In the lead-up to the April 27-29 ALP national conference in Sydney, a number of federal Labor frontbenchers and state premiers have declared themselves in favour of scrapping the party's "no new mines" policy in favour of an unrestricted expansion of uranium mining. This push — which ignores the views of a majority of Australians and the extreme dangers inherent in uranium mining and the nuclear cycle that it is part of — reflects booming prices for the mineral on the world market. However, a number of trade unions have opposed the policy change and vowed to fight it at the conference.
The move to change ALP policy has been pushed from the top of the party by Kevin Rudd and his deputy, Julia Gillard, as part of their strategy to convince big business that they are a serious alternative government — in other words, that they can be trusted to govern in big business's interests. Business has responded positively. Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Mitch Hooke welcomed the proposed change as a "sensible shift" and condemning the no-new-mines policy as outdated, illogical and inherently flawed.
The proposed ALP policy shift is supported by a majority of state premiers. While Western Australian Premier Alan Carpenter appears to be sticking to his opposition to uranium mining in his state, the uranium lobby was given a boost on March 23 when Queensland Premier Peter Beattie abandoned his opposition to uranium mining in his state.
While Beattie's previous opposition to uranium mining was based on concern that it could be a threat to the coal industry, its threat to human and other life motivates the concern of the majority of Australians who oppose to the nuclear industry. Studies going back to the 1920s show workers in uranium mines suffer high mortality from lung cancer. This is mainly from radon gas produced by the radioactive decay of uranium, which has a half-life of about a week.
The tailings, or waste, produced by uranium mining contains radioactive elements with half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. However, the most advanced tailings dams and storage facilities only claim to be safe for 500 years. Furthermore, not only are leaks and accidents commonplace, "regulated" releases of water contaminated with radium as well as non-radioactive toxins are part of standard mine operation. For example, the Ranger mine in the Northern Territory releases 2 million cubic metres of contaminated water every wet season into the fragile and globally significant ecosystem of the Kakadu wetlands. As a result, radioactive elements are becoming increasingly concentrated in Kakadu's water, plants and animals.
The threat to human health by this radioactive pollution was graphically shown by a study of births between 1967 and 1974 in Navajo Indian communities in the main area of US uranium mining. This showed abnormally high levels of birth defects including hydrocephaly, microcephaly, Down syndrome, cleft lip, cleft palate and epilepsy.
The more recent uranium extraction process called in-situ leaching, which is used at the Beverly mine in South Australia, is touted by the nuclear lobby as a safe alternative to previous mining methods. The process involves drilling wells into uranium ore bodies, pumping in sulphuric acid to dissolve the ore and pumping out the resulting solution. However, far from being safe, the irradiation of underground aquifers poses an even greater environmental threat, particularly in a water-poor continent such as Australia.
Moreover, once mined, there are no uses for uranium that don't present a serious threat. Nuclear power generation creates the danger of catastrophic accidents, as the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown demonstrated. It also creates waste that remains lethally radioactive for hundreds of millennia. For 50 years the nuclear power industry has been working on the premise that a safe way of disposing of nuclear waste is on the verge of being discovered.
One way of dealing with nuclear waste is turning it into weapons. In fact nuclear power was only developed to support the production of nuclear weapons — without the nuclear military budget, nuclear power would never have become economically viable. While Labor's uranium converts are trying to distinguish themselves from the Liberals by restricting export of uranium to signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the practice of "flag swapping" means that nuclear waste resulting from Australian uranium can be re-exported with its country of origin hidden.
Furthermore, the largest nuclear arsenals are held by NPT signatories, including Australia's closest allies, the US and Britain. Not only is the US the only country to have used nuclear bombs militarily (against the predominantly civilian targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), it has also used "depleted uranium" munitions in its wars in Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Haiti and both the 1991 and current wars against Iraq. The use of DU weapons in the 1991 Iraq war has been proved to be the cause of both the "Gulf War Syndrome" that affected US veterans and a fivefold increase in the incidence of leukemia in Iraqi children during the 1990s.
Announcing his conversion to the pro-uranium mining cause — appropriately at a March 23 meeting of the Labor Business Roundtable held at the Parmelia Hilton in Perth — shadow energy and resources minister Senator Chris Evans described the ALP's current no-new-mines policy as a cynical compromise. This is correct. In 1977, the ALP responded to mass mobilisations, industrial struggle and resistance from Indigenous communities by adopting an anti-uranium policy. However, this policy was watered down by Bob Hawke to win business support in the 1983 elections.
Once in power, the ALP caucus voted to allow uranium exports. At the 1984 party conference, opposition to government attempts to adopt a platform of unlimited expansion of uranium mining led to the compromise that is behind the current policy, essentially that the ALP will not increase the number of mines while it is in government.
At the time, the 1984 compromise was considered enough of a betrayal to cause an exodus of ALP members and the establishment of the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP), which polled 6.8% in the 1984 elections. The NDP lead senate candidate in New South Wales was Peter Garrett, who as lead singer of Midnight Oil created some of the iconic songs of the Australian anti-nuclear movement.
Ironically, as shadow environment minister Garrett has not only reconciled himself with the ALP's 1984 compromise on uranium but, while opposing the current push for an "open slather" uranium mining policy, has pledged to remain loyal if the party leadership succeeds in getting it adopted at next month's conference.
Despite the ALP's, and Garrett's, betrayal, the anti-uranium movement has been able to limit the spread of uranium mining. Even under the messianicly pro-nuclear Howard government the Jabiluka mine was stopped by the combination of mass mobilisations and Indigenous resistance.
The ALP's 1977 anti-uranium policy was in large part due to trade union opposition to the dangers posed by uranium mining to workers in the industry and more generally. While the right-wing Australian Workers Union, which covers most workers in uranium mines, supported the nuclear industry (as it does today), other unions refused to allow their members to work in the mines. Unions in the maritime, rail and trucking industries put bans on the transport of uranium. In 1976 there was a national rail strike following the sacking of a worker for refusing to transport a nuclear shipment. Today, the unions remain in the forefront of attempts to stopping the ALP adopting a more pro-uranium stance.
Dave Kelly, WA secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, told Green Left Weekly that while he did not support uranium mining at all, there was no possibility of a policy on phasing it out being adopted at the upcoming ALP conference. "The best possible outcome would be that the no-new-mines policy survives", he said, to which end his union would be engaging in "fairly vigorous lobbying of various delegations". The WA LHMU is supporting the Carpenter government's resistance to pressure to allow uranium mining in the state.
Kelly's opposition was echoed by Victorian Australian Manufacturing Workers Union acting state secretary Steve Dargavel, who told GLW that "the AMWU has been consistent for a lot of years in opposing additional uranium mines and the industry in general … We will be opposing [the] push to water down the ALP's policy."
In Queensland, unions are resisting Beattie's attempts to allow mining in the state. Electrical Trades Union state secretary Dick Williams described Beattie's backflip as "disgraceful" and told GLW that the attempted policy change would meet with "significant debate at the national conference". On March 23 the ABC reported the AMWU's Andrew Dettmer as saying: "The fact is the residue of uranium mining, which is nuclear waste, has a half-life of 37,000 years, well beyond the time of Mr Beattie's premiership."