The reason Australia doesn’t have nuclear power: the workers fought back
No doubt many answers will come to to mind. But whatever else unites them, they all support nuclear power.
Jim Green from Friends of the Earth Australia, which compiled the above list, says that nuclear energy now functions more as a culture war troll than a serious policy, not least because the people who want atomic solution to climate change are usually the same people (as the group above illustrates) who don’t believe climate change requires a solution at all.
Despite the best efforts of Queensland conservatives, Australia will not go nuclear. The former chair of Uranium King, Warwick Grigor, says flatly: “No one is going down that path in the foreseeable future.” Even industry boosters see nuclear power stations as feasible only if the government introduces, um, a carbon tax, a proposal to which the culture warriors would react like vampires to garlic.
Nevertheless, progressives should discuss nuclear energy and climate change, if only because the campaign we need against coal can learn from the historic struggle against a different mineral.
Upon the opening of the Rum Jungle uranium mine in 1953, Robert Menzies gushed: “We, in Australia, are lucky indeed, that we should have found, within our own boundaries, deposits of this ore which can and will undoubtedly within a measurable distance bring power and light and the amenities of life to the producers and consumers and the housewives of this continent.”
You feel that if he could have brought a lump of the stuff into parliament he probably would have done so.
Yet by the second half of the 70s, activists concerned about the environmental consequences of mining, the effects on Indigenous communities, and Australia’s role in the nuclear arms race, had made uranium mining into a national controversy.
In 1977, the Movement Against Uranium Mining collected 250,000 signatures within a few months for a moratorium on mining. Later that year 20,000 people joined rallies in both Sydney and Melbourne.
The activists then confronted the same arguments about mining and jobs we hear today about Adani’s Carmichael coalmine. Yet as historian Verity Burgmann says, organised labour was “involved in the [anti-uranium] movement from its very earliest stages”.
The key struggles were led by rank-and-file unionists, often in defiance of prominent officials.
In 1976 Jim Assenbruck, a railway worker in Townsville, refused, in accordance with the recently adopted policy of the Australian Railways Union, to load materials intended for the Mary Kathleen uranium mine.
His subsequent suspension sparked a national rail strike.
In response, Jack Egerton, the ACTU’s senior vice president and an important Labor politician, came out in support of uranium using very familiar rhetoric.
“Railwaymen,” he said, “who are among the low-income earners in the community, should not be the pawn in the game of environmental politics.”
Egerton explicitly cast the rail workers as dupes when, in fact, those “low-income earners” were perfectly capable of making their own decisions – and had chosen of their own accord not to support environmental destruction.
Like many politicians who proclaim the importance of coal jobs, Egerton was not exactly an impartial commentator, given he moonlighted as a director of the Mary Kathleen mine.
In 1977 Melbourne wharfies called a 24-hour strike of the entire port after the arrival of the yellowcake laden ship Columbus Australia. The Melbourne branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation eventually imposed a ban on that ship and all future vessels carrying uranium – and they so in defiance of their own, more conservative, federal leadership.
Obviously that was a different time.
Today unionism is far weaker, with the rank and file less active.
But that bureaucratisation makes the examples from the anti-uranium struggle particularly compelling.
Why did the Melbourne wharfies walk off the job?
In part they were inspired by the courage of anti-nuclear protesters, over 40 of whom were violently arrested in what the Australian dubbed “the wildest demo since Vietnam”.
The environmental activists’ determination in the face of “brute force” from mounted police encouraged the unionists to take action themselves – and that action then spread.
Such was the pattern of the campaign.
The momentum eventually persuaded the Australian Labor party to abandon its previous support for uranium. At the national conference of 1977, the party passed a historic resolution for an indefinite moratorium.
Unfortunately, that motion encouraged the movement to, as Burgmann writes, throw itself “wholeheartedly into supporting the Labor party to regain government” – rather in the way that Bill Shorten’s climate rhetoric led activists to back the ALP during the 2019 election campaign.
Then, as now, the reliance on Labor proved disastrous.
In 1982 the ALP overturned the 1977 position. When Bob Hawke came to power the next year, mining continued under the very government for which many anti-uranium activists had campaigned.
The movement’s real strength always depended on its grassroots – on the willingness of activists to defy the rightwingers in Labor and the unions, even to the extent of facing arrest.
In Queensland for instance, the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen tried to physically prevent the anti-uranium marches of 1977, with 418 people facing 566 charges after a single march in October, mostly for “taking part in an unlawful procession”.
Thereafter Bjelke-Petersen banned marches altogether.
“Protest groups need not bother applying for permits to stage marches because they won‘t be granted …” he said. “That’s government policy now.”
The anti-nuclear cause thus became, for Queenslanders, a proxy for other issues, not least basic civil liberties.
The Brisbane rally last week of more than 700 people against the Adani coalmine recalled that history, with Greens councillor Jonathan Sri telling attendees that “mass civil disobedience” would be necessary to stop the mine.
“Right now,” he said, “what we need is as many people as possible who are willing to get arrested, who are willing to put their bodies on the line. … You need to mobilise on the streets in large numbers.”
If Jim Assenbruck could risk his job in Townsville to oppose uranium in 1976, working-class people in rural Queensland can be convinced to oppose Adani today.
But to win them over, we need an independent grassroots movement that shows, through practice, its seriousness.
In a time of profound despair, mass civil disobedience over climate – a cause with tremendous moral weight – would provide a beacon of hope. It would be a rallying cry for everyone aghast not just at environmental devastation but at the broken political system incapable of preventing it.
Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist
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