Radioactive Racism in Australia - 2006 article
May 2006 article published in Chain Reaction #98 (magazine of FoE Australia)
The nuclear industry feeds off, profits from, and reinforces racism. Both the military and civil arms of the industry have a long history of forcing uranium mines, nuclear reactors, radioactive waste dumps, and nuclear weapons tests on the lands of Indigenous people.
The history of radioactive racism is one of oppression, but also one of struggle and, sometimes, remarkable victories.
The British bomb tests
From 1952 to 1963, a series of nuclear weapons tests took place 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 weapons tests in SA came from mines on Aboriginal land in SA.
The tests, carried out by the British government with the full support of the Australian government, included 12 nuclear bomb tests and a large number of 'minor' tests involving radioactive materials.
Permission was not sought for the tests from affected Aboriginal groups such as the Pitjantjatjara, Tjarutja and Kokatha.
A major test named Totem 1 was detonated on October 15th, 1953 at Emu Field. The blast sent a radioactive cloud – which came to be known as the Black Mist – over 250 kms northwest to Wallatinna and down to Coober Pedy. The Totem I test is held responsible for a sudden outbreak of sickness and death experienced by Aboriginal communities.
The 1985 report of the Royal Commission into the British Atomic Tests in Australia found that the Totem 1 test was fired under wind conditions which a study had shown would produce unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the firing criteria did not take into account the existence of people at Wallatinna and Melbourne Hill down wind of the test site.
So-called "Native Patrol Officers" patrolled thousands of square kilometres of land to try to ensure that Aboriginal people were removed before nuclear tests took place. Signs were erected in some places – written in English, which few of the effected Aborigines could understand.
A number of Aboriginal people were moved from Ooldea to Yalata, a mission station 150 kms 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 occurred throughout the Maralinga region at the time of the tests. It was later realised that a traditional Aboriginal route crossed through the testing range. For the Aboriginal people who still walked the Western Desert, many living traditionally, radiation exposure caused sickness and death. There are tragic accounts of families sleeping in the bomb craters.
In the mid- to late-1990s, the Australian government carried out a clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site. 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 land onto the Maralinga Tjarutja and the government is dressing-up this self-serving manoeuvre as an act of reconciliation. The real agenda was spelt out clearly in a 1996 government document which states that the clean-up was "aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination."
Talking straight out
'Same Country. Same People. Same Poison. Enough is Enough.'
In February 1998, the federal government announced its intention to build a national radioactive waste dump in central South Australia.
One of the patterns of radioactive racism is that Indigenous communities are divided, dislocated and disempowered, and thus all the more vulnerable to the next assault from the nuclear industry. The victory in the campaign to prevent the imposition of a nuclear waste dump in SA was an exception to the general pattern.
The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – a senior Aboriginal women's council, comprising women who suffered the effects of the British nuclear testing program – played a leading role in the campaign against the dump, as did the Kokatha and Barngala Traditional Owners.
Aboriginal people were coerced into signing clearances for test drilling of short-listed sites for the proposed dump. The federal government made it clear that if clearances for test drilling were not granted by Aboriginal groups, 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 resulting in the signing of so-called Heritage Clearance Agreements. One risk was that those agreements would be misrepresented by the federal government as amounting to Aboriginal consent to the construction and operation of the dump. That risk was in fact realised.
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 the condition that all three groups agreed. The Kokatha and Barngala refused, so the government's ploy failed. 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 Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native Title rights and interests were annulled. This took place with no forewarning and no consultation with Aboriginal people or the South Australian government.
On July 14, 2004, the federal government abandoned the plan to build a radioactive waste dump in SA. The decision reflected the strength and persistence of the campaign against the dump. The victory was also helped by the ruling of the full bench of the Federal Court in June 2004 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. Straight out. We always talk straight out. In the end he didn't have the power, we did."
Dumping on Northern Territorians
The Howard government's plan to dump nuclear waste on Aboriginal land in SA was defeated. But now the government is attempting to impose a nuclear waste dump on the Northern Territory.
Three sites are being considered – Hart's Range and Mt Everard near Alice Springs, and Fisher's Ridge near Katherine. None of these sites was short-listed when environmental and scientific criteria were used to locate potential dump sites in the 1990s.
The federal government failed in its attempt to dump radioactive waste in SA in large part because of its heavy-handed, undemocratic and racist handling of the issue. But the government appears to have drawn the opposite conclusion. It now wants to impose a nuclear waste dump on the NT and is behaving in a still more thuggish manner than it did in SA.
Draconian legislation was passed through the federal parliament in December 2005 to by-pass normal decision-making processes in relation to the proposed dump. This legislation – 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 investigation of the sites, and it excludes the Native Title Act 1993 from operating at all.
The proposed dump is opposed by a number of Aboriginal groups including the Central Lands Council. Many were incensed by federal science minister Brendan Nelson, who repeatedly said that the proposed dump sites were "in the middle of nowhere".
Canberra foists nuclear waste on Aboriginal communities
Central Lands Council, July 15, 2005
The Director of the Central Land Council, Mr David Ross said today that there had been no approach from the Federal Government about a locating a nuclear waste dump in Central Australia.
"I think people in Canberra just looked at a map and thought it looked remote and empty.
"However, the two proposed sites in Central Australia – Mt Everard and Harts Range – are close to people's homes and communities," he said.
"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.
Walk in the sand with us, traditional owners urge PM
ABC, October 4, 2005
Traditional owners of land near Alice Springs earmarked for a national nuclear waste dump have called for the Prime Minister and Science Minister to visit the area and meet with them.
The Athenge Lhere group are traditional owners of the Mount Everard site, which is north of Alice Springs. It is one of three sites in the Northern Territory being considered by the Federal Government for the dump.
Kathleen Martin Williams, who is one of the traditional owners, says a visit may help the ministers understand the community's reservations.
"I'd like Johnny Howard and his sidekicks, especially that Brendan Nelson, to come here take off their shoes and walk in the red sand with us," she said.
"Maybe they will appreciate our country. Maybe."
Traditional owners take their fight to Canberra
Central Lands Council, November 3, 2005
Traditional owners of the two proposed waste dump sites in Central Australia are taking their fight to Canberra.
Steven McCormack, who lives close to the Mt Everard site said that a nuclear waste dump would be devastating for him and his family.
"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 in Australia typically involves some or all of the following tactics:
* ignoring the concerns of Traditional Owners insofar as the legal and political circumstances permit;
* divide-and-rule tactics;
* humbugging Traditional Owners – exerting persistent, unwanted pressure until the mining company gets what it wants;
* providing Traditional Owners with false or misleading information; and
* threats, most commonly legal threats.
Ranger, Jabiluka and the Mirarr Traditional Owners
Mining company ERA and the Howard government were determined to override the opposition of the Mirarr Traditional Owners to the Jabiluka uranium mine in the NT. ERA and the government were defeated after an extraordinary international campaign led by the Mirarr.
The Jabiluka mine site has been rehabilitated and the Mirarr have a veto over any future development of the mine. However, ERA still hopes to mine Jabiluka at some stage in the future, and it still operates the Ranger uranium mine near Jabiluka.
Yvonne Margarula, Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner, wrote in a 2005 submission to a parliamentary uranium inquiry: "Along with other Aboriginal people the Mirarr 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."
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.
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 that stood up and asked for an independent facilitator from the floor to be elected was immediately escorted by two armed Police holding him on either side (by his arms) to the outside of the building."
The late Mr Artie Wilton, the last living Wilyaru man (Adnyamathanha full initiate), said in June 2000 that he was never consulted about the Beverley uranium mine and never agreed to the Beverley or Honeymoon mining projects. "The Beverley Mine must be stopped, dead stopped," Mr Wilton said.
Kelvin Johnson, an Adnyamathanha man from Nepabunna, said in a June 2000 statement: "We protest at the treatment of our people being forced into an unfair process of negotiation. We protest because our land is being damaged against our wishes. We protest because Native Title legislation is not helping our country. We protest because the State Government and the Mining Industry refuse to listen to our concerns. We protest because it is our right and our responsibility to look after this country."
In May 2000, SA's 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.
The racism associated with the Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia is enshrined in legislation. WMC Resources was granted completely unjustifiable legal privileges under the SA Roxby Indenture Act. This legislation overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the Environment Protection Act, the Water Resources Act and the Freedom of Information Act. The new mine owner, BHP Billiton, refuses to relinquish these legal privileges.
One particularly notorious incident in the history of the Roxby mine concerned the laying of a water pipeline on Arabunna land in the mid-1990s. The dispute over the pipeline led to violence, terrorism, imprisonment, and the death of one person.
Jan Whyte and Ila Marks summarised the controversy in the July 1996 edition of Chain Reaction: "It appears that WMC has embarked on a course of side-stepping consultation with the Arabunna as the traditional custodians. It has also taken similar actions in regard to the Kokotha, the traditional custodians for the actual mine site.
"One method used by mining companies to side-step proper consultation processes is documented in North America and Canada as well as Australia. Mining companies incorporate small Aboriginal groups in areas under dispute and give them financial support. These groups are then regarded as the official representatives for that area and mining companies proceed to consult with them. Thus, it seems as if the companies are going through the correct legal processes whereas, in fact, they are ignoring parties who have legitimate interests."
ABC Radio National's 'Background Briefing' program investigated the controversy over the expansion of Roxby in the 1990s; see the transcript at: http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/u/roxby