Image: Anti-uranium picket at Hamilton No 4 in Brisbane 1977
[Editor’s Note: This was broadcast on the Paradigm Shift (4ZZZ fm 102.1 12 noon on Fridays) on 26 October 2012. It is part of a series of broadcasts on the The Politics of Repression and the Politics of Protest. ‘Uranium Again’ is the first part of the Politics of Protest.]
‘The Trains’ by Judith Wright
Strange primitive piece of flesh, the heart laid quiet
hearing their cry pierce through its thin-walled cave
recalls the forgotten tiger,
and leaps awake in its old panic riot;
and how shall mind be sober,
since blood’s red thread still binds us fast in history?
Tiger, you walk through all our past and future,
troubling the children’s sleep’; laying
a reeking trail across our dreams of orchards.
In August 1977, a small group of people sat on railway track on Hamilton No 4 Wharf in Brisbane – we were trying to stop the uranium train. A ship was waiting to take yellow cake (an ore from which Uranium is produced) to Hamburg in Germany. The Queensland government had opened up mining and export of uranium to Germany, France, anywhere and everywhere.
In 1977, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called it ‘Australia’s Uranium Decision’. Fraser claimed:
The export of Australian uranium will decrease the risks of further proliferation of nuclear weapons and will support and strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It will help to make a safer world. -- Malcolm Fraser
We set out to prove Fraser, his government and the mining companies wrong.
The ‘Comic Book Marxists‘
After Australia’s ‘Uranium decision’, we organised a picket down at Hamilton No 4 wharf on the river to stop a uranium shipment going to West Germany.
Queensland police cleared us off the tracks and dumped us on hard ground in a heap and a special branch officer made threatening remarks to one of us (not Charlie or me) — remarks not repeated in parliament — but accusations there were aplenty … about Arab sympathisers and communists.
The cops then arrested Charlie Scandritt, Geoff and Nancy Wills. Nancy later ran the Rialto cinema in West End in the 1980s. Geoff was a seaman who played guitar and sang Pete Seeger songs. Charlie was a printer and small book publisher (later called Merino Press).
In those days, we were all tarred with the same brush by Joh and his supporters. Communists. At least that is what Bjelke-Petersen said when he answered a Dorothy Dix question in parliament that led to the famous edict on 4 Sept 1977: ‘the day of the political street march is over’.
But political street marches were not over. We made sure of that, no matter how many hundreds or thousands of police the government deployed in the ‘Valley of Death”, we marched anyway.
Not so ‘comic book’ after all. Yet the history of the street marches has never been fully told despite some brave attempts.
After failing to stop the uranium train we used wire cutters to get onto the wharves to delay the shipment of yellow cake further. Wharfies refused to move the containers onto the ship because it was a safety hazard while police were chasing demonstrators around the wharf.
The Courier Mail made up fantastic stories about how anti-uranium activists had made a commando-style raid on the wharf by swimming across the river from Hemmant with our boots tied around our necks with shoelaces. We had simply snuck on under cover of darkness.
Later on we went down to the wharves to ask wharfies and seamen not to load yellow cake onto ships. The Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamen’s union helped us out from time to time.
Friends of the Earth (Bjelke-Petersen called them Friends of the Dirt) ran a hard campaign against Uranium Mining and Export. FOE were the ones trying to block shipments, postering and leafleting all along the railway line in East Brisbane suburbs that shipments passed along, prior to the wharf protest. FOE members liaised with wharfies etc. FOE ran a direct action campaign where others feared to tread. They did street theatre at King George Square rallies organised by the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) and Movement against Uranium Mining (MAUM). FOE made calls for people to go down to the wharves. They were joined in this by the Movement against Uranium Mining which met in the Ann Street Uniting Church on Tuesdays. The CLCC met in the old Trades Hall on Thursday nights. We were so much younger then. We lost.
Queensland mines kept producing uranium until commodity prices fell again. There is little doubt uranium from Queensland ended up in the nuclear fuel cycle and therefore nuclear weapons controlled by governments of the US, Britain, France, Israel and who knows where else. All this despite assurances about safeguards from successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, Fraser and Hawke.
The Brisbane City Council declared this a nuclear free city even though it was powerless to prevent nuclear-powered submarines from entering Moreton Bay and pulling up at Fishermen’s Island wharves. Council did not even have the power to prevent trucks carrying nuclear materials from transiting along Brisbane roads.
The nuclear-free signs were counterfeit.
So long ago for some and just yesterday for me, on 22 October 1977, just a few weeks after our stand on Hamilton No 4 dock the largest mass arrest in Australian history occurred on Brisbane streets.
We stood 5,000 strong for 2 hours in the blazing sun listening to poet Judith Wright speaking against uranium mining and export and then marched.
418 people were arrested and taken into custody for marching against Uranium mining and export that day.
And sadly we weren’t wrong. History taught us that.
The media played its part by portraying the anti-nuclear protestors as violent. This was while lives were lost in nuclear accidents around the world. Back then the mass media didn’t talk much about the violence of nuclear contamination, spills, depleted uranium in Iraq, disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Politicians kept spinning the yarn about the violence of the opponents of Uranium mining and export.
The monopoly media peddled the line pushed by federal and state politicians: “Students pelt P.M. – Clash over Uranium” ( 27th August 1977 Courier Mail) “Uranium: Why Fraser welcomes a fight” (27-8 Aug 1977 Australian), “Waste Solution will come – PM” 29 August 1977 Courier Mail. The Australian blurted out “Nuclear Club closes its doors” (30 August 1977) suggesting that nuclear proliferation would not be a problem.
Back in the 1970s state and federal politicians tried to push uranium on the world market before the predicted slump in Uranium prices. Still the brokers were worried and prices fell.
In the 1980s the Hawke and Bjelke-Petersen governments pushed uranium when there was resurgence in the price of uranium. The Uranium lobby started flogging the toxic ore again. Of course Hawke, and Fraser before him, always pretended they cared about the risks – they threw in the spin about non-proliferation as nations rushed to join the nuclear club – South Africa, India, Pakistan, Israel .
Years went by – of course the spin meisters had to work harder in 1979 after the partial melt down at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in USA. It didn’t stop Fraser or Hawke from saying how safe nuclear is. Of course Bjelke-Petersen didn’t care about the niceties, he just wanted to move the ore for whatever price he could get.
The nuclear lobby started to look loony.
Academics claimed that Chernobyl help cause the failure of communism.
Soviet soldiers were required to throw rocks into the abyss made by the reactor explosion and fire and then cement was poured in.
Was this the hi-tech, scientific solution proffered by Fraser and Hawke?.
But the spin continued. France was now dependent on nuclear power for electricity. India and Pakistan were in a nuclear standoff over Kashmir.
Israeli politicians spoke in cabinet about the ultimate solution. The US military planned to use a strategic nuclear device in Afghanistan. The US and NATO did use depleted uranium in Iraq and Kosovo.
A nuclear cloud passed over the world.
Germany was the first capitalist country to pull back from nuclear power.
Japan is finally following suit after having had two US nuclear bombs wipe out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima disaster in 2011 was the final straw. It had to do with the fact that radioactive Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years.
In 1976 the Federal government granted land rights to aboriginal people in lands that included the Ranger and Koongarra Uranium mining areas. The Federal government then claimed that the granting of aboriginal land claims would entitle aborigines to negotiate with mining companies on the terms and conditions for mining and to allow them to obtain financial benefits under the Land Rights Act.
Do aboriginal people really benefit from Uranium mining on their land?
There have been many groups organising protests against nuclear power, but are protests effective in stopping the use of nuclear materials in our environment?
“Harvard Professor of History Richard Pipes said there were incidental causes of the Soviet Union’s dissolution like the invasion of Afghanistan, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the vacillating personality of Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Capitalist countries hosted the disasters at Three Miles Island and Fukushima.
Is the use of unsafe nuclear materials in electricity power generation a problem systemic to both Soviet and Capitalist models of economic development?
We try to look at and analyse these issues here.
26 October 2012