Opposing uranium mining in Brisbane, 1976–78

Jessica Harrison

The mid-1970s was an inspiring time to be active against nuclear madness. As well as the formation of grassroots organisations calling for a moratorium on uranium mining, there were protests, strikes and direct action by unionists. In 1976 in Townsville, a railway worker was sacked after he refused to couple carriages heading to the Mary Kathleen uranium mine. After walk-offs across northern Queensland, he was reinstated. A 24-hour strike by Melbourne wharfies closed the port after police on horses attacked a protest against a ship carrying uranium exports.

In 1976, Friends of the Earth (FoE) Brisbane moved office to the Learning Exchange in Boundary St, West End. I lived and worked there, so I jumped head first into the anti-uranium campaign. Mary Kathleen uranium mine near Mt Isa had re-opened in 1974, and uranium was transported in shipping containers down the east coast railway line. At the Learning Exchange, we started getting calls from railway workers, warning us that uranium was heading south to the Brisbane wharves. A small radioactive symbol was the only marking on the shipping containers carrying uranium.

Our first rally was on the railway line where we blocked the uranium containers from entering the wharf gate. We were roughly dragged off by the cops and the train went in.

Next time, we needed better tactics to delay the export. Peter T and I rode his motorbike to the outer suburbs of Brisbane and hid beside the railway line. After we spotted the containers coming though, we headed to a shunting yard to find out about container movements. It was 3am when we walked into the canteen − we were welcomed with "you must be from Friends of the Earth!" Then the railway workers told us the most likely timing and route for the containers.

Meanwhile, the wharfies let us know that once we were on the wharves, all work would stop for health and safety reasons. But how to get onto the wharves at short notice? I had noticed a stormwater drain near the fence. One night, with a storm brewing, two of us crawled along the drain. It was so narrow that I could only move one knee at a time. As stormwater dribbled along the bottom of the drain, we hoped it would not suddenly increase due to the storm. Then disappointment − the wharf end of the drain was cemented shut!

Ah well, we had other ideas. We camped along the fence, prepared with padlocks to lock the gates against the cops driving in, while we pre-planned our access – over, under, or through holes in the wharf fence. Some people hid in the wharfies' toilets. The new plan worked well – plenty of people ran in and hid on the wharves, amongst the containers. I climbed up between two container stacks and spent a boring few hours waiting to be found. Only when I joined another activist for a chat did we both get arrested and shoved into a cop van. We rocked the van enthusiastically until the cops threatened us.

About 12 people were arrested and fined for this action – the cops found an obscure charge for me – "being found unlawfully in an enclosed space".

The Special Branch cops were so arrogant that they swapped around their court appearances at their whim. Their favourite technique for unnerving us was to greet us by name when we arrived at demos, then follow us home or try to provoke another excuse for arrest. Returning from a postering and graffiti run, we found the cops parked diagonally in the street, checking the front door of the Learning Exchange without getting out of their car. The anti-uranium action at the wharf was later dramatised by the cops – we were said to have swum the river to launch our "assault"!

Bjelke-Peterson and his National Party cronies would not allow any delays of uranium export, so in September 1977 we were told: "don't bother applying for permits to march – you won't get them". The subsequent civil liberties campaign took over our lives and led to many more arrests − more than 1800 during 17 Brisbane marches. On 22 October 1977, I was one of 418 "right-to-march" demonstrators arrested – but that's another story.

The Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory also concerned us, in solidarity with the Aboriginal communities threatened with the mine on their ancestral land. The same year, around Christmas time, we occupied the Rio Tinto office and presented them with an Australian-shaped 'yellowcake' – the faces of the office workers blanched as we arrived, singing one of our many anti-uranium songs (to the tune of 'Hernando's Hideway')

The people up in Arnhem Land

Are threatened to lose all their land

The miners they are right on hand – be damned, it's not their &*^%$ land - olé

Dollars, dollars, dollars and cents – we'll sell uranium to France and Uncle Sam

Dollars, dollars, dollars and cents – just one question and the answer isn't clear – how to store the waste for half a million years.

After moving to the UK in the 1980s, Peter and I climbed the 'Old Man of Coniston', a Cumbrian mountain above the Windscale/Sellafield nuclear plant. It was a sobering thought that Australian uranium could be powering this risky nuclear power plant, the scene of many radioactive pollution 'incidents'.

The direct action tactics we used in Brisbane in the 1970s are just as useful today – after all, we all live in Blocadia.

From Chain Reaction #123, April 2015, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/123