Some of the recurring patterns in Australia’s nuclear history are discussed here under the following headings: children exposed to radiation; racism; struggle; unresolved radioactive contamination issues; deceit; whistleblowers; secrecy; rhetoric versus reality; lessons not learnt; and surveillance, intimidation, and police brutality.
Children exposed to radiation
Due to the lack of fencing, the contaminated Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex site was used as a playground by children for a number of years. The situation was rectified only after a six-year community campaign.
After mining at Rum Jungle in the NT ceased, part of the area was converted to a lake. As a crocodile-free water body in the Darwin region, the site became popular despite the radioactivity.
In November 2010, the Rum Jungle South Recreation Reserve was closed due to low-level radiation in the area. The Department of Resources advised the local council to shut down the reserve as a precautionary measure.
In 2012, damage to a security gate allowed children to enter a contaminated site near Kalgoorlie. More than 5,000 tonnes of tailings from the Yeelirrie uranium deposit, near Wiluna, were buried there in the 1980s. BHP Billiton said it would improve security.
In a 1997 report, WMC admitted leaving the contaminated trial uranium mine at Yeelirrie, WA, exposed to the public with inadequate fencing and warning signs for more than 10 years. A spokesperson for WMC said a 1995 inspection revealed the problems and also admitted that the company could have known about the problems as early as 1992. WMC said there was inadequate signage warning against swimming in a dam at the site, which was found to be about 30 times above World Health Organisation radiation safety standards and admitted that people used the dam for “recreational” purposes including swimming.
Children and adults alike have been exposed to radiation from the contaminated uranium processing site at Hunters Hill in Sydney (and children are more susceptible to radiation-induced cancers due to their growing bodies). Only in recent years has the contamination come to light after decades of deceit and obfuscation. The NSW Health Commission covered up the dangers of Hunters Hill. An internal memo in 1977 told staff to “stall and be non-committal” when responding to queries. Residents were told there was “no logical reason” to carry out radiation or health tests even though the NSW government knew that there were compelling reasons to do so.
A similar attitude has been displayed towards people living near the Lucas Heights research reactor. An internal 1998 federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources briefing document, obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, warns government officials: “Be careful in terms of health impacts − don’t really want a detailed study done of the health of Sutherland residents.”
Another incident with child safety concerns occurred in May 1997 when a radioactive source was stolen from an ANSTO promotional display at Menai High School. An ANSTO spokesperson said the source could be handled “quite safely but shouldn’t be for long periods.” The radioactive source was never recovered.
In the 1950s, the British-Australian nuclear cabal suppressed research demonstrating the contamination of grazing sheep and cattle with strontium-90 from nuclear bomb tests in Australia. Whistleblower Hedley Marston warned that proof of widespread contamination would be found “in the bones of children”. The nuclear cabal and the Australian government initiated a testing program in 1957, but it was done in secret using stolen body parts from dead babies, still-borns and infants.
The Advertiser conspicuously failed to inform residents of Adelaide of the plume of radioactivity which contaminated the city after the bungled nuclear bomb test of 11 October 1956. The Advertiser did however run a story in 1957 titled ‘Radioactive Children Are Brilliant’ − a baseless theory from a British psychiatrist linking strontium 90 to ‘brilliant’ children.
The nuclear industry has been responsible for some of the crudest racism in Australia’s history. This racism dates from the British nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s − the Royal Commission found that regard for Aboriginal safety was characterised by “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism” − but it can still be seen today.
Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the Maralinga test site ‘clean-up’ in the 1990s: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.” The hand-back of the land to Traditional Owners was dressed up as an act of reconciliation yet government literature clearly explains that the aim was to reduce “Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination.”
Aboriginal rights and interests were trampled on by the Howard government with its attempt to impose a dump in central South Australia from 1998−2004. The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women from northern South Australia, fought back and the Kungkas won: “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.”
The racism associated with the federal government’s plan to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory is just as crude. Martin Ferguson’s National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 allows for the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land with no consultation with or consent from Traditional Owners. Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes says: “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.”
Racism in the uranium mining industry 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; bribery; ‘humbugging’ Traditional Owners (exerting persistent, unwanted pressure); providing Traditional Owners with false or misleading information; and threats, most commonly legal threats.
The 1982 South Australian Roxby Downs Indenture Act, which sets the legal framework for the operation of the Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine in South Australia, was amended in 2011 but it retains exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Traditional Owners were not even consulted.
Sub-section 40(6) of the Commonwealth’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act exempts the Ranger uranium mine in the NT from the Act and thus removed the right of veto that Mirarr Traditional Owners would otherwise have enjoyed.
NSW legislation exempts any uranium mines in that state from provisions of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
As one specific example of the behaviour of the uranium mining industry, a whistleblower leaked documents in the early 1980s about the Ben Lomond mine in Queensland. The documents revealed that mining company Minatome had destroyed several Aboriginal sites including one significant site possibly some 4000 years old. This site was bulldozed by the company to make way for an evaporation pond. The confidential documents revealed that Minatome had been aware of the Aboriginal sites since 1978 and was advised in an archaeological impact statement that they should be protected.
Governments and industry often get their way yet there is a remarkable history of community struggle against unwanted nuclear and uranium projects in Australia − and no shortage of community victories.
The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta fought successfully against the Howard government’s plan for a national radioactive waste dump. There is a strong chance that Muckaty Traditional Owners and their many supporters will defeat Martin Ferguson’s plan to impose a dump on their land. Pangea Resources − the company that wanted to build an international high-level nuclear waste dump in Australia − shut its office after just two years due to overwhelming public opposition.
The uranium industry has had victories − such as the overturning of the federal ALP’s policy of banning new uranium mines − but has largely failed in its efforts to develop new mines:
- ERA’s aggressive pursuit of the Jabiluka uranium mine failed in the face of unanimous opposition from Traditional Owners and a large majority of the Australian population.
- ERA is continuing with plans to expand the Ranger mine but has given up on plans for heap leach mining in the face of public opposition.
- Plans to mine Angela Pamela near Alice Springs have stalled in the face of concerted community opposition.
- Koongarra in the NT has been protected from uranium mining and will be incorporated into Kakadu National Park.
- Community opposition has put an end to Marathon Resources’ plan to mine uranium at Mt Gee in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in SA.
- Plans for uranium exploration and mining at Yankalilla, near Myponga on SA’s Fleurieu Peninsula, were defeated.
- Several uranium mine plans have been put on hold in recent years due to some combination of community opposition and economic circumstances (e.g. Bigrlyi / NT, Yeelirrie / WA, Lake Maitland / WA, Kintyre / WA).
Widespread anti-nuclear sentiment led the Howard government to introduce legislation banning uranium enrichment, nuclear power reactors and nuclear reprocessing. Indeed the Howard government banned nuclear fuel cycle facilities twice over − in the EPBC Act and the ARPANS Act.
Unresolved radioactive contamination issues
There have been four ‘clean ups’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site. The fourth was done on the cheap. Most likely there will be a fifth clean up … and a sixth.
The contaminated Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex was closed in 1962. Fifty years later, the SA government says the site is “actively monitored to provide additional information to assist with the ongoing development of management plans and potential remediation.”
Hunters Hill in Sydney has been the subject of controversy in recent years due to the failure to decontaminate a former uranium processing site, and the use of the site as residential land. The site was last used for uranium processing in 1915. Nearly a century later and there is an ongoing debate over site contamination and an appropriate location to store radioactive waste arising from site remediation.
Not one of Australia’s former uranium mines has reached a stage were post-closure monitoring is no longer necessary. Rehabilitation and remediation of uranium mine sites has proven to be more expensive and more problematic than anticipated, with extensive time periods where ongoing management and remediation are necessary. The long-term costs − financial and public health costs − are borne by the public not the mining companies.
WMC left the contaminated trial uranium mine at Yeelirrie, WA, exposed to the public with inadequate fencing and warning signs for more than 10 years.
Uranium exploration in the Wiluna region in the 1980s left a legacy of pollution and contamination. Even after a ‘clean up’, the site was left with rusting drums containing uranium ore, and a sign reading “Danger − low level radiation ore exposed” was found lying face down in bushes.
At Mary Kathleen in Queensland, there is ongoing seepage of saline, metal and radionuclide-rich waters from tailings, as well as low-level uptake of heavy metals and radionuclides into vegetation.
At Radium Hill in SA, maintenance of the tailings is required due to ongoing erosion.
At Rum Jungle in the NT, despite extensive rehabilitation and remediation of the site, the Finniss River is still polluted with ongoing acid mine drainage.
At Nabarlek in the NT, despite rehabilitation this former mine still requires ongoing monitoring and there has been ongoing site contamination and lasting impacts on water quality.
Australia’s nuclear history reveals many instances of deceit (and obfuscation and half-truths) by scientists, scientific bodies and ‘independent’ regulators.
It was no surprise that the Howard government described the shambolic ‘clean up’ of Maralinga as ‘worlds best practice’ − but it was disappointing that the so-called independent regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, made the same claim despite solid evidence to the contrary. The ‘clean up’ did not meet Australian standards let alone international best practice.
When the bombs were tested in the 1950s, the so-called Safety Committee colluded with politicians, bureaucrats and the establishment media to stage-manage publicity before and after the bomb tests. Numerous Australian and British scientists lent their scientific authority to dishonest government claims about the environmental and public health impacts of the tests − some were knighted.
The Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO), the federal government’s statutory safeguards agency, is notorious for its dishonesty. ASNO’s falsehoods include claims that nuclear power does not pose a proliferation risk, that Australia only sells uranium to countries with ‘impeccable’ non-proliferation credentials, and that all of Australia’s uranium is ‘fully accounted for’. Sometimes ASNO misleads by omission, as with its failure in 2008 to tell Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties that there had not been a single IAEA safeguards inspection in Russia since 2001.
The Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) − predecessor to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) − lied about the environmental and public health risks of the British bomb tests. The AAEC lied about the disgraceful situation at Rum Jungle from the 1950s onwards and refused to release relevant information − even to other government agencies.
More recently − in 2001 − a former head of ANSTO’s Divisions of Reactors and Engineering criticised ANSTO for its “misleading public statements” and for “sugar-coating” its information in relation to plans for a new research reactor. He said: “Surely there is someone at ANSTO with a practical reactor background and the courage to flag when ANSTO is yet again, about to mislead the public.”
French company Minatome undertook trial mining at Ben Lomond, near Townsville, in the early 1980s. Federal MP Bob Katter spoke about the deceit surrounding this project in Parliament in 2005. He noted that Minatome initially denied reports of a high-level radioactive spill, but then changed its story and claimed that the spill posed no risk and did not reach the water system from which 210,000 people drank.
Bob Katter takes up the story: “For the next two or three weeks they held out with that story. Further evidence was produced in which they admitted that it had been a dangerous level. Yes, it was about 10,000 times higher than what the health agencies in Australia regarded as an acceptable level. After six weeks, we got rid of lie number two. I think it was at about week 8 or week 12 when, as a state member of parliament, I insisted upon going up to the site. Just before I went up to the site, the company admitted − remember, it was not just the company but also the agency set up by the government to protect us who were telling lies − that the spill had reached the creek which ran into the Burdekin River, which provided the drinking water for 210,000 people. We had been told three sets of lies over a period of three months.”
Whistleblowers have frequently provided information about accidents at Lucas Heights. One such whistleblower was Dr Arthur Tucker, who worked at the AAEC from 1964−85. He claimed that on numerous occasions his studies into staff health were obstructed or his findings kept secret. He said that he was directed to stop his studies into possible links between the use of metals such as beryllium and the lung disease sarcoidosis, and that his research results were not published. Dr Tucker also claimed that his later attempts to reinforce his studies with similar work were thwarted as funds, staff, and facilities were withdrawn.
ANSTO whistleblowers wrote in April 2000: “The last 4 years have seen unprecedented industrial actions resulting in lost-time for ANSTO. The staff morale is exceptionally low … because of unprecedented ineptitude at senior management level. … The ANSTO Board has a very limited idea of what is really transpiring at Lucas Heights. For instance, the radiation contamination scare last year was only brought to the staff’s attention because of a local newspaper. The incident was of such gravity, that the executive should have made an announcement over the site-emergency monitor about the incident to inform the staff. Instead the management practiced a culture of secrecy and cover-up, even to the extent of actively and rudely dissuading staff from asking too many questions about the event. … The ANSTO management appears to be endeavoring to muzzle staff comments external to the organisation (through the use of) Acknowledgment Undertaking (forms).”
Since 2007, ANSTO’s inadequate safety standards and its treatment of several whistleblowers have been the subject of ongoing controversy and multiple inquiries.
In recent years workers at Olympic Dam have been warned of “disciplinary action” if caught taking photos of the mine − this after a whistleblower released photos of multiple leaks in tailings dams.
In 2010, another worker at Olympic Dam leaked documents showing that BHP uses manipulated averages and distorted sampling to ensure its official figures of worker radiation exposure slip under the maximum exposure levels set by government, and that claims made about worker safety are based on the false assumption that all underground mine workers wear protective masks.
Two scientific whistleblowers − Dale Timmons and nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson − put vast amounts of information on the public record about the troubled Maralinga ‘clean up’ in the late 1990s. In the 1950s, scientist Hedley Marston tried to blow the whistle about a significant plume of radioactivity which contaminated Adelaide after a bungled atomic bomb test − but The Advertiser would not run the story and the nuclear cabal went to extraordinary lengths to silence Marston.
In 1976, one or more uranium industry workers provided Friends of the Earth with information which exposed the existence and activities of a global uranium cartel in which Australia was complicit. The documents also revealed shoddy environmental practices at uranium mines, close surveillance of NGOs, and secret government advice to uranium companies about how to circumvent safeguards in order to sell uranium to non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
AAEC employees − and personnel working on the British bomb tests − were for decades constrained by draconian legislation preventing them from public comment. The AAEC began secret uranium enrichment in 1965 at Lucas Heights, almost certainly connected to the interest in pursuing a weapons capability. The head of the AAEC − Philip Baxter − was a leading figure in the informal and eclectic group lobbying for the development of nuclear weapons or a latent weapons capability. The AAEC repeatedly provided the government with advice on the logistics and cost of pursuing a weapons capability while publicly maintaining the fiction that its work was entirely disconnected from proliferation issues.
That tradition of secrecy continues at Lucas Heights:
- A senior government bureaucrat boasted on ABC radio in 1998 that the government decided to “starve the opponents of oxygen” in relation to the planned new research reactor at Lucas Heights, to “keep them in the dark completely”.
- In 1999, the President of the Australian Nuclear Association complained about the “culture of secrecy” at ANSTO.
- A 2001 Senate Select Committee said that ANSTO’s “attitude seems to stem from a culture of secrecy so embedded that it has lost sight of its responsibility to be accountable to the Parliament.”
The Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office refuses to publicly release important information − examples include country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium (i.e. plutonium produced from Australian uranium), and information on nuclear accounting discrepancies (Material Unaccounted For).
Olympic Dam enjoys exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act. Mine owner BHP Billiton also maintains a shroud of secrecy by threatening workers with “disciplinary action” for taking photos of the mine.
General Atomics / Heathgate Resources has a track record of secrecy in relation to the Beverley mine, such as its failure to publicly acknowledge a series of leaks before the 2002 SA state election and its refusal to release key environmental reports until the South Australian Ombudsman found that its commercial-in-confidence claims were spurious.
Rhetoric versus reality
ANSTO portrays itself as being on the leading edge of Australia’s scientific endeavours. Yet a 1993 review commissioned by the federal government’s Research Reactor Review found that ANSTO’s scientific contributions were slight, and the CSIRO argued that more productive research could be funded for the cost of a new research reactor.
ANSTO is keen to trumpet its production of medical radiopharmaceuticals but is reluctant to acknowledge that many countries have advanced nuclear medicine programs without a domestic research reactor. ANSTO whistleblowers said in April 2000 (when the Lucas Heights HIFAR reactor was offline for maintenance): “We understand that ANSTO has been obtaining supplies of samarium from South Africa since the HIFAR shutdown in February with no dislocation, this isotope is usually manufactured by ANSTO. It is further understood that ANSTO has stopped its importation of samarium from South Africa to “prove” the need for a new reactor. If this is the case it would appear that ANSTO is orchestrating its own circumstances to ensure a new reactor.”
A senior government official interviewed in 1998 on ABC radio said the government’s tactic was to appeal to “the emotion of people: the loss of life, the loss of children’s lives” with (specious) arguments about nuclear medicine. The same rhetoric is being used to ‘sell’ the plan for a nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in the NT. Nuclear Radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos told ABC TV in March 2012: “Nearly all of the waste has got nothing to do with medicine … That’s a furphy that Minister Ferguson has been promulgating − and I suggest mischievously too − to get the public onside through an emotive campaign of disinformation.”
The rhetoric of the uranium industry is not matched by reality. That applies not only to its environmental performance but also to its contribution to the national economy. There were waves of uranium exploration in the 1950s and ’60s that were pursued with all the enthusiasm and expectation of the gold rushes. But these yellowcake rushes delivered precious little by way of jobs or export revenue.
More recently, we have been repeatedly invited to draw comparisons between Australia’s uranium potential and Saudi Arabian oil riches. Yet the Australian uranium industry employs just 1760 people according to the World Nuclear Organisation (including 500 jobs in exploration and 60 in regulation). That is less than 0.02% of total Australian jobs.
Export revenue has also been underwhelming: uranium accounted for 0.32% of Australian export revenue in 2005, 0.25% in 2006, 0.38% in 2007, and 0.36% in 2008/09. For all the rhetoric about a ‘nuclear renaissance’, global nuclear power capacity remains stagnant and uranium’s contribution to the Australian economy has weakened in the past few years − the 2010-11 contribution was 0.21% of national export revenue. The decline is due to weak prices, production problems and shortfalls at Ranger and Olympic Dam, declining production at Beverley (2010 production was considerably less than half the 2004 peak), the failure to bring new mines into production, and the Fukushima disaster.
Still we are being invited to compare Australia’s uranium potential with Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Yet Saudi oil generates about 360 times as much export revenue as Australian uranium. Australia would have to export the entire world uranium demand about 36 times over to match Saudi oil revenue − clearly the comparison is absurd yet it persists.
Moreover the wealth from Australia’s uranium export industry is not equitably distributed. In an assessment of the Olympic Dam royalties agreement between the SA government and BHP Billiton, journalist Paul Clearly wrote in The Australian that it “has robbed the state’s citizens and all Australians of the opportunity to share in the profits of what will become the world’s biggest mine.”
The most disturbing gap between rhetoric and reality concerns the safeguards system which attempts to prevent the use of ‘civil’ nuclear facilities and materials for weapons production. The rhetoric holds that Australia applies “strict” safeguards which “ensure” peaceful use of Australian uranium, and that Australia only sells uranium to countries with “impeccable” non-proliferation credentials.
Those claims are far from the truth. The former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, noted that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to improve the system have been “half-hearted”, and that the system operates on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department “.
As for the “impeccable” credentials of Australia’s uranium customers, Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapons states in breach of their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty disarmament commitments; countries with a history of secret weapons-related research; countries that have not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; undemocratic, secretive states with appalling human rights records (e.g. China, Russia); and there is now bipartisan agreement to sell uranium to India, a country that has not signed the NPT and is engaged in an aggressive nuclear arms race in South Asia.
Lessons not learnt
Uranium exploration at Mt Gee, SA, from 1969−71 left a legacy of contamination. More recently, Marathon Resources was caught illegally disposing of mine drill waste (and much else) after further exploration at Mt Gee.
The first ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site was inadequate. The second ‘clean up’ was inadequate. The third ‘clean up’ was inadequate. The fourth ‘clean up’ − in the late 1990s − was inadequate.
Australia supplied uranium to the UK, only to have it returned in the form of plutonium bombs which contaminated almost all of the mainland. Australia has sold uranium to Japan, consistently turned a blind eye to the poor safety record of TEPCO and other Japanese utilities, and the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has reached the Top End of Australia.
Both major political parties now want to export uranium to an illiberal regime in the Middle East − the United Arab Emirates. The last time Australia planned uranium sales to an illiberal regime in the Middle East was in 1978 when the Fraser government was negotiating with the Shah of Iran − a few months before his overthrow during the Iranian Revolution. You’d think we’d learn. Proliferation concerns are rife in the Middle East and there is a long history of covert nuclear weapons programs and military strikes on nuclear plants.
As one further illustration of lessons not learnt, the Howard government’s attempt to impose a radioactive waste dump in South Australia was characterised by a crash-through-or-crash approach (including the use of compulsory land acquisition powers), racism, secrecy and deceit. The current Labor goverment’s attempt to impose a dump in the NT has been characterised by a crash-through-or-crash approach (including draconian legislation), racism, secrecy and deceit. It seems that each new government must learn afresh that those tactics are not only objectionable but also ineffective.
Surveillance, intimidation, police brutality
australianmap.net discusses just one of the numerous examples of infiltration of anti-nuclear groups − a man who worked as an undercover agent for the Victorian police before working in the private sector including work for General Atomics / Heathgate.
Police intimidation and brutality have been a recurring theme in the struggle over nuclear issues in Australia. One of the worst examples is discussed in australianmap.net − police brutality against environmentalists and local Adnyamathanha people at the Beverley uranium mine in May 2000.
Another form of intimidation has been to threaten to sue critics of nuclear projects for defamation. Even if the threats are not pursued through the courts, they can have the effect of silencing critics.
National nuclear campaigner
Friends of the Earth, Australia