Despair and Defiance

spend a couple of hours with the people responsible for the health and integrity of country threatened by a radioactive waste dump and the issue takes on a crystal clarity. this written in a rage on the way back to canberra from darwin…
I was privileged to camp with Aboriginal elders and environment groups recently at the ‘Australian Nuclear Free Alliance’ meeting, which took place at Mary River, about 100 km south east of Darwin.
This was a remarkable gathering of Traditional Owners and campaigners impacted by uranium mining, weapons testing and radioactive waste dumping, supported by environment groups from around the country. It got started in 1997 as the ‘Alliance Against Uranium’ when the campaign to stop a uranium mine in Kakadu at Jabiluka that combining the strengths of Green and Black organising.

The stories I heard were of the cruellest form of dispossession: the day black rain fell at Maralinga; the expanding groundwater sacrifice zone around the Beverley uranium mine; the cultural and ecological tragedy of Olympic Dam.

Trauma is not too strong a word for what people here are feeling. The Australian community at large holds a distant but healthy suspicion about all things nuclear, but for the people gathered this weekend, the insidious poisoning of country and culture by nuclear blasts, nuclear waste and uranium mining are matters of direct personal experience.

I heard about the brain tumours and breast cancers growing inside people far too young, of the legal entrapments of the Native Title Act which has set families against each other, and now the NT Intervention which has simply compounded and aggravated the despair.

At the meeting there was a huge hand-painted map on the wall showing the rash of proposed uranium mines from Meekatharra to Mount Isa and everywhere in between. One participant observed: ‘there’s just nowhere left to run.’

In the back of everyone’s minds in the Territory is the spectre of 60 years of nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights reactor. The Howard Government passed the highly coercive ‘Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act’ in 2005 which suspended all forms of due process and democratic oversight in order to dump Australia’s radioactive waste in the Northern Territory. In opposition, the ALP promised to repeal this bill and start again.

Now the Federal Government is burning bridges up here. First it was Martin Ferguson’s thuggish repudiation of Kevin Rudd’s election promise on the waste dump. Last week it was the awful spectacle of former Oils frontman and anti-nuclear activist Peter Garrett meekly signing off on the expanded violation of groundwater at the Beverley Uranium Mine.

Where will it end?

According to the hardened campaigners, it ends with final silencing of culture and language, and contamination of country for all time.

In 2008, the year of the apology, we still have elders and law people willing to share their knowledge with us, and ‘open doors to the country’ as Kevin Buzacott puts it. The language is still alive. The law is still being passed on to the kids, and people want to get on with the healing that ‘Sorry’ goes some way to enabling. Why, with so much potential, are we still crushing Aboriginal people between chequebooks, bulldozers, police and Acts of Parliament?

The health treatment costs of police and military personnel present at Maralinga during British nuclear testing – those of them left – have been provided for through a Bill that passed through the Senate in June. Will there ever be a ‘sorry’ and compensation for Aboriginal people? We forget that an area the size of England itself was fenced off by the British who then poisoned an area the size of metropolitan London forever with seven nuclear blasts and hundreds of “minor trials” with plutonium among other long-lasting radioactive substances. Aboriginal people did not give prior and informed consent to such activities and were not even warned that the black rain was toxic, that the flash of light would blind.

Ten years ago this year, the Jabiluka uranium mine was fought to a standstill by the Mirrar and thousands of their supporters. The Kungkas defeated the South Australian waste dump despite the full force of the Federal Government being brought to bear. The Territorians working against the waste dump and their supporters are going to win as well, but only with a determined mobilisation made up of thousands of individual actions – everything from writing out a surprisingly generous cheque to sending a spiky letter to Martin Ferguson or picking up the phone and finding out how you can help more directly.

The people gathered in this shed have things they’d much rather do than fight these undemocratic and toxic projects, but fight they will, and they deserve our support.

The nuclear industry has no place in a sustainable Australia – there is still time to bring some sanity back to this 60-year old conversation and institute a properly democratic and informed process for curing the country’s radioactive migraine.