The Ferguson Files - Martin Ferguson

This webpage has information on

  • Martin Ferguson's efforts to impose a dump on Muckaty Traditional Owners in the NT.
  • Martin Ferguson and uranium mining


2009 letter

Federal resources minister and MP for the Melbourne electorate of Batman Martin Ferguson's plans to dump Australia's nuclear waste on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territorry seem set to blow up in his face with the launch of a legal challenge by Ngapa Traditional Owners. Launching the legal challenge on Thursday (June 3), Mark Lane Jangala, a senior Ngapa Traditional Owner, said: "I am senior Ngapa man for Muckaty and I did not agree to the nomination of the site, along with other senior Ngapa elders for Muckaty Station who did not agree. We don't want it. There was not even a meeting in town to consult all of the traditional owners."

Mr Ferguson has refused repeated requests to meet with Traditional Owners opposed to the nuclear dump. He bases his plan on an anthropological report which he refuses to publicly release or even to share with affected Traditional Owners. He failed to respond to a letter from 25 Ngapa Traditional Owners opposed to the proposed nuclear dump. And he plans to override the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1984 in order to impose the nuclear dump. Compare that grubby approach with the soaring rhetoric of Kevin Rudd's National Apology in February 2008.

Let's hope that the courts deliver the justice and respect that Mr Ferguson appears unwilling to extend to Traditional Owners.

Jim Green
Friends of the Earth

Martin Ferguson takes a dump on democracy

Jim Green

15 Nov 2011

Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson issued a media release in September claiming that he welcomes debate on Australia’s radioactive waste management options. Friends of the Earth invited him to participate in just such a debate but we were told by his office last week that he wouldn’t participate.

Small wonder. The government’s ongoing effort to impose a nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in the NT is the most disgraceful example of "radioactive racism" since the Menzies government exploded atomic bombs on Aboriginal land in the 1950s.

Ferguson claims that Muckaty traditional owners support the dump despite clear evidence that a majority do not. Traditional owners have written to him repeatedly voicing their objections. They have repeatedly requested a meeting with Ferguson and he repeatedly refuses. Traditional owner Dianne Stokes said: "Martin Ferguson has avoided us and ignored our letters but he knows very well how we feel. He has been arrogant and secretive and he thinks he has gotten away with his plan but in fact he has a big fight on his hands."

Traditional owners also initiated ongoing legal action in the Federal Court to try to stop the imposition of a nuclear dump — and Ferguson continues to claim they support the dump! Julian Burnside and other legal heavyweights are working pro bono on the case. Launching the legal challenge, Mark Lane Jangala, a senior traditional owner, said: "I am senior Ngapa man for Muckaty and I did not agree to the nomination of the site, along with other senior Ngapa elders for Muckaty Station who did not agree. We don’t want it. I want to look after my country and Dreaming, look after the sacred sites I am responsible for and to make sure my children are raised properly in their country."

Worse still, Ferguson has introduced legislation to Parliament which overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Act and disregards the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane noted in May 2010, Ferguson’s draft legislation (which has yet to pass the Senate) "is in many sections a cut-and-paste of the [Howard government’s legislation], stripping procedural fairness from the waste dump site selection process, overriding territory laws and neutralising environmental protection requirements".

Opposition to the dump goes beyond the traditional owners. The NT Government is opposed and the NT Parliament has passed legislation attempting to prevent the dump. There has been solid union support for traditional owners, including from the ACTU. A growing number of councils along the transport corridor have voiced their opposition, churches and environment groups are actively supporting traditional owners, and thousands of Australians have attended public meetings around the country to hear traditional owners speak.

Teenage traditional owner Kylie Sambo has had great success with her "Muckaty Rap" — all the more so after she spoke on Q&A recently:

Don’t waste the Territory
This land means a lot to me
Been livin’ here for centuries
This place we call Muckaty.
You’re drillin’ a hole
Right through my soul.

Ferguson’s response to the growing support for Muckaty traditional owners? He recently told a constituent of his Batman electorate that traditional owners are "puppets" of green groups.

There is a simple solution: leave the waste where it is produced at the Lucas Heights nuclear research centre south of Sydney, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). That is where the waste is produced, and that is where Australia’s nuclear expertise is heavily concentrated. As ANSTO’s Dr Ron Cameron said: "ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time. There is no difficulty with that." Similar views have been expressed by the Commonwealth nuclear regulator, by the Australian Nuclear Association — and by Mr Ferguson’s own department.


May 2008

Jim Green 0417 318 368 [email protected]

National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, Australia

Click here to download this 2008 paper as a Word file.


Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has prided himself on his commitment to keep promises made before the November 2007 federal election. He will need to haul energy and resources minister Martin Ferguson into line. Mr Ferguson is stalling on the implementation of pre-election promises regarding nuclear waste management.

The Howard government used its numbers to push through the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005, and 2006 amendments, through Parliament. Labor opposed the Act and the amendments and promised to repeal the legislation if elected to government. However last month (15/4/08), Mr Ferguson responded to written Senate questions by stating that repeal of the legislation is "under consideration". Therefore it must also be true that another option "under consideration" is to maintain the Act and therefore break an unequivocal pre-election promise.

Mr Ferguson is also in breach of Labor's commitment to address radioactive waste management issues in a manner which is "scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms" and to "ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes".

In addition to his breaches of Labor policy commitments, Mr Ferguson has made patronising comments about Aboriginal people, and he has made numerous demonstrably false statements on issues relating directly to his energy and resources portfolio, calling into question the wisdom of Mr Rudd's decision to appoint Mr Ferguson to the portfolio.

Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act

The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act and the 2006 amendments (hereafter CRWMA 2005/06):

  • Explicitly remove all rights to "procedural fairness".
  • Remove rights of appeal under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act.
  • Allow the imposition of a nuclear waste dump in the absence of any consultation with, or consent from, Aboriginal Traditional Owners.
  • Override the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and in so doing remove the consultation requirements of the ALRA.
  • Prevent the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 from having effect during investigation of potential dump sites, and excludes the Native Title Act 1993 from operating at all.
  • Override NT laws prohibiting transport and storage of nuclear waste.
  • Do away with a raft of environmental, public health and safety protections. For example the CRWMA overrides the the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 in relation to selecting a nuclear dump site.

Labor's national conference in April 2007 committed to repealing the CRWMA if elected (see appendix).

The CRWMA 2005/06 was strongly attacked by ALP shadow ministers and NT representatives in the federal parliament:

*** Jenny Macklin (November 2006) described the CRWMA as "extreme, arrogant and heavy-handed". She said: "Labor will defend the right of the community, including Indigenous communities, to be properly and fully consulted before decisions are made about the location of radioactive waste dumps."

*** Anthony Albanese (2/11/05) described the CRWMA as "extreme legislation ... one of the most draconian pieces of legislation that has been brought before this chamber." Mr Albanese noted that the CRWMA "brushes aside critical health, environmental protection, community safety and Aboriginal rights laws" and that its effect is the "sidelining of Indigenous rights".

*** Peter Garrett (November 2005) described the CRWMA as a "sorry and a sordid business driven by a licensing imperative for nuclear processes that no-one has consented to. This government continues to make a mockery of the principle of informed consent, of community participation and of respect for the wishes and interests of Aboriginal people in this country."

*** Trish Crossin (5/12/06) said that: "It is extraordinary and profoundly shameful that in a matter as controversial and contested as the siting of a nuclear waste dump such long held and procedurally proper processes are being circumvented." She noted that the Act "compromises the rights of Indigenous people living in the Territory to make decisions based on free, prior and informed consent."

The Northern Territory Labor Party conference in April 2008 passed a resolution calling on the federal government to repeal the CRWMA as soon as possible. The resolution states: "Conference demands the Federal Government honour the election commitment to repeal the CRWMA legislation as soon as possible, and to notify affected communities and stakeholder groups when this will occur."

More information on the CRWMA:

* "Rudd asked to repeal nuclear dump laws", April 18, 2008, <


* NT News 18/4/08.

* CRWMA 2005 report, transcripts etc:


* CRWMA 2006 report, transcripts etc: <

* ALP, Australian Democrats and Greens Report on CRWMA 2006: <>.


Trish Crossin (5/12/06) spoke in Parliament about the relevance of the CRWMA to the Muckaty site in the NT, which has been short-listed for a nuclear dump:

"This is also about the five families who belong to Muckaty Station, three of whom live on adjoining land. Senator Scullion himself said—and I will be interested to see the Hansard at some stage—that this was about ensuring that anyone who was on land adjacent to the Northern Land Council boundaries could provide no objections. That is exactly the political reality of this bill. This bill is about cutting out all the people affected by Muckaty Station, not just some of the traditional owners but a majority of them—not the ones who live within the Northern Land Council boundary but the ones who live within the Central Land Council boundary. I have a copy of a letter that was written by those people to the chairperson of the Northern Land Council, Mr John Daly, back in July. It states:

'Dear Mr Daly,

We write to you with deep concern.

In the past, we have trusted the Northern Land Council (NLC) to protect our Homelands …

Mr Daly, why are you talking to David Tollner and Nigel Scullion for us about our country? Why are you helping the Commonwealth Government to take control of our land to build a nuclear waste facility? …

Mr Daly, we ask you to stop talking for us. We do not want a nuclear waste facility built on our land.'

This bill is exactly about silencing these traditional owners."

Jenny Macklin said in Parliament in November 2006:

"However, I am aware that there are a number of possible sites under consideration for nomination, one of which is a property known as Muckaty Station.

I am aware of this possibility because I have spoken to traditional owners and families from the property and surrounding areas, who asked to speak to me about the possible nomination of their lands for use as a nuclear waste dump.

These traditional owners oppose the nomination of Muckaty.

And these women expressed their considerable concern, indeed their distress, at this prospect, because they told me that they feel their rights, their views, their concerns and their lands are being trampled upon by this Government.

The Bill under consideration by the House today will magnify that distress, because it openly and harshly rips away the legal requirement that any nomination of indigenous land for a nuclear waste dump must have the full and informed consent of the traditional owners of that land."

The April 2008 NT ALP conference adopted this resolution:

"Conference understands the nomination of Muckaty as a potential radioactive dump site, made under the CRWMA legislation, was not made with the full and informed consent of all Traditional Owners and affected people and as such does not comply with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA). Conference calls for the Muckaty nomination to also be repealed when the CRWMA legislation is overturned."

Senator Kim Carr on the nomination of Muckaty as a potential dump site:

"Today's announcement is yet the next chapter in the decade-long saga of lies and mismanagement that has become Howard's waste dump." (Media release, 27/9/07)

Mr Ferguson breaches Labor policy

Labor's national conference in April 2007 committed to repealing the CRWMA if elected. Labor also promised a method of addressing radioactive waste management issues which is "scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms" and to "ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes".

There has been no indication from Mr Ferguson that he intends to abide by any of these Labor policy commitments. His unwillingness to abide by the policy commitments of being transparent and accountable was brought into sharp relief by his responses to written Senate questions in April 2008. Mr Ferguson refused to provide substantive answers to a large number of questions regarding nuclear waste management. He responds to all questions by asserting that "this matter is under consideration by the Government" or "the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism is currently working on a radioactive waste management strategy and the Minister will make details available when it is completed and agreed within Government". His secrecy is so complete that even a question about what specific matters are under consideration is also said to be "under consideration".

Here is a sample of Mr Ferguson's non-responses:

Senate Standing Committee on Economics

Answers to questions on notice

Resources, Energy and Tourism Portfolio

Additional Estimates 2007-08

21 February 2008

Answers provided 15/4/08

When is repeal of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act likely to be decided and announced? In the first half of 2008? Is this dependent in any way on the site assessment work currently being undertaken by Parsons Brinkerhoff?

Response: This matter is under consideration by the Government.

Will the affected communities and stakeholder organisations be contacted by the Department to notify them of the process of repeal?

Response: This matter is under consideration by the Government.

Does the ALP commitment to repeal the CRWMA also entail not pursuing any of the sites that had been assessed under the Howard government's site selection process for the federal dump?

Response: This matter is under consideration by the Government.

What are the specific ‘matters currently under consideration' that may potentially delay the repeal of the CRWMA?

Response: This matter is under consideration by the Government.

Are there any contracts signed by the previous Government that are being investigated as potential impediments to the legislative repeal?

Response: The Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism is currently working on a radioactive waste management strategy and the Minister will make details available when it is completed and agreed within Government.

Mr Ferguson patronises Aboriginal people

Mr. Ferguson claimed in Parliament (7/9/06) and in an Australian Financial Review opinion piece (13/9/06) that environmentalists and other special interest groups "have used indigenous communities to peddle their own ideology" and that "indigenous communities are starting to make their own decisions" about uranium mining.

Indigenous communities have always made their own decisions about nuclear proposals and it is offensive and patronising for Mr. Ferguson to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Ferguson's statements also make it clear that he thinks Indigenous communities are making their own decisions when they support mining and they are dupes of 'special interest groups' when they oppose mining. There is no logic to this claim and no evidence to support it.

In response, Mitch, an Eastern Arrernte/Luritja woman from Alice Springs, wrote:

"When the Howard government's proposal to build a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory was announced in July 2005, my Elders from the Harts Range site north-east of Alice Springs gave me permission to set up a protest camp and to speak out against it.

"The Alice Springs community and environment groups supported us, but they have never pressured us into anything or put words in our mouths. I reject the statement from Labor politician Martin Ferguson, published in the Financial Review on Wednesday, that environmentalists 'have used indigenous communities to peddle their own ideology'. The environment groups have only ever helped us, not told us what to say.

"Mr. Ferguson is being paternalistic when he says, "indigenous communities are starting to make their own decisions about these issues." As he should know, we have always made our own decisions, but the politicians don't often listen."

Mr Ferguson also made the following statement in Parliament: "The simple fact is that Indigenous empowerment is not in the interests of special interest groups, including environmental NGOs, because they might make their own decisions." Leaving aside the paranoia and stupidity of Mr Ferguson's comment, it begs the question: why hasn't he empowered Indigenous people by repealing the CRWMA?

Mr. Ferguson's parliamentary statement is posted at:

What is to be done?

It is imperative that Prime Minister haul Mr Ferguson into line and ensure that Labor's policy commitments regarding nuclear waste are met and that election promises are not broken. Urgent repeal of the CRWMA would be a good start.

It should also be noted that nuclear waste management used to be part of the science portfolio and was handled by shadow science minister Kim Carr until the new ALP ministry was appointed. Why was nuclear waste management shifted to Mr Ferguson's energy and resources portfolio, and might it not be a good idea for Mr Rudd to revisit that decision?

In addition to his mishandling of the contentious nuclear dump issue, and his patronising statements about Aboriginal people, Mr Ferguson has made countless false statements about energy and resource issues, as detailed in a paper posted at: <>.

A minister for energy and resources with a track record of making numerous false statements about energy and resources ... one wonders if Mr Ferguson is the right person for this particular job?

There is a relevant precedent: then science minister Peter McGauran was removed from the science portfolio for mishandling nuclear waste issues in 2003.

Appendix: ALP policies on nuclear waste management

A joint press release issued by Senator Kim Carr, Minister Warren Snowdon and Senator Trish Crossin last year commits Labor to:

"Legislate to restore transparency, accountability and procedural fairness including the right of access to appeal mechanisms in any decisions in relation the sighting of any nuclear waste facilities.

Ensure that any proposal for the siting of a nuclear waste facility on Aboriginal Land in the Northern Territory would adhere to the requirements that exist under the Aboriginal Land Rights, Northern Territory Act (ALRA).

Restore the balance and pending contractual obligation, will not proceed with the establishment of a nuclear waste facility on or off Aboriginal land until the rights removed by the Howard government are restored and a proper and agreed site selection process is carried out.

Not arbitrarily impose a nuclear waste facility without agreement on any community, anywhere in Australia."

 (Media Release 06/03/07, "Govt's waste dump fiasco, cont'd").

Excerpt from the National ALP Platform 2007 (chapter 5):

A Federal Labor Government will:

* Not proceed with the development of any of the current sites identified by the Howard Government in the Northern Territory, if no contracts have been entered into for those sites.

* Repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005.

* Establish a process for identifying suitable sites that is scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms.

* Identify a suitable site for a radioactive waste dump in accordance with the new process.

* Ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes.

* Commit to international best practice scientific processes to underpin Australia's radioactive waste management, including transportation and storage.



Jim Green
National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, Australia
[email protected]

Written in 2006/07 - prior to the ALP dropping its no-new-uranium-mines policy.

Labor MP Martin Ferguson is leading the charge for the ALP to drop its policy of opposition to new uranium mines. This despite the fact that a 2006 Newspoll found that 78% of ALP voters oppose new uranium mines. For every ALP voter who supports new uranium mines, almost five are opposed. For Coalition voters, 53% oppose new uranium mines compared to 32% supporting new mines.

A number of Ferguson's arguments in favour of new uranium mines are circular. He argues that with or without a change of ALP policy, Australia is likely to become the world's largest uranium supplier with the planned expansion of the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia. That is probably true, but it's hardly an argument for supporting new uranium mines. Ferguson ignores the options of phasing out, or immediately stopping, the uranium mining and export industry. He also ignores the fact that the no-new-mines policy is in effect a phase-out policy.

Stopping uranium mining would have surprisingly little impact:
* BHP Billiton would complain long and loud, but continue to turn a profit by mining copper, gold and silver at Roxby Downs.
* Ranger is close to being mined out.
* The Beverley uranium deposit is small - it has just 1-2% as much uranium as Roxby Downs.

Ferguson argues that Labor's uranium policy is "half pregnant" and illogical. But Labor's policy is logical as a phase-out policy which avoids potential legal challenges and compensation claims that may arise if a Labor government immediately stopped uranium mining.

Ferguson claims that the existing Labor policy discriminates in favour of existing uranium mining companies and against other potential uranium miners. He ignores the option of levelling the playing field by putting an end to uranium mining altogether.

In a paper dated March 20, 2006, which Ferguson is circulating within the ALP and to unions, he states: "State and Territory Labor Governments which have knowingly allowed uranium exploration, will come under pressure to allow the development of discoveries within the next few years: If they reject mining applications, it will raise questions about sovereign risk for mining investors in Australia."

But uranium exploration companies are well aware of Labor's policy of opposition to new uranium mines. Labor state governments or a future Labor federal government face no legal risk.

Further, state Labor governments could of course put an end to the current situation whereby they allow and sometimes subsidise uranium exploration.

Clean energy options

In a January 13 article in The Australian, Ferguson states: "Abandoning traditional base load power in favour of renewables would result in an indefinite global economic depression condemning hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people to starvation."

Rubbish. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency concedes that small-scale renewable energy sources are the most appropriate options for the billions of people living in rural areas of Third World Countries.

A phased transition from dirty and dangerous energy sources (fossil fuels and nuclear power) to clean energy (renewables plus energy efficiency and conservation) can be achieved at modest cost for these reasons:
* The costs will accrue over a period of some decades.
* Renewables are in some cases cheaper than the dirty and dangerous energy sources (especially if externalities are accounted for).
* The expense of renewables can be off-set by savings made through energy efficiency and conservation measures.

A vast body of research gives the lie to Ferguson's claims about the economics of clean energy. For example (references available on request):
* A 2003 report from AEA Technology to the UK Department of Trade and Industry calculates that annual abatement costs of about 0.5% GDP will suffice to achieve greenhouse emissions reductions of 60-70%, and that over a 50 year period, annual growth of GDP is only reduced by about 0.01% p.a.
* The Australian Ministerial Council on Energy has identified that energy consumption in the manufacturing, commercial and residential sectors can be reduced by 20-30% with the adoption of commercially available technologies with an average payback of four years.
* Energy efficiency measures are shown in a US study to deliver almost seven times the greenhouse gas emissions reductions as nuclear power per dollar invested.
* A May 2006 study by AGL, Frontier Economics and WWF-Australia shows that Australians could pay as little as $250 each - or $0.43/week per person over 24 years - to achieve a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity generation industry by 2030.

In his March 20 paper, Ferguson states: "Australia cannot slow down world demand for mined uranium for nuclear power. Nor does it have a right to begrudge other countries the right to use nuclear power in their energy mix to lift their people out of poverty or control their greenhouse emissions and pollution."

Whether or not other countries have a "right" to develop nuclear power, they certainly don't have a "right" to access WMD feedstock in the form of Australian uranium.

Ferguson frequently cites growing energy demand in China and the Chinese regime's plan to expand nuclear power. In fact, the regime is planning to increase nuclear's share of electricity generation from 2% to 4% and plans to increase the share of renewables to 15%. Wouldn't it make sense to encourage China to abandon its nuclear expansion plan and to increase its renewables target to 17% instead?

Social and environmental impacts

Ferguson is largely silent on the negative impacts of uranium mining on Aboriginal communities. At a public debate in Melbourne on June 5, he was asked repeatedly to explain what he intends to do to redress the situation whereby the Roxby Downs mine is exempt from the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act. He avoided the question.

At the June 5 debate, Ferguson claimed that the 'Aboriginal community' has agreed to participate in the federal government's uranium steering committee. In fact, only the Northern Territory's Northern Land Council has agreed to participate.

In his March 20 paper, Ferguson states: "Not all uranium suppliers enforce the same world class safety and environmental standards as Australian State and Territory Governments."

But the safety and environmental standards at Australia's uranium mines are inadequate. The Roxby Indenture Act, which makes Roxby Downs exempt from the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act, also makes the mine exempt from the South Australian Environmental Protection Act and the Water Resources Act.

A 2003 report by the Senate References and Legislation Committee, endorsed by the ALP committee members, found "a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance" in the uranium mining industry, it identified "many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment", and it concluded that changes were necessary "in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage".

It's difficult to understand Ferguson's promotion of the nuclear industry given that he is well aware of the intractable waste management problems. In a speech at a uranium conference on October 11, 2005, he said: "We do not even have a solution for the safe disposal of low and intermediate level nuclear waste generated in our own country, let alone a clear view of the solution for high level nuclear waste generated around the globe from nuclear power operations."

In his March 20 paper, Ferguson states that Australia "has the opportunity to lead the world as a responsible supplier of uranium for peaceful purposes" by, among other things, "stewarding uranium from cradle to grave". It's hard to know what Ferguson could mean by that statement other than Australia accepting high-level nuclear waste produced in nuclear power reactors around the world, in particular from countries using Australian uranium.

Export revenue and jobs

In his March 20 paper, Ferguson states: "States and Territories, particularly South Australia and the Northern Territory, are dependent on new mines, including uranium, for future jobs, economic growth, exports and revenue."

No they aren't. Uranium exports in 2005 accounted for less than one third of one percent of Australia's total export revenue ($573m/$176,700m). Even with the proposed tripling of uranium production at Roxby Downs (which will double Australia's overall exports from the current level of about 12,000 tonnes annually), uranium will still fall well short of 1% of total export revenue. Even if new mines are allowed, it is unlikely that uranium would account for more than 1% of total export revenue.

In the March 20 paper, Ferguson states that permitting new uranium mines will allow unions like the AWU to pursue coverage and ensure mines are world class, open up more mining jobs for union members, and ensure the safety of workers. But uranium mining makes even less of a contribution to employment than it does to export revenue. Uranium mining companies are notoriously anti-union. There is limited union coverage of uranium industry workers, and none at all at Roxby Downs.

There is some union coverage at the Ranger mine in the NT, but the mine could hardly be said to be world class. The most notorious recent incident was in March 2004, when 150 workers were exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the Australian safety standard. Mining company ERA was fined $150,000 - a rare example of a uranium mining company being prosecuted for breaching operating conditions.

There will be more jobs - and safer jobs, and unionised jobs - by pursuing a clean energy future. As Neale Towart wrote in Workers Online in February 2006: "For workers, the scope for decent and rewarding work in the renewables sector far outstrips the potential employment in the current energy industry regime. Job creation in Europe through various renewable energy scenarios developed in 2002 show the vast potential. Greener energy sources in general employ far more people than more polluting sources. Nuclear power sustains around one sixth of the jobs sustained by wind energy, per unit of power produced. Wind energy is four times better than coal at sustaining jobs."

Nuclear weapons proliferation

At the June 5 debate, Ferguson conceded that there are many, serious problems with the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards inspection system, which attempts to prevent the military use of ostensibly peaceful nuclear facilities and materials.

There are several sets of problems with the IAEA's safeguards system:
* A range of technical and practical problems, such as the routine accounting discrepancies arising from factors such as the unavoidable imprecision in estimating the rate of production of plutonium in nuclear power reactors.
* The safeguards system is chronically under-resourced. IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed El Baradei recently complained that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department".
* According to El Baradei, the IAEA's basic safeguards inspection rights are "fairly limited" and the system "clearly needs reinforcement", and he has complained about "half hearted" efforts to strengthen the safeguards system.
* The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty enshrines an 'inalienable right' of member states to all 'civil' nuclear technologies, including dual-use technologies with both peaceful and military applications. In other words, the NPT enshrines the 'right' to develop a nuclear weapons 'threshold' or 'breakout' capability.

Ferguson did not challenge any of these arguments - in fact he said he agrees with many of them - so it's difficult to see how he can support Australia's uranium export industry. The IAEA is the only agency responsible for safeguarding Australia's uranium exports.

Ferguson said in his August 23 speech: "Australia is one of the most responsible exporters of uranium in the world ..." But Australia's uranium is as likely to be diverted to WMD production as any other country's uranium. All uranium exporting countries are entirely reliant on the inadequate and under-resourced safeguards system of the IAEA.

Australia - and some other countries such as Canada - also require uranium customer countries to sign bilateral uranium export agreements. But these agreements are meaningless. The bilateral agreement condition for Australian consent before enrichment beyond 20% uranium-235 is meaningless because no country has ever sought consent to enrich to that level. The bilateral agreement condition for Australian consent to reprocess spent nuclear fuel is meaningless because permission has never once been refused, even when it leads to plutonium stockpiling, as in Japan and some European countries.

Ferguson says in his March 20 statement: "Not all uranium suppliers enforce the same requirements of buyers as Australia does: Sell uranium only to countries that are signatories to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and ratify international and bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements." Again, he is avoiding the fundamental problem that all uranium exporting countries rely on the flawed IAEA safeguards system. Further, Australia only requires that uranium customer countries are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There is no requirement for customer countries to sign and ratify treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

According to Ferguson, a Labor government would strengthen the safeguards system. His March 20 statement says that allowing new uranium "will open up the possibility for Australia to use its strategic position as the most important holder of uranium reserves in the world to take a leadership role on nuclear non proliferation policy ..."

This claim needs to be treated with scepticism since the ALP refuses to nominate any specific improvements which it would implement. Scepticism is also warranted since the federal Labor governments from 1983 to 1996 did nothing to strengthen safeguards.

Ferguson also puts forward the 'drug dealer's defence' in support of uranium mining. His March 20 statement says: "The world will get its uranium from somewhere whether Australia supplies it or not."

That other countries are prepared to export WMD feedstock in the form of uranium is hardly a justification for Australia to do the same. Further, with Australia holding such a large proportion of the world's known uranium reserves, stopping the uranium mining and export industry would undoubtedly encourage other countries to pursue clean energy options.

Environmentalists oppose nuclear power

Ferguson claimed at the June 5 debate that "many" environmentalists now support nuclear power. In fact, the only 'environmentalists' supporting nuclear power are a few high-profile individuals such as James Lovelock and ex-Greenpeace member Patrick Moore.

The Uranium Information Centre makes much of Moore's role in a pro-nuclear "public coalition" called the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. In fact, as the Uranium Information Centre is well aware, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition is a corporate front group funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

At the June 5 debate, Ferguson quoted Lovelock who told ABC's Lateline on May 30: "Modern nuclear power stations are useless for making bombs ..." Lovelock's claim is false. A typical power reactor produces about 300 kilograms of plutonium each year, sufficient for about 30 nuclear weapons. There is no serious dispute that this 'reactor grade' plutonium can be used for weapons, albeit the case that it is more difficult and dangerous to use reactor-grade plutonium than weapon-grade plutonium, and the yield is likely to be lower.

Power reactors can also be used to produce weapon-grade plutonium. This could hardly be simpler - all that needs to be done is for the irradiation time to be shortened to maximise the percentage of the plutonium-239 isotope relative to other, unwanted plutonium isotopes.

Power reactors can also be used to produce other isotopes for use in nuclear weapons. For example, in the USA, a power reactor is used to produce tritium, which is used to initiate and boost nuclear weapons.

Further, most of the technologies used in support of nuclear power programs can also be used in support of a nuclear weapons program:
* Enrichment plants can produce low-enriched uranium for power reactors or highly-enriched uranium which can be used directly in nuclear weapons (such as the weapon dropped on Hiroshima). Pakistan, South Africa, and possibly North Korea, have produced nuclear weapons using highly-enriched uranium from their 'peaceful' enrichment programs. Iran is suspected of going down the same path.
* Research reactors are used in support of nuclear power programs but they can also produce plutonium for nuclear weapons (as in India and Israel, and possibly North Korea and Pakistan).
* Reprocessing plants separate uranium from spent nuclear fuel, and the uranium can be reused in power reactors. But reprocessing plants also separate plutonium which can be used in nuclear weapons or for nuclear power.