Back to All News

WA Labor's uranium problem

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 29 Mar 2017

On 11 March 2017 we marked the sixth anniversary of the great Tohoku earthquake off Japan's Pacific coast. Nearly 20,000 people died as a wall of water hit the coast less than an hour after the earthquake. Meltdowns at three of the four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant wrecked the nuclear power station irretrievably and thousands of tonnes of radioactive water began pouring into the Pacific. The Japanese government commenced drawing up plans for the evacuation of the northern half of Honshu island, tens of millions of people, including everyone in Greater Tokyo. Six years on, the reactors still smoulder, and the robots sent in to try and get a picture of what was happening inside the core all failed from radiation damage within a few hours. Six years on, Tohoku needs less 'ganbatte' and more direct support. At least 80,000 people remain evacuated.

On 11 March 2017, exactly six years later, the people of Western Australia went to the polls and cast their judgement on the Barnett government. Perhaps these events seem unconnected—but they are not. In October 2011 we established in this parliament that the Fukushima reactors were loaded with uranium from Australia. And, since the state election that threw the Carpenter Labor government out of office in 2008, WA had been in the firing line for a massive expansion of uranium mining. A little bit of history: WA Labor have traditionally been strongly opposed to uranium mining but, as is so often the case, they sometimes try to have it both ways. Rather than banning the industry while they were in government, they placed an administrative hold on mining licences but seemed indifferent to the exploration rush that was sending drilling rigs out across the Pilbara, Kimberley, Goldfields and Mid West.

This was in the heady days, if you can recall, of President George Bush's 'nuclear renaissance', a gust of concentrated delusion that sent world uranium prices skyrocketing.

WA Labor voted down Greens WA MLC Giz Watson's bill banning uranium mining on at least two occasions that I can recall while they were in government, but right before they lost the 2008 election, in an act of desperation, Premier Carpenter committed to banning uranium if re-elected. Of course, that was too late. We then had to contend with eight years of Premier Colin Barnett coddling the uranium sector with cash incentives, delisting thousands of inconvenient Aboriginal Heritage sites, sidelining environmental law and overruling the EPA, and basically acting like BHP and Rio Tinto's most obedient employee.

Of course, in the meantime the global nuclear industry had begun its slow tumble into total obsolescence, and the writing was on the wall well before the disaster on Japan's Pacific coast. The uranium hopefuls began to fall apart one by one. A wave of bankruptcies and fire sales was occurring even as the Western Australian antinuclear movement stepped up with renewed strength to directly challenge the dwindling handful of companies that remained. Each of these companies was burning through its cash in order to beat the deadline of Premier Barnett's defeat on the anniversary of the triple meltdowns at Fukushima, in the hope that the incoming Labor Government would let them get on their feet.

Of course, we are not going to let that happen, and we will fight until this industry is put to rest—not for reasons of ideology or nostalgia for the 1970s but for the same reason that we banned asbestos mining. This mineral is harmful in ways way more far reaching than asbestos. Uranium brings nothing but contamination and misery, locally where the impacts of mine tailings, radon dispersal and the poisoning of water turn mine sites into sacrifice zones, and globally where the consequences of nuclear power, nuclear weapons and nuclear waste are still incomprehensible, it seems, to the governments that continue to promote them.

I am incredibly proud to have been a part of the Western Australian antinuclear movement since around 1998. What we have seen is that, with a low uranium price, strong sustained community resistance and a lack of cross-party support for uranium in the west, none of the four proposed mines have begun to secure a social license and none of them have achieved full and final approvals, and that was the then opposition leader Mr Mark McGowan's condition. I think it was unwise and went directly against WA Labor Party policy, but nonetheless that was what Mr McGowan took to the election. He said that mines would need to have secured financing and to have had all of their final approvals in hand, and of course none of the four uranium mines that are left from that land rush of the 1990s and early 2000s are anywhere near those final approvals. WA Labor's clear policy position was that those projects would need to have been completely approved, and the fact is none of the four have a final investment decision. In fact, Cameco had written down the value of the Kintyre uranium deposit, which is the second largest uranium deposit in Western Australia, to zero.

But in the meantime we have had tiny companies like Toro working on the Wiluna project, which crosses two lake systems and is proposed to use 10 million litres of water a day and leave behind 50 million tonnes of low-level radioactive waste in the floodplain on the edge of a lakebed. This is not nuclear waste in the form that comes out of a nuclear power station; it is very finely powdered, radioactive, carcinogenic sand that has been released from the geological containment that has held it in place for millions or tens of millions of years and brought to the service and made bioavailable. It thereby makes its way into the food chain, into the hydrological cycle and into the bodies of the people who have hunted that ground for tens of thousands of years.

I am proud to have been able to associate with extraordinary campaigners from the Aboriginal communities most directly impacted. The nuclear industry, whether it be nuclear weapons testing, nuclear waste dumping or uranium mining, has always hit Aboriginal people the hardest, whether it be here in Australia, in Canada, in the United States, in Eastern Europe or anywhere you care to turn. Traditional owners, elders and activists—people like Geoffrey Stokes, Kado Muir, Richard Evans, Mr Glen Cooke, Curtis Taylor, Vicki McCabe, Jeanette McGrath, Janice Scott, Bruce Smith, Bruce Hogan, Debbie and Libby Carmody, Shirley and Elizabeth Wonyabong, and all the elders from Parnngurr and other communities across Western Australia—are people with grace, dignity and an important and powerful story to tell.

I have been very fortunate to have spent brief periods of time on the Walkatjurra Walkabout, where the global antinuclear campaign is directly linked with care for country and care for culture by the people who have carried and transmitted these oral histories and oral stories for tens of thousands of years about the country that Premier Barnett and his acolytes—now no longer in office and not missed—have proposed to violate. They have done absolutely everything that they could in the eight years in which they were in office to bring these projects to fruition.

I also want to acknowledge and congratulate my old friend, colleague and mentor Robin Chapple MLC, who on 11 March was elected to a fourth term in the Legislative Council for the Mining and Pastoral Region. Robin Chapple was the first one who got me north of Geraldton on a tour that we did in 1999 of the various proposed uranium mine sites around WA, and I am proud to say that not a single one of those places has gone into production since Robin took me for that extraordinary three-week trip around Western Australia. Not a single uranium mine has gone into commercial production in Western Australia.

Our challenge, obviously, to Mr McGowan is just to uphold the commitment that he took to the 2017 state election. In recent days, senators might have seen Mr Bill Johnston, the mines minister, off freelancing and saying, 'Oh, of course they can go ahead.' Not only was it not Labor Party policy; that position had not been to cabinet and had not been cleared with his colleagues. We will just have to assume that Mr Johnston was freelancing and either had not read the policy that state Labor took to the election or had not actually done his due diligence and checked to see whether the companies had their final state and federal approvals in hand. When he does that—and I am sure that he is in the process of doing that at the moment—he will discover that not one of the four projects meets the criteria set by Mr McGowan before the election.

Western Australia is an incredibly precious place, and outback Western Australia and the regions—where some of these politicians just look at the lines on maps and consider that these places are terra nullius, empty land or radioactive sacrifice zones—are incredibly important to the people who have lived there and been custodians of that country for tens of thousands of years. We look forward to the incoming Labor government, and I genuinely congratulate them on their thumping win over the pro-uranium and pro-nuclear Colin Barnett. We look forward to them upholding their commitment and legislating to ban this toxic and dangerous industry from Western Australia once and for all.

Back to All News