Wednesday, July 12, 2006

public meeting in Brisbane: Nuclear matters

On Tuesday 11 July, an anti-nuclear alliance group held a public meeting in the Abel Smith lecture theatre at the UQ campus, St Lucia. The meeting was entitled “Nuclear Matters: Mining, Energy & War”. The meeting was hosted by the QNFA (Qld Nuclear Free Alliance) in conjunction with another group called SOS (Students of Sustainability). Together they have formed an umbrella Brisbane group called Just Peace.

The four invited speakers were Professor Ian Lowe (President of the Australian Conservation Foundation), Senator Kerry Nettle (NSW Greens Senator), Speedy McGuinness (Kungurakun-Gurindji elder from NT) and Dr Ibtissam Abdul Jabbar (UQ research scientist). Senator Nettle was a late apology due to her visit to Papua New Guinea and she was replaced by Senator Christine Milne (Green, Tasmania). The meeting was attended by approximately 200 to 300 people.

Annette Brownlie opened the meeting by describing Just Peace as a Brisbane organisation that were seeking alternatives to war and to Australian reliance on the US military. Its aims are justice and peace. It plans to do this by exchanging information, conducting dialogue and offering support and fellowship. She asked that attendees take time to stop and remember the Aboriginal forebears and traditional owners of this land. She then introduced Professor Ian Lowe.

Professor Lowe also gave thanks to the traditional landowners. He started by exposing a great myth. That myth was that nuclear power is greenhouse friendly. Dr James Lovelock had raised the alarm with his “Revenge of Gaia” in which he said that climate change damage was irreversible and we should “think the unthinkable” and embrace nuclear power. Professor Lowe said he has thought it and believes it is still unthinkable. He has also thought about uranium exporters who have shown no interest in climate change. That lack of concern also exists at government levels and there is no support for practical measures either in the coal industry, for renewable resources, or more energy efficient solutions. Nor does nuclear power address emissions from transportation. In short the argument for nuclear power is as transparent as before. Lowe then talked about the 1975 Fox Report. The Fox Report supported limited regulated uranium mining endorsing sales to countries that are signatories to the NNPT (Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty).

The report was the start of the 3-mines policy at Nabarlek, Ranger and Olympic Dam. It gave then PM Malcolm Fraser the chance to sell uranium to an ‘energy starved world’. It was a grubby moral imperative. Nuclear accounts for barely 10% of the world’s electricity and 3% of the world’s energy. It was a dishonest policy 30 years ago and is dishonest today. As an energy source it is quite expensive and subsidised by governments. And it would be 15 years before any new nuclear power stations would fire up in anger. We cannot wait 15 years for a solution. The rush to build nuclear power stations in the world is itself a cause of the energy crisis.

Professor Lowe then turned to the matter of water. Nuclear power needs lots of water. The Roxby Downs plant (site of the Olympic Dam) eyed off the Murray river only to find out that the Murray doesn’t contain much water these days. They then turned their attention to the Great Artesian Basin but that was stymied by a letters campaign to the SA government. Now, BHP Billiton are building a desalination plant. We are now exporting uranium to China, how does that contribute to world peace? By 2020, the industry may grow to be one third the size of our cheese industry. But unlike cheese, when we export uranium we not only give it to current governments but we also give it to future successor regimes whose actions we have no control over.

While the world dirties its collective nappy over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, we forget that the Americans gave the original technology to the previous regime of the Shah. We cannot guarantee that future administrations will turn uranium into fissile material for bombs. Prof Lowe concluded that “if nuclear is the answer, it must have been a very silly question”.

Dr Jabbar spoke next. She was born in Baghdad and has an M Sc in immunology and a PhD from UQ. She works at the Centre for Immunology & Cancer Research, University of Queensland. She spoke using a set of Powerpoint slides and had three issues to discuss. The issues were ignorance, health effects and moral consequences. She started by describing the phobia and fear around the topic. She visited Iraq in 2003 for the first time in 23 years where she saw for herself the damage done by nuclear weapons on people. She then showed a brief video from CNN which displayed people’s ignorance of where Iran was on a world map.

There has been limited success with nuclear weapons in the 1963 Partial Ban Treaty which prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in space. However there are still 50 nuclear weapons tested every year. 55% of these are US, 30% are Russian and the remaining 15% is spread across China, UK, France, India and Pakistan. Radioactive Weapons, called Depleted Uranium (DU) were first used in Gulf War I (GW1) in 1991. Many more were used in GW2. These weapons have “somatic toxicity”. Dr Ernest Sternglass author of “Secret Fallout” believes 400,000 infants in Iraq may be affected by DU. Freeman Dyson, the British-American physicist and mathematician has corroborated Sternglass’s figures. Dr Jabbar also believes the risks are greater at lower radiation levels. Dr Asaf Durakovic, a professor of nuclear medicine at Washington’s Georgetown university admitted the US Veteran’s Association made him lie about the impacts of DU.

Dr Jabbar then cited a 1997 experiment where 30% of GW1 vets had suffered from Gulf War syndrome. “When we went, we were healthy” they said. There are only 256 entries in Pub Med (a US National Library of Medicine service) on the topic and only 2 papers on Iraq. 1kg of uranium provides 5kg of DU. DU is “organotropic” (related to the attraction of certain chemical compounds or micro-organisms to specific tissues or organs of the body). It gets into the skeletal tissue and has been traced in urine 16 years after the event. It accumulates in bones, the kidney and even the Central Nervous System. It alters DNA, causes carcinogens, cell death and mutation. It can also alter chromosomes. The Iraqi population has now been hit twice in 12 years with DU.

Al Eskan disease is closely related. Discovered in 1992 the disease is a condition triggered by the exceptionally fine sand dust of the Central and Eastern Saudi Arabian peninsula. The inhalation of this sand has caused fatigue and worse. The morality aspect is important too. We have legitimised a side effect which says it is ok to use civilians as a target. It is a moral disaster. Science needs to take the road of the darkness. The truth is regulated by the authority in the shape of tanks and bombs but also by computers, TV and the Internet. Dr Jabbar finished with a quote from Albert Einstein “from the basic power of the universe, there is no protection”.

Speedy McGuinness spoke next. His speech was a plea for a wake-up call. He spoke first in his native Kungurakun-Gurindji dialect. He paid homage to a powerful black woman at the back of the auditorium who was a tribal elder from the Gulf of Carpentaria. He then apologised for not being a speaker in the same league as Professor Lowe and Dr Jabbar. He promised not to swear too much and then said “fucking war, eh?” He talked about the peace pilgrimage he took with others from Brisbane to Nagasaki, a journey of 4,500kms over 8 months. He discussed the impact of the atomic bombings with monks in Japan. They described bodies of women and children floating in the river. It was a war, just like there is a war between black and white in Australia. This was not political “crapotology”. The war is still going on. And they are still dropping uranium bombs in Australia at Bradshaw camp and Delemere Range in NT. McGuinness said he was proud of his 30 year campaign to save Australia from uranium mining.

He discussed the Rum Jungle uranium mine 65km south of Darwin. The place got its name when the wheels fell off a bullock wagon containing rum bottles destined for the miners. The bullockies drank the rum there and then. The nearby East Finnis River is still contaminated from the old Rum Jungle uranium mine. For nearly 30 years, contaminated mine water collected in the dry season, only to wash into the river in the wet. The Rum Jungle is closed now but the government want to re-open it as a nuclear waste dump. And they can do this because federal law overrides the NT government. The government are getting rid of the cycads in the area near McGuinness’s property in preparation. And after all, what good are trees only pumping oxygen into the air?! The cycads were cut down by contractors and sent to labs in Alabama. Now McGuinness needs to plant another 500 of them. It’s his job.

McGuinness apologised again for the rambling nature of his speech but said “you’ll get the full story, somehow”. They gave the land back to the Aboriginal owners back in 1993. McGuinness discussed Japan again. In a country the size of Victoria, there are 54 nuclear reactors. No-one feels safe. They are bombing with uranium in Iraq and it is the children who suffer most. McGuinness is a translator for his people in courts and hospitals and said the things he sees there ‘spin me out.’ He was invited by the SOS to this meeting in Brisbane but was not keen to come to a meeting where people come along and listen and feel good before going home and forgetting all about it. But it was the magic word that convinced him to attend: Students. SOS is "Students of Sustainability". Students are ‘feral’ but they are also talkative. Next week they might be talking about me (McGuinness) but they will also be talking about the Rum Jungle and the contamination of the East Finnis River. You won’t read about that in public schools. We need to encourage the smaller ones. It’s as scary as all hell. McGuinness ended by saying to the students “I’m putting my faith in you”.

The final speaker was Senator Christine Milne. She started by acknowledging that she was on Aboriginal land. She recently led a Green delegation to the Mt Everard Aboriginal settlement in WA. This is one of the proposed sites for a nuclear waste dump. It is only 4km from a defence site and is the likely choice for the dump when the government finally decide. The Greens do not support the federal government overturning NT state rulings or using traditional land for waste dumps. She is ashamed that Bob Hawke proposed Australia to be the nuclear waste dump of the world. According to Hawke there are plenty of ‘empty’ places we can store it. He said “nobody lives there and any nearby Aboriginals can be moved and compensated”. We have learnt nothing from the past. And now the Government assures us that nuclear power is safe. At a global meeting on conservation in Switzerland, Senator Milne was approached by a Russian delegate Alexey Yablokov who demanded to know of her “what on Earth are you Australians doing?” He was talking about nuclear waste. He mentioned that the sarcophagus built around the Chernobyl site is now leaking and is likely to break open in a few years time.

But the problem is also here and now. Senator Milne stated that on June 14 this year, the US air force did a nuclear test on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. They tested Minuteman missiles that can travel 4,800 kms in 30 minutes. This fact was not mentioned in any Australian news media. Then on June 30, the Russians launched a ballistic missile in the Bering Strait which landed on its target 5,500kms away on the Kamchatska Peninsula. Again there was no media coverage in Australia. India too launched a missile test as recently as last weekend. Why was there no Australian reaction about any of these events compared to our grandstanding over the recent North Korean tests? While we continue to export uranium, Australia has no moral authority to exercise power globally. Australia should be an honest broker not a deputy sheriff. The uranium should stay in the ground. The NNPT (Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty) should be applied equally and fairly. We should be campaigning for the total elimination of the nuclear arsenal worldwide. But at the moment, we are trying to pick winners and losers.

Senator Milne then recommended a book by international lawyer Philippe Sand called “Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules”. The US has systematically undermined international law: the refugee convention, the Geneva convention, the NNPT. But these are the only frameworks we’ve got. Now we are in this mess. As Professor Lowe said it is nonsense to think that selling uranium to China will somehow prevent climate change. China’s ambassador to Australia has stated that the reason China imports uranium is that it does not have enough for civilian and military uses. So either directly or indirectly, Australia is facilitating Chinese nuclear weapons. Alexander Downer would like to assure us that safeguards will apply. But the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) has confirmed that they do not have oversight of Chinese facilities. To say that Australian uranium can be ‘tracked’ safely is nonsense.

The current situation in Australia is driven by the need to create new export markets for uranium. First China and next India. The problem with selling uranium to India is that it is not a signatory to the NNPT. Australia cannot sell uranium to India without infringing the treaty. America also wants to work with the lucrative Indian nuclear market so Bush and Howard are keen to establish new ‘arrangements’ outside the treaty. The US has yet to sign off on a deal with India and the Australian government has refused to answer questions on its stance. Within the NNPT Sweden and Switzerland will block any moves to engage with India. So Bush has created a “Global Nuclear Energy Plan” which will encourage multi-lateral nuclear agreements outside the control of the NNPT. A nuclear supply centre will lease enriched uranium to countries and the suppliers will take back the nuclear waste. This apparently demonstrates stewardship. Senator Milne called to watch out for the use of the word “stewardship” in all official nuclear industry documentation. The Labor lobbyist for the industry, Martin Ferguson uses the term “stewardship” continually. This needs to be contested at every opportunity. It is a travesty of the real meaning of the word.

The Age journalist Richard Baker put in an FOI (Freedom of Information) request to the government to release details of his nuclear talks with American officials. But the request was denied out of hand because of the documents’ “sensitive nature”. The plan involves expanding exports to China, supporting the India as part of Bush’s global plan, mine for uranium at Olympic Dam and transport it to Adelaide on a Halliburton owned railway line for export. The plan concludes with a scheme to take back all the high level waste. This will all be drawn up under the PM’s hand-picked Task Force on the Australian Uranium Industry Framework. The group is led by John White who has a major conflict of interest. He is also the head of uranium exporters “Global Renewables” and helped draft Bush’s “Global Nuclear Energy Plan”. The government business case for uranium will revolve around the “safe” return of the waste so that it cannot be enriched for weapons use. The argument has already started. They will wedge Labor on their three-mine policy and their refusal to take back the high-level waste

The US is now talking to Russia about leasing enriched uranium to Iran and taking back the high-level waste. The US now supports this idea and is putting its faith in Putin. Putin will approve a dump facility which has potential profits of $20 billion. This is because the US cannot store its own nuclear waste and a Russian dump will do as well as an Australian one. The Asian situation is extremely volatile. Every day Howard meddles in situations for which he cannot control the long-term consequences. China has signed major oil and nuclear contracts with Iran. So has Russia. Russia itself has retreated substantially from democracy under ex-KGB member Putin. The Asian arms race gathers pace. Indonesia won’t stand idly by. If any of these regimes are overthrown there is no knowing what the successor regimes might do with nuclear fuel. Selling uranium to these regimes is irresponsible. Australia has a moral obligation with 40% of the world’s uranium. We should leave it in the ground. Senator Milne concluded by saying “it is part of the sustainability that will bring about peace”.

Annette Brownlie ended the forum by thanking the speakers for their excellent contributions and opened the session to the floor for a question and answer session.

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