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 but it can still be seen today.
The British government conducted 12 nuclear bomb tests in Australia in the 1950s, most of them at Maralinga in South Australia. Permission was not sought from affected Aboriginal groups such as the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Tjarutja and Kokatha. Thousands of people were adversely affected and the impact on Aboriginal people was particularly profound.
Many Aboriginal people suffered from radiological poisoning. There are tragic accounts of families sleeping in the bomb craters. So-called Native Patrol Officers patrolled thousands of square kilometres 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 in the affected Indigenous communities could understand. The 1985 Royal Commission found that regard for Aboriginal safety was characterised by "ignorance, incompetence and cynicism". Many Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their homelands and taken to places such as the Yalata mission in South Australia, which was effectively a prison camp.
In the late 1990s, the Australian government carried out a clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site. It was done on the cheap and many tonnes of debris contaminated with kilograms of plutonium remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology.
As nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the “clean-up” on ABC radio in August 2002: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on whitefellas land.”
Despite the residual contamination, the federal government has offloaded responsibility for the land onto the Maralinga Tjarutja traditional owners. The government portrays this land transfer as an act of reconciliation, but the real agenda was spelt out in a 1996 government document, which states that the clean-up was "aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination".
A win for the Kungkas
In 1998, the federal government announced its intention to build a national radioactive waste dump near Woomera in South Australia. Leading the battle against the dump was the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women from northern South Australia. Many of the Kungkas personally suffered the impacts of the British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga in the 1950s.
The Kungkas were sceptical about the government's claim that radioactive waste destined for the Woomera dump was “safe” — after all, the waste would be kept at the Lucas Heights reactor site south of Sydney if it was perfectly safe, or simply dumped in landfill.
The proposed dump generated such controversy in South Australia that the federal government secured the services of a public relations company. Correspondence between the company and the government was released under Freedom of Information laws.
In one exchange, a government official asks the PR company to remove sand dunes from a photo selected to adorn a brochure. The explanation provided by the government official was that: “Dunes are a sensitive area with respect to Aboriginal Heritage.” The sand dunes were removed from the photo, only for the government official to ask if the horizon could be straightened up as well.
In July 2003, the federal government used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native title rights and interests were extinguished at the stroke of a pen. This took place with no forewarning and no consultation with Aboriginal people.
The Kungkas continued to implore the federal government to “get their ears out of their pockets”, and after six long years the government did just that. Before the 2004 federal election, with the dump issue biting politically, the government decided to cut its losses and abandon its plans for a dump in SA.
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.”
Toxic trade-off: dumping on Northern Territorians
The ears went straight back in the pockets the following year with the announcement that the government planned to establish a radioactive waste dump in the Northern Territory.
A toxic trade-off of basic services for a radioactive waste dump has been part of this story from the start. Governments have systematically stripped back resources for remote Aboriginal communities, placing increased pressure on them to accept projects like the radioactive waste dump.
The nomination of the Muckaty site in the NT was originally made with the promise of $12 million compensation for a small group identified as the exclusive traditional owners. A small group of traditional owners support the dump in return for financial compensation. But a larger group was ignored and has initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site.
Even though the court case is unresolved, the government has passed legislation targeting Muckaty as the only site under active consideration for a radioactive waste dump.
The National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 is draconian, overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act and bypassing the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. It allows for the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land with no consultation with or consent from traditional owners.
Nuclear racism in Australia is bipartisan — both the Labor government and the Liberal-National opposition voted in support of the legislation.
Muckaty traditional owner Penny Phillips said: “The government should wait for the court case before passing this law. Traditional owners say no to the waste dump. We have been fighting against this for years and we will keep fighting. We don't want it in Muckaty or anywhere in the Northern Territory.”
The Central Land Council expressed “profound disappointment” at the passage of the National Radioactive Waste Management Act. David Ross, sirector of the Land Council, said: “This legislation is shameful, it subverts processes under the [Aboriginal] Land Rights Act and is clearly designed to reach the outcome of a dump being located on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, whether that's the best place for it or not.
“This legislation preserves the Muckaty nomination without acknowledging the dissent and conflict amongst the broader traditional owner group about the process and the so-called agreement. The passage of this legislation will further inflame the tensions and divisions amongst families in Tennant Creek, and cause great stress to many people in that region."
Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson has refused countless requests to meet with traditional owners opposed to the dump.
Muckaty traditional owner Dianne Stokes says: “All along we have said we don’t want this dump on our land but we have been ignored. 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 got away with his plan but in fact he has a big fight on his hands.”
Stokes is not alone. Many traditional owners are determined to stop the dump and they are supported by the NT government, key trade unions including the Australia Council of Trade Unions, church groups, medical and health organisations and environmental groups. If push comes to shove, there will be a blockade at the site to stop the dump being built.
The patterns of nuclear racism are also evident in Australia’s uranium mining industry. Racism in the 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.
To give one example, 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 last year, but it retains exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Traditional owners were not consulted. The SA government's spokesperson in parliament said: “BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that.”
That disgraceful performance illustrates a broader pattern. Aboriginal land rights and heritage protections are feeble at the best of times. But the legal rights and protections are repeatedly stripped away whenever they get in the way of nuclear or mining interests.
Thus the Olympic Dam mine is largely exempt from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Legislation was passed specifically to exempt the Ranger uranium mine in the NT from the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Native title rights were extinguished with the stroke of a pen to seize land for a radioactive waste dump in South Australia. And Aboriginal heritage laws and Aboriginal land rights are being trashed with the current push to dump in the NT.
The situation is scarcely any better than it was in the 1950s when the British were exploding nuclear bombs on Aboriginal land.
[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia and a former national committee member of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.]