By Ray Acheson ‒ Director, Reaching Critical Will, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
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.
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.
Our first big stop on the Tour is a confrontation with the atomic bomb. The UK government conducted twelve nuclear weapon tests in Australia. Nine took place in South Australia, at Emu Field and Maralinga. 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.
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'. His stories, told to us around the campfire and while visiting various sites in Woomera, were full of pain.
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." 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. However, "the case was not allowed to proceed because it was deemed impossible to prove radiation caused their illness."
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.
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 leftover after extracting the uranium-bearing minerals from the ore. 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.
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.
The problems of uranium mining 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.
Dumping radioactive waste
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 in the Flinders Ranges, or on farming land in Kimba.
The Wallerberdina site is of great cultural, historical, and spiritual significance to the Adnyamathanha people. It borders the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area, which is a crucial location for biodiversity in the Flinders Ranges.
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 spring. 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 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 communities they consider "remote" ‒ both in their 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.
But nuclear weapons are now prohibited under international law. New actors are challenging the possession of nuclear weapons in new ways, and nuclear-armed 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 those we met: the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2017. Several of us from ICAN 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.
Sharing the Nobel Prize with nuclear 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.
A longer, referenced version of this article is posted at https://tinyurl.com/radtour2018
Information on previous Rad Tours is posted at www.nuclear.foe.org.au/radtour
Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/cr133