Australia’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, 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’. 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. 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. By the late-1990s, the movement’s strategy had become, by default, ‘isolated campaigning’. 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 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 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.’ 
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.
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.’ 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.’
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.’  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.
 The Australian Conservation Foundation has assets valued at over $16million and annual income of over $14 million.
 Green Left Weekly, August 26 1998
 ibid, Green Left Weekly
ibid, Green Left Weekly
 ibid, Green Left Weekly
 ibid, Green Left Weekly
 In July 2007, on an ABC television program, Difference of Opinion, on which I also appeared
 There is no scientific basis for the claim of a million deaths, or anything like it, due to Chernobyl.