the waste remains—that is, 95 per cent of both intermediate-level waste and low-level waste at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Lucas Heights facility in southern Sydney.

The current Minister for Resources, Madeleine King, is now advancing a deeply flawed version of this plan, inherited from the former Morrison government, that would see waste sited at Kimba on SA’s Eyre Peninsula. The Barngarla people are among the fiercest critics of the waste plan. Explicitly excluded under a Canavan-Pitt ‘community ballot’ process, the area’s Native Title holders and custodians are strongly opposed to both the plan and the highly curated process used to advance it. They are taking legal action in the Federal Court to contest the siting decision, and also taking action in the court of public appeal to grow support for their efforts. And their call is being heard. SA Premier Peter Malinauskas has supported a Barngarla veto right on the waste plan, while last October’s SA Labor convention condemned the federal move as ‘undermining reconciliation’. These concerns have been joined with others from Unions SA, national and state environment and civil society groups, Kimba and wider Eyre Peninsula grain producers, and many in the wider SA community who have never been given a say. Like a First World War general ordering an uphill advance in the rain and expecting things to be different this time, King is on a collision course with Country.

Radioactive waste is looming as a key test of Labor’s welcome commitment to First Nations respect and recognition. Against a policy backdrop of a Voice to Parliament and the Statement from the Heart, the Barngarla and their supporters are asking Labor if they are really going to advance a project in which the Aboriginal voice has been marginalised and the action would be heart-breaking.

Against Australia’s recent years of fire, flood and climate chickens coming home to roost there has been increased talk of domestic nuclear power. These conversations have been mirrored globally against the backdrop of European energy dependence highlighted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here the depleted federal Coalition appears intent on reanimating the culture wars around energy options and futures under the banner of a ‘conversation’ on nuclear power. The call is odd given that recent years have seen nuclear inquires in the federal, Victorian and New South Wales Parliaments, a South Australian Royal Commission, multiple symposiums and conferences and well-funded industry advertising and promotional campaigns.

For the Coalition, however, embracing ‘conceptual nuclear’ provides a way to link techno-enthusiast Liberals with renewables-belittling Nationals, all under a ‘business pretty much as usual’ umbrella. Nuclear proponents don’t really want a conversation; they want either an inside-track outcome for their preferred energy option or a handbrake on effective climate action. In a contortion worthy of a yogi, veteran climate sceptics and deniers are lining up like planes over Sydney to talk about the need for a low carbon future via nuclear power. At the same time, key voices urging nuclear, including Matt ‘Black Coal Matters’ Canavan, are also pushing for an expansion of Australia’s fossil footprint. Now they are seeking the removal of prudent prohibitions on domestic nuclear use that were introduced by the Howard government. Both federal environment laws and nuclear safety laws have explicit nuclear prohibitions, and these are clear targets for those advancing an atomic agenda. They are certainly attempting to harness the cash and connections created by the planned AUKUS nuclear submarine deal to prise open the domestic door. This policy agenda has been steadily advanced over the last decade and is explicitly laid out in the 2020 publication An Australian Nuclear Industry—Starting with Submarines?, the proceedings of a conference hosted by the Submarine Institute of Australia and the University of NSW in Canberra.

Interestingly the pro-nuclear push is not seeking to construct any of the reactor types that exist and generate commercial electricity elsewhere in the world today. These are increasingly being seen as high-cost, high-risk options because they are slow to deploy, lack social license and according to a range of metrics are routinely outclassed by renewables. Instead, the new crop of nuclear voices is pinning its hopes—and our energy future—on the nuclear unicorn option: ‘new generation’ and small modular reactors (SMRs).

The fundamental flaw here is that SMRs are neither a commercial nor a deployed technology. They have been very good at generating column inches in a largely uncritical media but spectacularly unsuccessful in generating electricity. If adjectives heated the water we might have some evidence, but they don’t, and we can’t afford to waste precious time on false or ineffective climate responses. And we really do not have time to waste. The Doomsday Clock, a measure of humanity’s proximity to extinction, is now set at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been, including during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The combined threats of unchecked climate change and nuclear war—one of which is eroding our chances every day, the other of which could end them in a day—need urgent action, and going nuclear is no solution to either threat.

Along with keeping most of Australia’s uranium in the ground, halting irresponsible waste dumping and stopping reactors, one of the most powerful outcomes of Australia’s nuclear-free movement has been to create a pathway to contest, constrain and cancel nuclear weapons. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was launched in Melbourne in 2007. ICAN had a clear focus on making nuclear weapons illegal as a first step towards making their possession or threat untenable.

In September 2017 the United Nations adopted the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and later that year ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work ‘to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons’ and its ‘ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons’. The TPNW formally entered into force in January 2021, and now for the first time in history nuclear weapons are illegal under international humanitarian law. In opposition, federal Labor committed to advancing its signature and ratification, and in government it has taken modest but real steps forward.

Susan Templeman swapped the Blue Mountains for the Blue Danube to observe the first meeting of TPNW parties in Vienna in June 2022. In October, Australia abstained from an annual UN General Assembly resolution that welcomes the addition of the TPNW and calls upon all states to sign, ratify or accede to it ‘at the earliest possible date’. This formally ended five years of Australian opposition to the treaty. Recent FoI documents have revealed that both these actions were taken by Foreign Minister Penny Wong despite anti-treaty advice from DFAT. While abstaining is a considerable distance from actively supporting, the first step in getting something right is to stop getting it wrong, and the arc of Albanese government’s positioning is generally positive.

Now is the time to make this treaty real and give it life at home. As Australia considers nuclear-powered submarines and the deployment of USAF B52s at RAAF Tindel in the Northern Territory, the reality and the optics of the TPNW are increasingly important. Signing the treaty would send a signal from Baltimore to Birdsville and on to Beijing that Australia does not harbour nuclear weapons ambitions. Such a move would help lower regional tensions and temperatures. The TPNW also has positive obligations that would help address long-overdue environmental remediation and cultural and human health concerns in First Nations Australia and throughout the Pacific.

Australia’s nuclear-free movement shares common threads with Swift’s Gulliver principle. It is comprised of many strands, stories and struggles, none of which, alone, are sufficient. But when braided together these form ropes of resistance and strings of solidarity that continue to tie down the nuclear giant and provide us with the space and opportunity to construct a different—and vastly safer—future.

Nuclear After-Life: From tragedy to farce, the claims of a nuclear renaissance

Darrin Durant, Mar 2023

Non-hydro renewables have now overtaken nuclear power, with wind and solar alone reaching 10.2 per cent of global gross power generation in 2021.

About the author

Dave Sweeney

Dave Sweeney has been active in mining, resource and nuclear issues for four decades through his work with the media, trade unions and environment groups. He leads the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaign and is a co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

More articles by Dave Sweeney

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #13


Comments closed

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.