Radioactive racism

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Radioactive racism

By Jim Green

The nuclear industry profits from and reinforces racism. Backed by its political partners, the industry forces uranium mines, nuclear reactors, radioactive waste dumps and weapons tests on to the land of indigenous peoples.

Third World countries are home to the filthiest uranium mines and are sometimes used as radioactive waste dumps. Colonies have often been used for weapons testing and, in some cases, the people have been used as human guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation from nuclear bombs.

Racism and atomic testing have gone hand in hand since 1945. Examples include US and British tests on the islands of the Pacific, French tests in Algeria and the Pacific and Chinese tests in Tibet.

From 1952 to 1963, a series of nuclear weapons tests took place at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia, and on Monte Bello Island off the coast of Western Australia. The tests, primarily under the control of the British government, included 12 atomic blasts and hundreds of "minor" tests.

It is highly likely that some of the uranium used in the weapons tests at Maralinga came from mines on Aboriginal land in SA.

The British and Australian governments did not seek permission from Aboriginal groups in SA, such as the Pitjantjatjara and Kokatha, before conducting the tests.

For the first four years, just one person had the task of searching for Aborigines throughout the atomic test range of 800,000 square kilometres. The signs erected were written in English, which few Aborigines in the region understood.

Aborigines were severely affected by the tests, whether or not they were exposed to radiation.

Forced relocation was particularly traumatic. In SA, many Aborigines were relocated to Yalata, a mission station 150 kilometres west of Ceduna. Yalata was outside the tribal lands of the Pitjantjatjara, who were the majority of the relocated Aborigines. Conditions drove many to rebellion, crime, violence and alcohol.

In 1996, the federal government said that the Maralinga clean-up — initiated after 30 years of protest and a royal commission in the mid-1980s — was "aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination".

No doubt the government has similar motives in mind with its recent announcement that an "eminent epidemiologist" will be appointed to investigate research linking the nuclear weapons tests to an abnormally high incidence of rare cancers among British service personnel involved in the tests.

A similar investigation is to be conducted in Britain, but the British Ministry of Defence has pre-empted the results by stating that the aim is to reassure people that the cancers are not linked to the weapons tests.

The capitalist media — which cheered on the weapons tests in the 1950s — have said nothing about the continuing concerns of Aborigines affected by the blasts. Rebecca Bear-Wingfield, an Arabunna and Kokatha woman, has called for the terms of the Australian study to be widened to include all people exposed to radioactive fallout.

Uranium mines

The capitalist media use the term "yellowcake millionaires" to describe recipients of royalties from uranium mining. Yet the money is usually gobbled up by bureaucrats, lawyers and sundry other parasites.

Vincent Forrester, a former chairperson of the Northern Territory National Aboriginal Conference, says, "We must break this dependency on mining activity for money for essential services. It is morally bankrupt. No Aboriginal community should be put in the position of deciding on development that is tied to the uranium industry. Until all Aboriginal service matters are met by direct grants from federal treasury, our people have little choice in this matter."

The nuclear industry and its political supporters routinely deploy divide-and-rule strategies to overcome Aboriginal opposition to uranium mining and other nuclear projects.

In the early 1990s, Western Mining Corporation was trying to overcome opposition to an expansion of the Roxby Downs uranium mine (and the extraction of greater volumes of water from the Great Artesian Basin) in SA.

A group of people, who previously identified themselves as part of the Arabunna community, established the Dieri Mitha Council (DMC). It appears that Western Mining funded the DMC to bring people from the NT, 1600 kilometres away, to hold a ceremony on Arabunna land in an attempt to "prove" that the Dieri Mitha are the traditional custodians and the appropriate group to be negotiating with Western Mining. The Arabunna considered this ceremony a sacrilege.

According to Friends of the Earth, Western Mining supplied DMC with money and vehicles, and signed a "cooperation agreement". On the strength of this agreement, Western Mining has been able to proceed with various projects relating to the upgrade of Roxby Downs.

Kevin Buzzacott, from the Arabunna, says: "Roxby Downs has brought nothing but problems with our people and the destruction of our lands. We know how our people have been manipulated, bribed, tricked and contracts signed under duress. We have seen how the mining companies set up rival land councils to counter the claims of the rightful authority for the country."

The Mirrar clan's struggle against the Jabiluka uranium mine in the NT is the most widely known example of racist uranium mining, but it is by no means the only one.

In 1997, in response to the Howard government's open-slather policy on uranium mining, Aboriginal groups declared: "We the Martu, Mirrar, Arabunna, Murran, Gangalida peoples ... share concerns with local, national and international impacts of present and proposed uranium mines. The Aboriginal experience with uranium mining continues to result in genocide of our community and the destruction of our homelands and country."

Waste dumps

Last year the federal government announced a decision to transport "our" radioactive waste to a "remote repository" in the Billa Kalina region of SA. However, it will not be a repository, but a dump consisting of unlined trenches. Measured in terms of radioactivity, almost all of the waste will come from the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.

Billa Kalina is indeed "remote" — from Canberra — and it is sufficiently remote from Sydney to reduce public opposition to the federal government's plan to build another nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights.

The nuclear industry knows no shame: one reason given for the replacement reactor is to maintain expertise for projects such as the rehabilitation of Maralinga.

There are numerous Aboriginal groups living in and around the Billa Kalina region, including the Kuyani, Barngarla, Kokatha, Arabunna, Antikirinya and Nukunu. Most of the groups are opposed to the waste dump, and there are several native title claims pending.

The government says that Billa Kalina is a pastoral lease, not Aboriginal land. Kevin Buzzacott points out: "Our land was taken by massacre and displacement. No treaties were ever signed. We have never ceded our sovereignty. This is not an uninhabited wasteland for your waste. It is our home."

Buzzacott foreshadowed the possibility that a national dump could become an international dump. Late last year a video produced by a US company called Pangea Resources argued that regions in SA and WA would be ideal for an international radioactive waste dump. No mention was made of Aboriginal landowners or native title claimants.

Racism and the nuclear industry are partners in crime. Invariably, another dynamic is at work: class struggle. Anne Herbert and Margaret Pavel, writing in the Nuclear Guardianship Forum, note: "If the white people who make decisions about nuclear waste felt that the people of colour in poor areas are as valuable as the decision makers' own mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, would they continue to dump nuclear waste in those areas? If tailings from uranium mining were located next to the homes of investment bankers instead of the homes of indigenous people, would uranium mining continue?".

In the US, the government targets Native Americans for nuclear waste disposal for several reasons: their land is relatively isolated, they are impoverished and politically vulnerable, and tribal sovereignty can be used to bypass state environmental laws.

"How ironic", writes Grace Thorpe in Indian Country Today, "that after centuries of attempting to destroy it, the US government is suddenly interested in promoting American Indian sovereignty — just so it can dump its lethal garbage!".

Formal land rights mean nothing when those rights can easily be denied or bought off by the nuclear industry and its political sycophants. The Mirrar clan gained legal title to their land in 1982 under the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act, but this has not helped them in their struggle against the Jabiluka mine.

Formal land rights mean nothing when the opinions of the Mirrar clan — and 67% of Australians, according to a Newspoll survey — are ignored by the Howard government and mining company Energy Resources of Australia.

"Real" land rights is an oxymoron under capitalism — except for the capitalists. Likewise national sovereignty is empty when economic exploitation of the Third World does the job as well as direct military control.

Campaign unity

Links need to be made between campaigns against various facets of the nuclear fuel cycle and between indigenous and working-class people, who suffer the effects of the nuclear industry disproportionately.

One group on the right track is Healing Global Wounds, a US coalition comprising indigenous and non-indigenous allies. It was formed in 1991 to fight the entire nuclear cycle and to expose what it calls "nuclear colonialism: the issues of racism and class in international nuclear policy".