01.06.2013 Environment

Walking for Country

Adrian Glamorgan joins voices against uranium mining in the red dirt of Yeelirrie

In the red dirt of the Mid West northern goldfields, I sit down with a small group of people who've come from all over the world to this one spot in the Western Desert.

Nearby, Wonguthu elders sit in a circle making plans for the day's walk. We are learning the art of making paper cranes from a bright, kind woman from Japan, Mika.

We are only a few kilometres away from Yeelirrie Station, which sits on top of 30 kilometres of uranium deposits, one of the biggest reserves in the world.

The economics of the uranium industry mean that the big players have sold up, but the little prospectors like Toro Energy are enjoying the support of the Western Australian Government, as well as the Federal Resources and Environment Ministers. If Toro Energy satisfies the few dozen conditions to mine uranium, albeit some of them big asks including a $600 million bond for the eventual clean-up, Western Australia's first uranium mine will go ahead and be able to sell Australian yellowcake to an overseas buyer. Whether it be India, a non-signatory to the NNPT treaty, or China or Japan, on earthquake faultlines, Australia will be revving up the nuclear cycle.

"What's wrong with uranium mining?" I ask Mika, and her reply startles me. Mika says that after Hiroshima and Fukushima, uranium mining "is the beginning of the nightmare".

Mika recalls an apology from Aboriginal people to the Japanese. It was, after all, Australian uranium that now contaminates the Fukushima prefecture. Mika wanted to apologise back; the nuclear plant disaster wouldn't have happened if they'd previously shut down the industry for its patent lack of safety from earthquake and tsunami damage. So Mika has come to Western Australia to join a walkabout with Aboriginal people over uranium country.

Her words haunt me for weeks afterwards. The beginning of the nightmare. Knowing the myriad details of accidents and misadventures from the past, she is warning us about a future: tailings to be left on Lake Way, flooding out with radioactive waste, spilling over Aboriginal lands; the increase in cancers from workers' exposure; the accidental spills along roads and the railway line; the ports at risk from theft at night by hardened men with darkness in their hearts who know the price for dirty radiological bombs; the ships rolling at sea; our uranium being used in foreign nuclear reactors to free up local uranium for weapons; sometime, no particular time, any time, the nuclear plants having a green light switch off and a red light go on; then five red lights flashing; hands moving over panels, unable to stop it; then the siren. The men lose their pretence at calm, now openly frightened for their lives, calling for their mothers. The evacuation, in panic, as a few left in the plant stay, knowing all along that one day this moment might come. Now it has, astonished that it was an ordinary morning when they came to work, as they don their radiation suits with 30 minutes to stop a graphite fire, or chain reaction. Knowing, if they get out, they maybe have only a fortnight more to live. But donning their gear to save thousands of other people. We need brave men, but not for this.

This future is marked out by previous disasters. The people in the nearby towns being deceived for the first hours, until only the truth is left. A government evacuates tens of thousands, now a hundred thousand, leaving a deserted city and contaminated agriculture. Media coverage is curtailed by government information offices and corporate spin drivers. The uranium industry gives comment, saying the meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima just proves how safe the industry is, at least most of the time. The Geiger counters and the roadblocks, the families separated. Tens of thousands homeless, given a temporary accommodation and after that you're on your own and you can never go back. Outside the zone, where the radiation contamination from Australia will be managed, there will be monitoring.

For years to come, past catastrophes tell us the future. Each morning, schoolteachers check playground radiation levels. Today, the children are told not to play in the sand, but never, ever, not for 10,000 years, can they camp in the forest. The wooden houses are demolished, and the vegetable patch is monitored for radiation. The lambs are slaughtered, the rice fields or pumpkin patches are dug up and the soil packaged in plastic bags, with no idea of what to do about it.

The beginning of the nightmare. The uranium from Australia that has gone to a country so they can use their own uranium to show their potency against their enemy. The war of words that may just become a war, with our uranium. The message comes down the military line. It's really going to happen this time. Not like the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Not like the Indo-Pakistan War of the early 1990s, when it came even closer to nuclear war. This time. With our uranium, processed from the red dirt of Australia, from just near Wiluna, ready to be part of one hundred thousand people's nightmare, for a few flashpoint seconds, rolling thunder, and decades and generations to come.
Or maybe not. It's just a risk. One we needn't make. Oughtn't.

We will hardly make a buck out of any of this. Only one in 3,000 Aboriginal people get a job in mining. Six hundred jobs tops? In an age when the mining industry is supposed to be economically rationalist, it's hard to understand how the uranium gets the government support it does. Independent market analysts Economists at Large were commissioned by environment groups and the office of Senator Scott Ludlam. The report came out last month: only if the most optimistic range of estimates for the world uranium price, exchange rates, capital and operating costs all go the company's way, will the Net Present Value of the project go positive. If one thing doesn't line up, it will be negative. Scott Ludlam says, "Because the company has not submitted a costed mine closure plan or established where it will find the money to post a rehabilitation bond, the site looks to become an open-ended contamination liability for taxpayers."

The beginning of the nightmare. The Aboriginal elders know. Nuclear testing at Emu Fields and Maralinga involved the bombing and irradiation of Aboriginal people, some of whom ended up in Wiluna. They do not want uranium mining to go ahead. But to engage with any mining company exploring for uranium, they must go through the native title process. They cannot say no, or they will be locked out of the negotiation process. They must say yes, and they must only go through native title. Once they say yes, they can negotiate concessions. "No" is not possible. It is a divisive process. Perhaps that is how successive governments, and corporations, like it.

So now the Walkatjurra Walkabout starts its walk across country, singing up the land, from Yeelirrie to Leonora, led by Walkatjurra Rangers, in partnership with Footprints for Peace, the indigenous organisation Western Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, the Anti Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia, and the Conservation Council of WA. Not just for Western Australians, but for all Australians. For Japanese, Indians or Chinese who are forced to live near a nuclear reactor, or live under the threat of nuclear attack. And in turn, for us…

There are those who would treat uranium mining as just another kind of mining, and whatever the dangers arise from it, it's someone else's problem. But for many Australian Aboriginal people, poisoning someone else's country is one of the worst things anyone can do. Neither can they let their own country be poisoned. Traditional owner Kado Muir says, "My people have resisted destructive mining on our land and our sacred sites for generations. For over 40 years we have fought to stop uranium mining at Yeelirrie, we have stopped the removal of sacred stones from Weebo and for the last 20 years we have stopped destruction of 200 sites at Yakabindie.

"We are not opposed to responsible development, but we cannot stand wanton destruction of our land, our culture, and our environment. We invite all people, from all places, to come together to walk with us, to send a clear message that we want the environment here, and our sacred places left alone."

This is the beginning of a nightmare, but we can wake up from it. We can speak to State and Federal governments, and let them know that health, environment and conscience say this should not go ahead. And if that fails, only peaceful but determined civil disobedience is left to us, and all those who walk for country.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism