BY CAITLIN MORTON
Environmental degradation or destruction generates risks and harms for human communities, both in the vicinity and across the globe. When air quality drops in industrialised regions, for example, multiple health risks are posed to the surrounding communities, including increased risk of mortality and risks to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems . Governments have historically been charged with protecting human society from environmental risks and harms, yet this responsibility requires compromise. The state must attempt to balance the human and economic benefits of environmentally destructive developments (such as employment opportunity, harvesting ample fuel sources, or generating exportation income) with the associated risks to the environment and to human health, through legislating on what degree of environmental degradation is permissible.
In the 1980s, grassroots movements in the U.S.A brought the unjust distribution of these benefits, protections, risks, and harms to the attention of researchers.[2,3], which introduced the terms “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” into the mainstream. One of the first groups to establish this link was the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (1987), which confirmed working class and people of colour (POC) communities disproportionately absorbed pollutions and other environmental risks and harms associated with industrialisation across the United States. For example, the commission found that the racial demographics of affected communities are the most influential factor in the positioning of toxic waste storage facilities . Since the 1987 report, a clear hierarchy in the distribution of outcomes from environmental damage has been discovered. This is clearly seen in the consequences of a changing climate being predominantly absorbed by non-Western societies despite their limited contribution to carbon emissions.[5,6] The lack of political resources these communities have disallows meaningful engagement in formal political spaces, which facilitates this inequality of consequences.
The impact of Australia’s various nuclear projects on First Nations peoples is no exception to this global trend. This article will describe the relationship between four different nuclear projects spanning from 1906 to the current day, and how each part of the ‘nuclear cycle’ has disproportionately harmed First Nations people, and devalued their unique concerns, cultures, and identities.
Radium Hill, Australia’s first uranium mining project, began what would become a trend of Aboriginal displacement for the purposes of the Australian nuclear industry. Running in two separate phases from 1906-1931, Radium Hill operated on land previously occupied by First Nations people (Friends of the Earth, n.d.). While the mine’s product was initially used for nuclear medicine and the colouring of glass and ceramics, it was recommissioned in 1954 by the United States and United Kingdom Combined Development Agency (CDA), in agreement with the Australian government[9,10] and became responsible for the procurement of uranium supplies for UK and USA nuclear weapons programs[7,8]. In part, this uranium would eventually be used to test nuclear weapons on populated Aboriginal land . The Radium Hill mine produced 970 000 tonnes of ore, which constituted 850 tonnes of uranium .
In 1996, almost fourty years after the mine’s second decommissioning, the site was chosen to be used as a nuclear waste repository, predominately storing contaminated soils and mining equipment labelled as ‘low-risk’. A 2003 South Australian Government report contradicts itself by assuring the safe containment of waste, and noting the facility could not store further waste due to its non-adherence with modern safety standards. Research conducted in 2006 highlighted the ongoing contamination of the environment surrounding Radium Hill, confirming the failure of the site’s storage facilities . This research found lithophile uptake in vegetation, a potential means of transfer of uranium into grazing animals.As such, not only was the mine initially located on previously occupied land, but return to the site by traditional owners now poses significant health risks, particularly if these grazing animals are hunted for food.
Atomic Bomb testing in Australia
Arguably the most famous of nuclear injustices in Australian history were the bomb tests conducted in cooperation with the British Government for the Long Range Weapons Establishment (LRWE). In 1950, Robert Menzies consented to the use of Australian land for atomic bomb testing in a phone call with British PM Clement Attlee without even referring the proposal to his cabinet. The Monto Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia were the original site for atomic tests, but the program moved to Emu Field and finally Maralinga in the search for the most suitable site[15,16]. While the Monto Bello Islands were uninhabited, tests in mainland Australia were conducted in areas inhabited by Indigenous Australians. In these mainland tests, the vulnerability of Aboriginal people in affected areas was not considered by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (UK) or the Safety Committee .
On October 15th 1953, an atomic bomb was dropped in Emu Field, about 250km north-west of Coober Pedy, in a project dubbed ‘Operation Totem’, to disastrous effect on surrounding communities. The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia (1985) (hence referred to as the ‘Royal Commission’) found weather conditions did not meet the safety criteria of the period for atomic testing. This was ignored by the testing group, who had waited two weeks for conditions to improve. As was predictable, the radioactive fallout combined with the suboptimal weather produced a cloud of radioactive material, named the ‘Black Mist’, which spread nuclear fallout material across a huge radius, and became responsible for higher rates of Aboriginal deaths all the way to Coober Pedy[18,19,20]. Yami Lester, a child during the Emu Field tests, who was eventually blinded by the Black Mist, reflects on the cloud making its way through his community in Wallatinna, “It was coming through the south, black – like smoke. I was thinking it might be a dust storm, but it was quiet, just moving.” His stepfather recalls “there was… a sprinkling rain, like dropping of dew. But there had been no rain. The smell was on our clothes and bodies. We felt cold and shivery. A shiver went through the heart… Pingkaki got sore eyes, I got sore eyes. Before that Yami had good eyes. Then my grandmother passed away’. Judy Mayawara, who grew up and worked in the Wallatinna region, remembered ‘people getting sick from the smoke. Vomiting green vomit. Passing green faeces’ and her son also developing eyesight problems .
Within days, the old and frail had passed away, with approximately 20 more deaths occurring over the next year (though, due to a lack of official record keeping, the number is believed to be higher) . This was one of two atomic bombs detonated in Emu Field, before a ‘permanent’ project was established in Maralinga due to the remoteness of Emu Field and Monto Bello Islands . Seeking a remote area with limited accessibility was therefore not the key criteria in the establishment of Maralinga as the new site for atomic bomb testing.
Prior to British contact in 1870, the Anangu people had managed the delicate desert environment to live self-sufficiently . Contact with construction workers and the eventual establishment of the United Aboriginal Mission lead to a dependence on rations (which were to be worked for), and the rise of alcoholism amongst the Anangu . When the mission was closed in the 1940s, the desert environment had been rendered unsuitable for self-sufficient lifestyles, and traditional knowledge systems were damaged by over thirty years of enforced dependency.
In 1954, a year after the Emu Field tests began, Menzies removed the ‘Aboriginal Reserve’ status of Maralinga, labelling the region as simply ‘desert’.By the following year, with the intention of testing nuclear weapons, most of the former reserve was declared a prohibited area and signs were erected, in English, warning readers not to enter. There remained Anangu people in the region who had not yet come into contact with British settlers, and were certainly unable to read these warning signs. The ‘Native Patrol Officer’ tasked with locating and warning Aboriginal people in the region reported hunting fires visible from the air, a group of thirty-four Anangu in one close-by area, and another fourteen (including 8 children) in another, as well as over 1000 people in the general area with numbers increasing. Atomic bomb testing began in Maralinga on the 27th of September 1956, with these concerns unaddressed. Several major bomb tests and over 700 minor projects were conducted on the site until 1963. The Royal Commission found that the task of the Native Patrol Officer to remove Aboriginal people for Emu Field and Maralinga tests was impossible, processes to guarantee the safety of Aboriginal people were under resourced, and that the distinct vulnerability of Aboriginal communities to radioactive fallout had not been appropriately considered.[32,33]
The British Government was contractually obliged to perform two clean-ups of the area before the contract with the Australian Government ended, and the Australian government performed a final clean-up in the late 1990s; in no instance has the clean-up properly addressed the issue of residual nuclear material, as nuclear material has never been removed from Maralinga and safely stored. The first, in 1964, attempted to dilute plutonium present in the soil by ploughing into the soil. The second, in 1966, used disc harrowing and the addition of a thin layer of top soil. Although the area had previously been inhabited by Indigenous peoples, the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Commission reported the clean-up was suitable and the area was unlikely to become inhabited due to its lack of potential for agricultural or mineral industries, ignoring the presence of radioactivity as the obvious deterrent for human habitation. The final clean-up by the Australian Federal government simply left tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris in shallow pits, instead of the original plan of vitrification. Alan Parkinson, a nuclear engineer initially hired by the government to oversee the clean-up, says of the site “what was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land” when he ultimately became a whistleblower.
Overall, it is impossible to know exactly how many died as a result of atomic bomb testing in Australia. However, it is likely that the intergenerational effects of radiation poisoning are still being suffered to this day.
Proposed National Radioactive Waste Repository
It would be easy to assume that discrimination through nuclear testing is a feature of Australia’s political past, yet ongoing developments in the nuclear industry demonstrate that this form of inequality is very much alive. This can be seen in the unresolved issue of the construction of a new nuclear waste repository, which has both failed to amend the errors at Maralinga, and has not taken into account the unique concerns of Indigenous Australians.
The federal government has been attempting to secure a site for the development of a new nuclear waste repository for over twenty years, with past attempts, including near Woomera (a ‘British’ township developed as part of the LRWE), and Muckaty in the NT, being unsuccessful due to resistance from state governments and ‘affected local and Indigenous communities’. Under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act of 2012, any new site must be voluntarily nominated by ‘landholders’. However, a number of features of the nominations process are dismissive of the concerns of Indigenous Australians. First, the very need for permission by ‘landholders’ for the construction of the waste facility removes the authority of the traditional, but not legally recognised, owners of the land. This was seen recently in the shock expressed by elders of the Adnyamathanha tribe, when the Bardioota region was suggested as a location for the site without any Indigenous consultation . Additionally, site nominations tend to occur in areas with higher than average Indigenous populations – Brewarrina, for example, a recent nomination with 61.5% Indigenous population, compared with the Australian average of 3%. Finally, in the National Radioactive Waste Repository Site Selection Study, the study to investigate the location of the new repository, public concerns regarding the lack of consultation with Indigenous communities have gone unanswered, while public comment suggesting the government address unique Indigenous concerns were met twice with the reply that “‘[eliminating] Aboriginal land from the process could be regarded as presumptuous”.[40, 41]
Additionally, the process of gaining consent should be informative rather than coercive. In the case of Brewarrina, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO) and the local council have distributed promotional material emotively referencing the importance of lifesaving nuclear medicine which is possible through ANTSO isotopes, which fails to properly inform the community of whether the new waste repository is necessary. Nonetheless, First Nations communities across NSW and SA are still under nomination for the siting of the repository, with a postal ballot process for selection recently announced in SA.
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