Radioactive Exposure Tours

Radioactive Exposure Tour, April 2018

Ray Acheson from Reaching Critical Will writes about her experience of the 2018 Rad Tour to South Australia: A journey to the heart of the antinuclear resistance in Australia: 2018 Rad Tour

Radioactive Exposure Tour 2015: Red dirt, porridge and the nuclear industry

Gem Romuld

The 2015 Radioactive Exposure Tour was a multi-dimensional whirlwind dive into the nuclear landscapes of New South Wales and South Australia. We got up close and personal with Australia’s only nuclear reactor, former uranium mine sites, both of Australia’s two currently operating uranium mines, vast areas under uranium exploration and the five thousand kilometres of “nuclear freeway” in between.

This year’s radtour packed around 25 people into two mini-buses and a ute running on vegetable oil and started with the traditional pre-dawn packing session at Friends of the Earth on Smith St, Collingwood.

Our first two nights were spent on a beautiful bush property of our friends from Uranium Free NSW. The camp at Jervis Bay was located near the site that was to be home to Australia’s first nuclear power reactor under the government of John Gorton in the late 1960s. Gorton later acknowledged that there was a secret weapons agenda driving the Jervis Bay reactor project. Thankfully, a change of government dampened that sinister plan and we were able to swim the glorious waters of Jervis Bay without a nuclear reactor’s shadow.

A couple of hours north we were greeted by a large contingent of staff at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Australia’s only research reactor at Lucas Heights. We were fed promotional videos and various misinformation including “radiation is radiation”, and therefore all the same. We asked lots of questions, and challenged the organisation on their role in ensuring responsible radioactive waste management. This includes preventing the manipulation of remote Aboriginal communities for a radioactive waste dump with such mythologies as the necessity of a remote waste dump for cancer patients to receive their treatments.

After some campaign history from the “Atom Free Embassy” days outside ANSTO, we high-tailed it to the Blue Mountains in time for a public meeting in Katoomba. Eco-pella sang their ratbag tunes and we heard Donna Mulhearn’s stories of acting as a human shield in Iraq and the devastating legacy of depleted uranium weapons use. After some classic group + banner photos at the Three Sisters the next morning we pushed on, heading west.

Upon our arrival in Dubbo, we walked into a fascinating collision of locals and an Alkane Resources employee at a meeting organised by Uranium Free Dubbo, discussing the proposed rare earths mine 20 kms out of town. As rare earths are typically found in conjunction with radioactive materials, the mine poses radiological risks − nearby residents would get elevated radiation exposure levels when the mine operated, and the town would be left with radioactive tailings forever and a day. Locals are worried about drinking water contamination, and doubted whether they could trust the company and what benefit they would derive from the mine.

Further west through open plains teeming with kangaroos and feral goats, we met with the thriving group “Nuclear Free Cobar” (one person) and eventually found the Broken Hill Racecourse Hall, a roof over our swags. The huge shed was somehow made cosy by the big feed that Kerry and Biscuit laid out for our weary arrival. While there are no current mine proposals, several companies have been prospecting for uranium around Western NSW.

Leaving Broken Hill meant leaving big towns for a while, and heading for the territories of the nuclear cowboys. We built our first desert camp under a full moon, en route to the Gammon Ranges. We woke, packed and left before sunrise. Emus welcomed us to Adnyamathanha country, where protest broke out against the Beverley uranium mine in its first years of operation from 1997. One particular protest was subject to a ten-year legal battle to hold the police accountable for their use of force, capsicum spray and locking nine people in a shipping container for several hours.

At the site, we had a brief tour of the controversial in-situ-leach mine before scones, tea and, of course, a Powerpoint presentation. The staff ducked and weaved through our questions, hand-balling them to each other and shying away from giving us numbers e.g. daily water usage of the mine. When questioned about the federal government’s tender for a radioactive waste dump site, they said ‘we think here would be a pretty good place’. Never mind what the Adnyamathanha community thinks …

We travelled on, skirting north of the Flinders Ranges and west along the Oodnadatta Track. Now on Arabunna country, we unfortunately had to skip the famous Marree Camel Cup, an annual highlight, to make Lake Eyre for sunset.

Everything slowed down for our dreamy “Oodnadatta Day”. We visited several of the mound springs, lush desert oases of endemic flora and fauna that are dependent on the natural flow of the mineral-rich waters of the Great Artesian Basin to the surface. The springs have sadly been drying up since the Olympic Dam mine started sucking 37 million litres of water per day from underneath them.

We shifted camp to the site of the Keepers of Lake Eyre camp, where Uncle Kev, Bilbo and others kept a constant watch on BHP Billiton for many years. After another incredible sunset and sunrise we had to tear ourselves away from that place for our uranium mine tour appointment at the gates of hell − Olympic Dam.

In Woomera we toured the missile park with Avon Hudson, nuclear veteran and whistleblower for the Maralinga nuclear weapons testing program. During his time working at Woomera and Maralinga he amassed a trove of damning stories and information, which we are so lucky to hear every year on the radtour.

Woomera locals Mick and Glenn shared our red dune campfire and told us some of their proud Kokatha family history of resisting uranium mining and the radioactive waste dump. Their families won the Irati Wanti campaign (the poison, leave it) more than a decade ago, and they are preparing for another campaign against radioactive waste in light of the SA Royal Commission into nuclear expansion, currently underway.

From Woomera we found ourselves in Adelaide all too quickly, with some of the tour preparing to stay for the Students of Sustainability conference and others preparing for the drive back to Melbourne. After the opening fire ceremony we heard from some of the Aboriginal champions for a nuclear-free-world like Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, Mitch and Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine. Their words reinforced the relevance of the journey we’d just travelled, and the need to keep the fight alive for an end to the atomic age.

The Radioactive Exposure Tour means many different things to different people. It is an education … of the land, of the struggles faced by Aboriginal people, a window into what happens out there when the city isn’t watching and a history lesson for the future. The radtour is a temporary community that must learn to get along, to work collectively and unravel patriarchal patterns in the way we function day-to-day. While travelling thousands of kilometres, we are fermenting information, ideas and conversation. Perhaps most importantly, the radtour is one way we grow the movement, maintain connections across vast distances, spark wild ideas and fortify ourselves for the next steps. Bring it on!

Gem Romuld is a member of FoE Melbourne’s Anti-nuclear and Clean Energy (ACE) Collective and was one of the organisers of the 2015 radtour.

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Radioactive Exposure Tours – a short history

Ila Marks

The first Nuclear Exposure Tour was organised in 1990, six years after the Roxby Blockades of 1983 and 1984 where hundreds of people blockaded and hindered the establishment of Olympic Dam Operations (the copper/uranium mine at Roxby Downs in northern South Australia). During these blockades people had the powerful experience of seeing a uranium mine and listening to Aboriginal people who opposed the mine. Blockaders also had the opportunity to show their opposition to uranium mining in creative, colourful and sometimes dramatic ways.

It was in this tradition that the idea of Nuclear Exposure Tours evolved. The Anti-Uranium Collective at Friends of the Earth organised the tours with the aim of letting people witness and experience the nuclear industry first hand. People would be able to see and walk on the country affected, to hear what Aboriginal people had to say, learn about the anti-nuclear movement and strengthen opposition to the nuclear industry. We wanted to give people the opportunity to support traditional land owners in their opposition to the nuclear industry, so that the tour participants could return to their colleges, work places or communities with the story of their experience and to encourage them to play a role in the anti-nuclear movement.

The first tour to Roxby Downs was carefully planned, with members of the Friends of the Earth anti-uranium collective doing what we call, a “dry-run”. Such a trip was not new; members of the collective had been visiting the Mound Springs area in northern South Australia and working with the Marree/Arabunna community there since 1987. The Mounds Springs are 120 Kilometres north of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine at Roxby Downs. Water for the mine, metallurgy plant and town was, and still is, being taken from the Great Artesian Basin and unique springs have dried completely and others have had a drastic reduction of flow. A trip to the Springs area led us to do a round trip to the town at Roxby Downs, the mine there and the tailings dam. Members of the anti-uranium collective were becoming familiar with the Springs and Roxby; this was another motivation for the tour, to share this experience with other people in an organised and constructive way.

The “dry-run” was important as permission from traditional land owners was needed to camp in their country and to obtain information on culturally appropriate behaviour. The anti-uranium collective also needed to meet with communities whose land they would be passing though to organise joint actions against nuclear activities in their areas. These included CRA’s proposed mineral sands development near Horsham in Victoria and the Rare Earth Tailings dump at Port Pirie. Future tours took in the Beverley Uranium Mine and the Honeymoon Project, and at the invitation of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, camping at Ten Mile Creek just out of Coober Pedy. Recent tours have become focused on the proposal for a low to intermediate level nuclear waste dump in the Woomera area.

In organising the tours we at FoE always endeavour to make them more than just an out-back adventure! At Roxby Downs we organised public meetings on radiation exposure levels at the community centre, we leafleted the entire town on workers’ and community health issues, we organised awareness stalls with local environmentalists and produced a performance at the Woomera Primary School that involved all of the students as well as the people on the tour.

Following a tour in 1996 the participants formed a collective and organised the ‘Roxstop Action and Music Festival’ in 1997, where over 300 people gathered at Roxby to protest against the expansion of the mine. Here they hosted a public meeting attended by over 120 people with the United States epidemiologist Dr David Richarson as the key note speaker talking about his work and the effects of low level radiation exposure on nuclear workers. Roxstop also included an exhibition of paintings by the Melbourne Artist Lyn Hovey in the Roxby Library. After three days at Roxby the protestors moved to Alberrie Creek on Finnis Springs Station where a music festival was held over three nights to celebrate the Mound Springs, while during the day there were cultural workshops and tours given by members of the Arrabunna community including Reg Dodd and Kevin Buzzacott.

In August 1998 the collective that had organised Roxstop received a fax from the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta. It said: “We’re trying hard about this rubbish – the radio-active waste dump. We don’t want that… We want your help! We want you to come up here to Coober Pedy and have a meeting with Aboriginal people (and any whitefellas from here who want to come)”. In September of that year a group of over a dozen people travelled from Melbourne to Coober Pedy and held a public meeting with the Aboriginal people to discuss the dump.

Things have not always run smoothly for the anti-uranium collective. One year we were stranded for a night on the Borefield Road between the Oodnadatta Track and Roxby Downs with forty people and three buses when the road became impassable due to rain! Another time at Mambury Creek in the southern Flinders Rangers, emus raided our camp and scattered our provisions including cereal, bread and fruit all over the campsite while the campers were protesting in Port Pirie! But, there have been great high-lights. The first time we were invited to the Ten Mile Creek (just outside of Cooper Pedy) by the Kungka Tjuta, we saw the beautiful sight of moon rising over Lake Eyre South. At Ten Mile Creek we saw the effects of the leaflet on workers’ health and exposure to low levels of radiation, we protested outside the Woomera Detention Centre, we saw the representatives of the Honeymoon Uranium Project squirm as tour participants asked difficult questions about the chemical structure of the waste solution to be pumped back into the aquifer. And we will never forget the warm greeting from members of the Adnyamathanha community at Nepabunna, even though we were four hours late!

There have been many great and rewarding outcomes from the Nuclear Exposures Tours. What stands out for us and what must be acknowledged here is the strengthening of the close working relationships we at Friends of the Earth have with the Aboriginal communities and the many individuals who have taken part in our tours. Every person who has gone on a tour has had an amazing, never-to-be-forgotten experience and many of the participants from various tours have made a considerable contribution to the anti-nuclear movement.

Originally published in the FoE Australia book 30 Years of Creative Resistance

Click here to read articles about previous radioactive exposure tours