Peter Watts, co-chair of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, was recently in Japan as one of some 100 speakers at the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World held in Yokohama on Jan. 14 and 15. During an interview with The Japan Times, Watts — who is a member of the Arabunna people, one of several Aboriginal groups living in South Australia — said that among the many things his ancient ancestors knew, such as how to hunt animals in a sustainable way, was the potential danger of radiation released from the uranium beneath their land.
“Our ancestors knew of the uranium,” he said, “They called the places (of uranium deposit) ‘Poison Country.’ It meant: ‘Don’t go there to hunt. Don’t go there to collect food. Don’t go there.’ “
However, in 1975, the uranium deposit beneath the Arabunna people’s land was “discovered” by Western Mining Corp. Despite opposition from Aboriginal groups, in 1988 the company started mining the deposit, which is the largest uranium deposit in the world. In 2005, the Olympic Dam mine, as it is called, was taken over by the world’s biggest mining company, BHP Billiton, and it currently produces 4,000 tons of uranium oxide a year.
Watts said that he is very concerned about the negative impact that radiation released from the uranium mine is having on the health of people living close to the mine and those who hunt wild animals for food.
And though he admitted that he cannot prove the link between the radiation from the mine and health risks, Watts added that it takes many years after exposure before radiation causes diseases such as cancer. He also warned that it is possible that workers at uranium mines in Australia have been exposed to radiation.
“Once, at the Ranger uranium mine (in the Northern Territory), the company put a pipe in the wrong way so that the radioactive water was going into the shower and drinking water for the workers,” Watts said. In 2005, the company that manages the site, Energy Resources of Australia, was convicted for breaching environmental guidelines.
In addition to the fear of radiation, Watts pointed out significant damage to the local environment in South Australia.
“We had a lot of streams and springs in our country … But we have no springs anymore,” Watts said angrily. “All of them are dry, because they (BHP Billiton) used all of the water in our country for free.”
Watts also stressed that even before uranium mining began in South Australia, Aboriginal people in the state suffered from the nuclear tests conducted by Britain in the 1950s and 1960s at Maralinga, part of the Woomera weapons testing range.
In the ’50s, Watts’ grandmother and mother lived near the test sites where, he maintains, they were exposed to a strong wind that came from the blast of a nuclear test.
“My grandmother died when she was 34 years old. She had six children. Her youngest daughter, my auntie, who was born after the nuclear test, cannot have children,” Watts said.
According to Watts, after the nuclear test his mother gave birth to a boy, his younger brother. But the boy only lived for a few days. Watts believes the boy’s body was then taken somewhere by government officials to be examined for radiation.
“So they knew, before my little brother died, where my mother was and my father was. So we were like living breeding experiments,” he said.
During a symposium at the nuclear conference in Yokohama, Watts voiced his sympathy for the victims of radiation in other countries, as well as his own. At the symposium, speakers from around the world talked about their work with victims of radiation, including those who suffered the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear tests in Tahiti and the Marshall Islands, and the nuclear power disaster in Chernobyl.
“I feel very sorry for my brothers and sisters here,” Watts told the symposium. “Some of the uranium that radiated and bombed people most likely came from my country, my very own backyard. I apologize to those people.”
While Australia does not have any nuclear power plants, the country has three operating uranium mines and, according to the World Nuclear Association website, in 2010 and 2011 exported 6,950 tons of uranium oxide, worth A$610 million.
At the symposium at the Yokohama conference, Watts stressed that Australia is the third biggest exporter of uranium in the world.
“They are digging it up and selling it all over the world. If we don’t dig it up, then they can’t sell it. So if we stop digging it up, it cannot be used in Fukushima or any of the other 13 (nations importing uranium from Australia).
Before the conference, Watts and a number of other foreign speakers visited Fukushima in a tour coordinated by Peace Boat, the Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization that held the Yokohama conference in cooperation with other Japanese citizen’s groups.
“We are so ashamed that it took seven months to find out about the uranium,” said Watts, explaining that the Australian government confirmed in October that Australian uranium had been used in the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Felicity Hill, one of the other Australian speakers at the Yokohama conference, and adviser to Senator Scott Ludlam of the Australian Greens party, said in an interview with The Japan Times that for seven months after the March 11 disaster, the Greens had asked the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office questions in parliament relating to the exportation of Australian uranium to Japan. But they didn’t get a clear answer.
“Then we found out that Australian uranium was in the reactors of the Fukushima nuke plant,” Hill said. “That’s why Australians, we, are angry. Because we asked many times, very directly: ‘We want to know (whether uranium is used in the Fukushima plant).’ We asked the government and the companies. It took seven months to learn the truth.”
Hill explained that Australia has promoted the mining and export of uranium, and that the government made the policy decision that they would also export uranium to India in December.
Meanwhile, Hill noted that, in general, the Australia public has not always been keenly aware of uranium mining issues over the past few decades. Though the nuclear issue has been a controversial one, Hill explained, the awareness and the concerns over nukes went up and down many times.
“When the French did nuclear tests in the South Pacific, Australians were very upset. However, Australians were subjected, like the Japanese, to quite a lot of propaganda that mining is the backbone of our economy,” Hill said. “And the idea that they (the government and the mining companies) have tried to push, is that uranium is just like any other mining. But it isn’t, because it releases deadly radiation into the environment, exposing workers and the public.”
Hill suggested that Australians and Japanese cooperate on ending the use of uranium and nuclear power.
“The Japanese people have been subjected to a great deal of propaganda for many decades that nuclear power is safe. But now they know the danger of nuclear power better. Now, because there is Australian uranium in every single one of the reactors (of the Fukushima plant), we must share the responsibility (of the nuclear disaster) and we must also work together to stop it.”
Mentioning that despite the fact that most of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan have closed since the disaster, Japan can still manage to provide power, Hill maintained that there is a way to live without nuclear power in Japan.
“I would like to find opportunities for Japanese people to understand that the source of nuclear power is uranium, and what (the uranium mining) is doing to the people, the water and the beauty of Australia,” Hill said.
As to what Australians can do for Japan, Hill said she would like the Australian Government to invite children from Fukushima to have holidays in Australia so that they can be away from the risk and fear of radiation — much like after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened some countries invited children of the area on holiday.
“I want to go home and talk to the Prime Minister: To help those Japanese children in Fukushima. Let them have holidays in Australia.”
Uranium mines and former nuclear test areas in Australia can be seen on a map credited to The Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia at australianmap.net/map/down.html.