Environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners are disappointed but not surprised by the ALP national conference decision on April 28 to drop its "no new uranium mines" policy. This allows state Labor governments to approve new mines, a policy backed by the South Australian and Queensland premiers.
Opposition leader Kevin Rudd and his deputy, Julia Gillard, used the debate to prove to the big end of town that they could push through an unpopular policy. Internal opposition to the change meant that Rudd won by only 15 votes (190 votes to retain the policy and 205 to drop it).
Despite the vote against, there was little willingness within the party to conduct a concerted campaign against Rudd's policy. Shadow environment minister Peter Garrett, who opposed changing the policy, gave up the fight before it began by pledging to accept whichever decision in the interests of being a "team player". Dave Sweeney, an anti-nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, told Green Left Weekly that 20 delegates who didn't want to vote in favour of the expansion of uranium mining proxied their votes to other delegates who would vote in favour of it.
Holly Creenaune, an anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth (FoE) who coordinated two protest actions outside the conference, told GLW, "The vote was narrow, unpopular and a serious mistake. Uranium mining remains highly controversial, unwanted, unsafe and unnecessary." She added that there was lot of pressure on delegates, with Labor leaders, including SA premier Mike Rann and Australian Workers Union leader Bill Shorten "failing to articulate coherent arguments and opting instead to pressure delegates to not 'roll' the leader".
While Western Australian premier Alan Carpenter has pledged to oppose uranium mining and obstacles remain to the development of uranium mines in Queensland, Labor's decision has put the Northern Territory and SA at the frontline of uranium mining expansion.
Immediately after the conference, Rann (who declared that his state was set up to become the "Saudi Arabia" of uranium if the old policy was dropped) announced that he would fast-track applications for another 100 uranium exploration licenses. There are already 60 companies with 160 licenses exploring for uranium. Any new mines will be in addition to the Beverly mine, the soon-to-be-opened Honeymoon mine and BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam mine, which is likely to receive approval for a four-fold expansion, making it the biggest uranium mine in the world.
Emma King from the NT Environment Centre told GLW that Labor's decision "has direct implications for the [Indigenous] communities and the environment near the sites of uranium deposits". King noted that several of the known uranium deposits in the NT are located near important water supplies which, if mined, could pose a serious threat to water security, human health and the environment.
"The Angela and Pamela deposits are just 23 kilometres south of Alice Springs, within the town's water catchment area and only a few kilometres from the bore field that supplies the town's water. The Mt Fitch deposit, which Compass Resources has said it wants to start mining in 2009, is only 3.5 kilometres from Darwin River Dam, which provides Darwin with drinking water.
"The Biglryi deposit is near Yuendumu in central Australia. Yuendumu already has naturally occurring high levels of uranium in its drinking water and a uranium mine in the area is likely to increase these levels. Ingestion of uranium is known to have adverse health effects including increasing the incidence of kidney disease, already a problem in many Indigenous communities. The Biglryi deposit is located in the Trueur Ranges in an area where 13 permanent springs create a unique green oasis in the desert. Traditional owners are extremely concerned about the impact a mine in the area would have on water and bush tucker."
Anti-uranium activists are gearing up for a fight against the new uranium mines. Resistance activist Simon Cunich, who helped organise the actions outside the ALP conference, told GLW that it is important now to mobilise the widespread anti-uranium sentiment. He pointed to the successful national mass movement and Indigenous resistance that stopped the Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, saying that such a strategy will also be the only way to stop Labor from selling out on its promise not to support nuclear power plants in Australia.
"Nuclear power is no solution to global warming — here or overseas. It's hypocritical for Labor to argue that while it doesn't support nuclear power in this country, it's happy to support it elsewhere by selling Australian uranium. This also transfers the unsolved problem of waste disposal when we could be helping other countries develop renewable energy alternatives", Cunich said.