After the United States dropped the first atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the initial shock of the weapons’ destructive power wore off, many countries became interested in developing electricity based off of the nuclear technology. Along with the exciting new possibilities that always accompany new technology, nuclear fission carried with it a whole host of dangerous challenges as well.
In Australia, nuclear technology first appeared in the form of covert British nuclear weapons tests that took place at Maralinga, South Australia, and Monte Bello, Western Australia. Soon after these tests were approved by the Australian government, several uranium deposits were discovered, and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) was set up in order to oversee uranium mining in Australia, and to promote nuclear research within the country. Australia’s uranium deposits were very rich, and contain an estimated 15-20% of the world’s high-grade uranium.
Though opposition to the nuclear program tended to be weak in Australia, it was strongly influenced by the international “Ban the Bomb” movement. In 1964, several major Australian cities were the site of “Ban the Bomb” marches – protests condemning the nuclear testing programs at Maralinga and Monte Bello.
In 1969, the first major anti-nuclear success took place in Jervis Bay, New South Wales. The Australian government was seriously considering building a nuclear power plant at Jervis Bay and carefully studied the economic and environmental effects of their plan. However, South Coast Trades and Labour Council, the major unions in the area, announced that their workers would refuse to build the nuclear reactor. With the help of the World Union for Protection of Life, the Australian government was convinced in 1971 that the nuclear energy program was economically unfeasible (particularly given the nation’s supply of cheaply mined coal). To this day, no other nuclear power plant has been seriously considered in Australia, and none are in existence on the continent.
However, this success was just the first entry for Australia into a major anti-nuclear energy campaign. 1974 was the first year for significant anti-nuclear action in the country. Prompted by the French nuclear testing program in the Pacific Ocean, several anti-nuclear groups began to organize. A Friends of the Earth group, whose specific goal was to prevent uranium mining, was formed, and several other groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Australia Party, and various university students’ groups, took up the cause in response. At first, they were powerless against the Australian government, which opened several new mining sites in 1975.
In 1976, the Australian Railways Union conducted the first major action of this new mass movement, carrying out a one day national railway strike, which prevented the movement of uranium throughout the country.
On October 28th, 1976, the Fox Report, more commonly known as the Ranger Inquiry, was released to the public. The controversial findings, which, though ambiguous and vague, seemed to endorse uranium mining and nuclear power plants, encouraged anti-nuclear groups to act swiftly and decisively. The Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM), Campaign Against Nuclear Energy (CANE), and the Uranium Moratorium were just three of the many groups founded in opposition to uranium mining in Australia.
The formulation of an Australia-wide strategy against uranium mining has taken place through an interaction between local groups and national meetings. Local groups are essentially free to plan their campaigns as they wish, but most see coordination as valuable. National meetings of Friends of the Earth and later also Uranium Moratorium (incorporating groups such as Movement Against Uranium Mining) have been held up to 2 to 3 times per year. At these meetings, representatives from local groups discuss general priorities and make decisions. Local group suggestions and opinions are solicited before such meetings and the conclusions discussed locally afterwards. Although decisions of national meetings are not binding on local groups, most groups have followed the general emphases decided upon. – Martin
Within months, these groups, joined loosely under the umbrella organization Coalition for a Nuclear Free Australia (CNFA), organized marches through various major Australian cities, with a total of nearly 10,000 participants. In April 1977, Uranium Moratorium, one of the most effective groups, rallied 15,000 Melbourne residents to their cause. A petition circulated by the Moratorium collected more than 250,000 names, and 50,000 more Australians took to the streets in protest in August of that year.
In response, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the major minority party in Australia at the time, added the moratorium measure to their party platform. The anti-nuclear movement quickly moved to support the ALP, and helped it secure majority party status.
Unfortunately, since the ALP was not tied to the CNFA, it was not bound to support their positions. In 1982, the ALP voted to revise its no-mine policy, instead choosing to advocate a one-mine policy. Two years later, the ALP retreated further, acting in support of a three-mine policy – the three mines that were already active in Australia. Thus, though the ALP would not endorse any effort to build new uranium mines, they would not act to shut down the mines already in operation.
The anti-nuclear protests continued throughout the 1980’s, culminating every year in a Palm Sunday march. The march drew 100,000 participants in 1982, and reached 350,000 by 1985. Though these protests did very little in terms of new anti-nuclear policy in Australia, they did serve a very important function in Australian politics – they visibly prevented any more pro-nuclear policies from being enacted by the Australian government.
By the late 1980s, the political, social, and economic mood had swung firmly in the favor of the anti-nuclear movement. Though it was clear that the three already functioning mines would not be shut down, the falling price of uranium, coupled with the Chernobyl disaster, ensured that there would not be a strong effort to broaden Australia’s nuclear program. CNFA drastically reduced its campaign, and faded into the background of Australian politics.
Alves, Dora. United States. Anti-Nuclear Attitudes in New Zealand and Australia`. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1985.
“Australia’s Anti-Nuclear Movement: A Short History.” Green Left Online. 29 Aug 1998. Green Left, 1 Mar 2010. <http://www.greenleft.org.au/1998/330/20531>.
Kearns, Barbara. Stepping Out for Peace. South Perth, Western Australia: Lotterywest, 2004.
Martin, Brian. “The Australia Anti-Uranium Movement.” 1982. 1 Mar 2010. <http://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/82alternatives.html>
The Global Nonviolent Action Database
This case study comes from The Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project of Swarthmore College, including the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.
- Civil disobedience
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti mining
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti nuclear_Uranium