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November 02nd 2016 print

Michael Angwin

How Green Activists Nuked Themselves

The anti-nuclear movement had everything going for it, from copious funding and the support of international NGOs to sympathetic press coverage and parliamentary supporters. Yet its crusade petered out, laid low by bogus science and ardent, absolutist ratbaggery

no nukesAustralia’s environmental warriors have failed in their campaigns over the past 40 years to stop the Australia’s uranium mining industry. In the past decade in particular, the anti-uranium movement has suffered devastating defeats, as uranium mining has expanded with bi-partisan support from Labor and conservative parties. It’s instructive to analyse why.

The anti-uranium movement operated on a permanent basis through the nation’s foremost environmental organisations and hundreds of other smaller organisations.  It had access to considerable financial resources[1], to sympathetic media and to Commonwealth and state parliamentary sympathisers.  It was gifted three nuclear accidents as a platform for its advocacy.

Given these propitious circumstances, how did the movement fail so completely to impede the development of Australia’s nuclear industry? What accounts for this monumental failure of policy, strategy and tactics? First, let’s look at the past decade’s landmark political decisions in support of uranium. The process began with the Howard Coalition government, and the ALP followed suit.

  • The centre-left Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, endorsed uranium mining and exports ten days after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was destroyed by a tsunami
  • Eight months later, Ms Gillard announced her government would export uranium to India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, contrary to ALP policy.  Shortly after, the policy fell humbly into line with her decision
  • Four uranium projects were approved under mainstream environmental laws, despite the close involvement of the anti-uranium movement in the assessment process
  • In 2016, South Australia’s centre-left government began to implement a Royal Commission report that endorsed SA as a suitable place for a global nuclear waste repository.

The anti-uranium movement emerged in the early 1970s to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific.  The movement next turned its attention to domestic uranium mining, using the Fraser government’s decision to permit mining at Ranger as a focus for activism. By the end of the 1970s, an anti-uranium strategy had emerged: frame uranium as a class-based issue and connect it with a broader political assault on the capitalist status quo; establish many small, local opposition groups; coordinate their activities; frame the movement as large, vigorous and publicly-supported; focus on emotions, especially fear; and target traditional land owners as a key point of resistance to mining.

However, even as insiders conceded at the time, ‘the ’70s movement did not fundamentally threaten Australia’s nuclear industry’.[2] The movement declined during the 1980s. The rise and decline of the Nuclear Disarmament Party paved the way for the co-option of the anti-uranium movement by the Labor Party[3].  The movement then declined even more rapidly, and uranium economics became much more important in shaping uranium development.

By the mid-1980s, anti-uranium activism tried a more mainstream advocacy strategy of influencing public opinion.[4]  By the late-1990s, the movement’s strategy had become, by default, ‘isolated campaigning’.[5] While some environmental NGOs continued to fund full-time ‘anti-nuclear campaigners’, isolated campaigning has become the norm.

Why did it fail? A first clue is found in this history. The policy, strategy and tactics of the movement were shaped by Marxist ideological[6] beliefs.  This never appealed to a mainstream Australian audience, which is more interested in workable solutions for real problems. The anti-uranium movement also faced the global failure of its founding ideology: in the 1980s, the Cold War ended and Soviet communism collapsed.

The ideological failure of the anti-uranium movement was accompanied by a long series of startling policy, strategy and tactical errors, particularly in making claims that had no credibility. For example,  anti-nuclear crusader Helen Caldicott once claimed[7] a Howard/Bush conspiracy, involving the owners of the Alice Springs-to-Darwin railway, to store America’s nuclear waste at Muckaty Station, once proposed as the Federal government’s low-level nuclear waste site. This vast claim was based on the small fact that a subsidiary of Halliburton, a company with which former US vice-president Dick Cheney was once associated, was one of the handful of companies in a joint venture, to operate the rail road. There are many examples of this kind, and they illustrate the weakness of the anti-uranium movement’s advocacy: policy makers won’t take you seriously if you prosecute your case with selective facts, used out of context and without perspective.

The anti-uranium movement also dealt itself out of exerting influence in regard to Australia’s nuclear fuel cycle because of its unwillingness to countenance compromise, preferring the “purity “of its opposition to the opportunity to address the operational, environmental or policy issues. For example: the Australian Uranium Association conducted a uranium stewardship workshop in April, 2009, and invited a number of the critics. The Australian Conservation Foundation’s representative attacked the industry for being concerned about product stewardship at all, bizarrely claiming that stewardship had ‘religious overtones’. Simply put, the ACF effectively rejected a dialogue; it did not appear to want the uranium industry to address what it professed to be its concerns.

At the heart of the rejection of engagement is the campaigners’ naïve belief that the nuclear fuel cycle can be shut down. It is already clear that Australia’s national pro-uranium political consensus is likely to be resilient and lasting. More tellingly, the anti-uranium movement does not have a pathway for shutting down uranium.  It has never indicated how it would close mines or stop exploration. They have a position, but not a pathway.  They have outrage, but can’t achieve an outcome.  Even if they could answer the question ‘why’, they say ‘how’.

They can’t get to a nuclear-free Australia because parts of the nuclear fuel cycle – nuclear isotope production, nuclear research, nuclear medicine, uranium mining, nuclear education – are embedded in the Australian economic and social framework.

A nuclear-free world is another anti-uranium ambition. The decisive counter-argument is that nuclear power plants continue to be built. That this is happening demonstrates that nuclear power has a solid economic, social and environmental case.

The campaigners have sought to form a common front with Indigenous Australians against uranium. But despite campaigners’ claims, they have no special relationship on this issue. The views of Indigenous Australians about uranium are varied and pluralistic.  There is no ‘Aboriginal position’.The resources industry was slow in partnering Indigenous communities for mutual benefit.  But today, there is no credible argument against the fact that the resources industry works diligently, if not always successfully, to build those partnerships. Respectful relations between the uranium industry and Indigenous Australians are the norm.

The anti-uranium campaign lost further ground by its failure to accept mainstream science. At a press conference in Montreal on March, 18, 2011, a week after Fukushima, Helen Caldicott claimed: ‘It seems that nearly a million people have already died as a result of Chernobyl…Then we extrapolate through to Japan.  Japan is by orders of magnitude many times worse than Chernobyl.’ [8]

So, according to Caldicott, the Fukushima death toll could be 10 million or maybe 100 million or even a billion, depending on the number of orders of magnitude she had in mind.[9]

The anti-nuclear claim is that one can make an estimate of the collective radiation dose in sieverts (the usual radiation dose measure) received by a large number of people, apply a standard risk estimate of fatal cancers per sievert and, hey presto, come up with an estimate of the number of people who will die from the collective dose. It’s a bit like saying that small rocks thrown at a lot of people will kill some of them because the combined weight of the small rocks is large enough to do so. Caldicott is not alone in taking this line. Both the Friends of the Earth and the Medical Association for the Prevention of War have tried to retail similar arithmetic.

This is where science is really helpful. In the field of radiation protection, two organisations matter: the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). Both have had things to say on this very issue.

The UNSCEAR has said that it: ‘…does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels.’[10] The ICRP has said: ‘…collective doses aggregated from small notional individual doses should not be used to attribute health effects to radiation exposure situations, neither retrospectively nor prospectively.’[11]

If that’s not enough, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety held in Japan in December 2012 reported, almost in the same terms as the ICRP, that: ‘…collective doses aggregated from small notional individual doses should not be used to attribute health effects to radiation exposure situations either retrospectively or prospectively.’ [12] In other words, science confirms common sense: small additional radiation exposures for a lot of people will not kill some of them just because the combined radiation exposure is larger.

The critics, however, just keep ignoring this science. Likewise, the campaigners have never squared their uranium opposition with their professed concern about CO2 emissions and the climate. They reject the nuclear fuel cycle even though nuclear power accounts for lower emissions than solar and wind power for the equivalent amount of electricity produced, and that it has been producing clean electricity for 60 years. In the terms set by the environmental NGOs for the climate change debate, this is a jarring contradiction. They are prepared to compromise climate action in favour of nuclear activism.

Unsurprisingly, the contradiction in play here has split the global environmental movement into supporters and opponents of nuclear power, with the Australian anti-uranium movement at the most negative and reactionary end of the spectrum.

The final reason for the failure of the anti-uranium movement is that its positions are at odds with the values and practical concerns of people everywhere:  economic growth and prosperity for themselves and their children and as the means for responding to a growing world population that wants to be as wealthy as we are in Australia. I don’t expect this to change. 

The path ahead for the Australian uranium industry and the global nuclear industry will be mapped by the competition between energy sources for market share. Global nuclear power capacity will grow slowly to moderately, with faster growth in India and Asia, moderate growth in the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe and slow to very slow growth in Western Europe and North America.

The future of the Australian uranium industry will be shaped by this nuclear economics. It won’t be shaped by the activities of the ageing anti-uranium movement.

Michael Angwin, now an industrial relations consultant, was CEO of the Australian Uranium Association from 2006 to 2013.


[1] The Australian Conservation Foundation has assets valued at over $16million and annual income of over $14 million.

[2] Green Left Weekly, August 26 1998

[3] ibid, Green Left Weekly

[4]ibid, Green Left Weekly

[5] ibid, Green Left Weekly

[6] ibid, Green Left Weekly

[7] In July 2007, on an ABC television program, Difference of Opinion, on which I also appeared

[9] There is no scientific basis for the claim of a million deaths, or anything like it, due to Chernobyl.

Comments [15]

  1. Eeyore says:


    TRIGGER WARNING this guy is a dedicated AGW believer.

    If like I you take the view that scientists thinking on this matter is of more value than my own, less knowledgeable views then someone who speaks to reality rather than plucking doom laden pronouncement out of his rectum is a breath of fresh air.

  2. Ian MacDougall says:

    In 2016, South Australia’s centre-left government began to implement a Royal Commission report that endorsed SA as a suitable place for a global nuclear waste repository.

    Trouble is, there is one hulluvan assumption in this project to make lots and lots of $$$$$$ out of long-term storage of other countries’ wastes: that the originators of the waste will keep paying SA or Australia to store it; for ever and ever amen.
    Economic circumstances change, and if ever it suits the originator to say ‘we have had it with paying this. It is your problem from here on,’ there is not much that Australia can do in response, especially if the originator declines to receive any of it back. From do nothing to declare war, it would all depend on how much diplomatic support Australia would have at the time.
    In short, it is not necessarily such a rosy financial prospect for this country, especially since the nuclear industry has been so dependent on government subsidies of one kind or another.


    • Eeyore says:

      You fail to take into account the value as a fuel for reprocessing. From my limited knowledge what is termed as “waste” has only utilised 2% of the available energy of the material.
      The latest reactors (GEN 4) from what I have read have the ability to use the remaining 98%. So in short, at some point in the future our storage clients renege on their deal, we have free fuel.
      In addition to which the de-carbonise chap in the link above has as part of submissions this reprocessing of the waste into new income streams.
      Everything depends on the results of the royal commission who thankfully have listen politely to Luddites like Caldicott and then ignored them at least so far, the biggest worry is the SA people, the type that sequentially vote in the likes of SHY will again see the word waste and imagine it is somehow befouling their environment.

      I lived there for 12 years and travelled extensively thru out the dry and I can tell you there are vast tracks of space there where there is nothing…nada…emptiness as far as the eye can see.

      • Ian MacDougall says:

        “Luddites like Caldicott” provide an important balance to nuclear power shills whose brief is to talk up the industry, with only short-term consequences in mind and a ‘who cares?’ attitude to any conceivable long-term ones.
        In the 1950s the wastes from the US bomb programs were routinely dumped in the ocean, with the justification that they would be diluted to blazes in the ocean water and they would be no worry at all. Then biologists started finding them in organisms in the oceanic food chains, and started pointing out that oceanic dilution is countered by the normal ecological processes associated with food pyramids. So in those “vast tracks [sic] of space there where there is nothing…nada…emptiness as far as the eye can see” similar processes can be taking place.
        Not that I am against nuclear weapons. Without them, we would be up to about World War 8 by now.

        • Eeyore says:

          How does one get important balance from someone who is speaking in direct opposition to scientific fact?
          There may be a bit of cognitive dissonance in your thinking given your absolute acceptance of AGW because science and your commentary above don’t you think?
          What they did in the 50′s is not relevant in the slightest unless you are in someway suggesting that there is some sort of comparison that can be drawn from a purpose designed holding facility in the middle of nowhere and dumping waste in the ocean.
          I must say I am impressed with the number of strawmen you have produced in lieu of argumentation.

          • Ian MacDougall says:

            I think that you might get some benefit from reading what I wrote again. Food chains: on land, in sea and out in the vastness of the deserts of Australia, concentrate the products of animal digestion.
            “What they did in the 50′s is not relevant in the slightest unless you are in someway suggesting that there is some sort of comparison that can be drawn from a purpose designed holding facility in the middle of nowhere and dumping waste in the ocean…” misses that point entirely.
            A “a purpose designed holding facility in the middle of nowhere” is based on a set of inherently fallible assumptions, just as oceanic dumping was. The facility has to remain secure for untestable lengths of time, and through God-knows-what political developments ahead. The fact that it is placed out of the reach of all except the authorised few is testament to the fact that its contents are and will be dangerous.
            I suggest you do your strawman count over again.
            And BTW, on the subject of AGW, you might also benefit from the exchange between the current Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and noted AGW ‘sceptic’ Senator Malcolm Roberts. See below.


      • Alistair says:

        The value of the waste as a potential energy source is actually one of the arguments against a waste repository in South Australia – They could spend billions on a waste site and then the waste suddenly turns out to be a valuable resource right where it currently is.
        There is another that has just recently come to mind – I have just been reading Windschuttle’s latest book on Aboriginal sovereignty. Seems that the waste site could easily end up in a sovereign Aboriginal State and the financial control and therefore he projected returns not in the hands of the SA Government after all.

        • Eeyore says:

          One for the accountants I guess Alistair. What you have said makes sense to me, as to our Aboriginal brothers ending up owning it then perhaps it would go some way to relieve us of billions in subsidies.
          Here’s hoping.
          Although I do not know if that is sufficient reason to not get into this business, it would give us a base load power supply that is carbon free.
          Enliven manufacturing and engineering in SA, turn a mendicant state to one who can pay its own way without the rest of AU slinging them cash by the truck load.
          All positives.

          • Eeyore says:

            Ian, you quote buzzfeed? Really? wow.

          • Ian MacDougall says:

            Re November 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm
            No. I did not ‘quote Buzzfeed.’ I quoted a debate between the Chief Scientist and that lamentable climate ‘sceptic’ senator that was published there.
            There is a difference. I am frankly surprised that you confess yourself unaware of it.

  3. en passant says:

    I guess it is of passing interest that the exclusion zone around Chernobyl now proliferates with healthy wildlife, with no known mutated species.
    just yesterday I was reading and article about Hiroshima. In 1945 survivors planted barley at the contaminated Ground Zero and grew a healthy crop, which improved year after year until the rejuvenated city reclaimed the area.
    Ah, Helen of Caldicott, the Cassandra of Carcase Claims. Wasn’t it to be 100,000 walking dead with the skin peeling off their bodies within days and weeks?
    No wonder the anti-Nuke Luddites are laughed at, though the joke is economically on us.

    • whitelaughter says:

      Hiroshima Ground Zero is Shima hospital, which reopened in 1948 – that gives an absolute maximum of two years, if the hospital was rebuilt in a couple of months. I found no reference to growing barley there while websearching. The article you read is probably making stuff up.

      • nfw says:

        Odd, I always thought the much easier to see Aioi Bridge with its distinctive thee-way shape on the Ota River was much easier to see and recognise than an individual building. It seems: “When the bombers reached Hiroshima, they found the weather conditions to be ideal. At 0815 hours local time, from an altitude of 9,855 meters, “Little Boy” was released by bombardier Thomas Ferebee. 57 seconds later, at the predetermined altitude of 600 meters, the bomb detonated directly over Shima Surgical Clinic; the original aiming point was the Aioi Bridge, but wind blew it off course.” http://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=49 So you see while the bomb, which helped end WW2 and who knows how many lives it saved, was aimed at the bridge ie the bomb “aiming point”, it actually exploded over the clinic which was NOT the aiming point. Now, what was that about making things up?

  4. Earth has the correct amount of radioactive energy to drive the volcanoes [which replace atmosphere lost to space], hydrothermal vents [which replace water disappearing into the ground] and maintain the magnetic field [shield against high energy radiation]. Venus has too much, and Mars too little radioactivity.
    I cant help being amazed at the stupidity of green councils which erect signs saying NUCLEAR FREE ZONE.

  5. Geoff Sherrington says:

    Please permit some comments from one involved in Australian uranium mining as a corporate player, from shortly after the discovery of Ranger One in the Top End in 1969 and for the next 20 years.
    There was strong opposition to development from the early 70s. This was in two main parts, the first being National Parks & World Heritage concepts and the second the unconscionable propaganda fed to equitable local Aborigines by anthropologists mainly from large universities.
    The Heritage problem was bad enough for me to bring then Federal Minister Cohen before the Courts, gaining a delay in the pronouncement of World Heritage around and over Ranger property and finally ending with the Full Bench of the High Court saying it had all got too hard, would we please go away. One decision-writing Federal Judge had long been a green office holder and activist, without the grace to recuse himself from our topic. You might have been surprised to hear how much the then High Court Judges feared the thought of ‘international opprobrium’ if we dared do anything that might call a Treaty into action through our non-compliance.
    The appearance of previously little-known foreign imports like Director of Parks and Wildlife, Derek Ovington, carrying a mission in his pocket created by someone not aligned with Australia’s best interests, proved troublesome. The World heritage bit was the start of the United Nations plan for global government described in their Agenda 21 and following. Think again if you thought it was noble to grant some control of sovereign parts of Australia to the UN. The plan was and always has been about UN control. Look at them go at the Great Barrier Reef, as if German bureaucrats can save it by thinking about it – especially when it has no significant present chance of being harmed. The rule for them is “First gain control of the property”.

    The manipulation of Aborigines was shown e.g. when an Inquiry Commissioner refused to allow film/sound recording as evidence ‘for fear it could have been tampered with’ when the evidence was clearly that our friendly neighbours (until then) were quite happy to see mining proceed. The infiltration of the influence of academics hit us hard. They came from nowhere, were well funded, they usually had official encouragement and money, they were almost universally left leaning in spirit and action. It was a prelude to the slinky part being played by some universities now over the daft science of alleged global warming. Insupportable science, but bunker down chaps, get the learned societies on side, get the funding bodies on side, get the opponents silenced. It was all there for the aboriginal problem they invented before the global warming problem they invented. As for us, we just did the good science that developed the industry, with profit and safety for all including the citizens who benefited from our success against opposition.

    The silly bleats from Dr Helen Caldicott et al were quite helpful. We deflected a lot of early criticism of the industry by clearly showing how stupid and unscientific it was. Nonetheless, some catch cries did catch, like ‘uranium waste has to be managed for 250,000 years’. Physicists and nuclear people in general know that high level material from reactors can be and has been managed so that in a time of hundreds to a thousand years or so (depending on the burn physics used) the material is no more radioactive than the ore from the mines from which it was derived. These days we easily manage the mining with no casualties, we also manage the ‘waste’ with no casualties. Wherein lies the problem, apart from within the fertile minds of badly informed activists?

    The topic can get long and detailed, but not here. I simply thought that those who got mining off the ground and have kept it going in Australia deserved a little mention. Think of us as we, with unity of thought, go off to vote for Trump, or would if we were from USA.