Australians have long opposed the mining and export of uranium due to an array of concerns about safety, ranging from contamination and spills during excavation, processing and transport through to the hazards of nuclear meltdowns, waste storage and war.
Although an export industry had existed in Australia since the 1950s moves to ramp up mining in the 1970s were opposed by a coalition of activists hailing from labour and social movements as well as Indigenous communities.
Expansion was initially paused in 1975 while the federal government’s Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, also known as the Fox Commission, took place. Protests and union bans occurred during this time but campaigning ramped up significantly after the federal government used the inquiry’s findings to support an increase in mining. Although pro-uranium forces within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and union movement would eventually prevail, for a period maritime, railway and other workers joined with anti-nuclear activists to stymie the industry, as illustrated by the following extract from Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era
The Fox Commission was a turning point for the anti-nuclear forces, who concluded that lobbying and making submissions wouldn’t be enough to stop uranium mining.
After the release of the first report, Friends of the Earth (FOE), Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM), the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Australian Railways Union (ARU) held a joint press conference to announce the launch of a struggle ‘comparable to the campaign against the war in Vietnam’.
The next few years saw repeated mass demonstrations across the country demanding a ban on mining and export. The first round of 1977 set the tone. The largest mobilisation was in Melbourne, where MAUM was developing a sizeable network of local groups, some led by veterans of the Vietnam protest era. Local rallies took place in the suburbs, culminating in a major event in the Melbourne Town Hall on 30 March. On 1 April, 10,000 rallied in the City Square.
Speakers at the rallies around the country included Australian Labor Party (ALP) left personalities Joan Coxsedge and Tom Uren and Aboriginal leaders Gary Foley and Marcia Langton. The importance of Indigenous speakers was later emphasised by Brisbane activist Ross Watson:
If blacks got land rights, real land rights, then there would be a lot less uranium going out of this country.
A second round of rallies took place in August in conjunction with Hiroshima Day.
These large, peaceful ‘uranium moratoriums’ became a feature of the late 1970s, but there were also smaller and more radical actions, including confrontations on the wharves of Sydney and Melbourne. In June, demonstrators tussled with the cops for hours at Sydney’s Glebe Island container terminal in a vain attempt to prevent yellowcake (uranium ore) being loaded on a ship. At the start of July, Melbourne activists won a victory at Swanson Dock.
The ship Columbus Australia, with yellowcake bound for Britain and Japan, arrived on 2 July in what MAUM convenor Jim Falk called a ‘try-on by the Fraser Government to make the export of uranium an established fact’. Melbourne members of the WWF black banned the ship, only to be overruled by their federal executive because of its policy of fulfilling existing contracts. Hundreds of demonstrators then assembled on the dock, causing the ship’s captain to raise the gangplank. That violated union safety rules, and the wharfies stopped work. Finally, police attacked the demonstrators, arresting about 30 of them; this move only provoked the wharfies to ban the ship again.
Two days later, a mass meeting made the ban permanent. The Columbus Australia departed, leaving behind a $1 million cargo. Although Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) federal secretary Norman Docker sought to distance his union from the anti-uranium movement (‘we can have no sympathy for people who invade our work areas’), the rank and file wharfies saw it differently. A job delegate doffed his cap to the demonstrators, saying: ‘We reckon you’re lovely.’
It was an example of the kind of unity in struggle between environmentalists and unionists at the grassroots level which, if generalised, could have stopped the nuclear industry in its tracks. It had been achieved, not through negotiations with officials, but through direct action.
As always, such confrontations raised fears that militancy would alienate public opinion, but the main effect was a dramatic increase in public interest. The Age was full of letters, including attacks on both the ‘greed-crazed exploiters’ of the uranium industry and the ‘communist parties’ among the demonstrators. Assertions that nuclear power was ‘a great step forward in the conservation battle’ jostled with warnings of dangers to ‘not just this generation but those of the next 500,000 years’. Similarly, a call for mining in the ‘interests…of the free world’ stood alongside the blunt challenge: ‘Pro-uranium supporters should ask themselves if they would be happy to have a nuclear reactor on the block next door.’
More about the history of opposition to uranium mining in the 1970s and early 1980s can be read in the book also provides a comprehensive account and analysis of socialist, union, and social movement activity around issues such as attacks on working and living conditions, civil rights, healthcare, and land rights during the era. Published by Interventions the book will be launched during the Marxism 2023 conference in Melbourne on Saturday April 8 at 1.15pm.
Interventions is an independent, not-for-profit, incorporated publisher. They publish left-wing, radical and socialist books by Australian authors. They have kindly shared excerpts from their range of books for the Commons Library community to read.
- Yellowcake Ship still in Port, The Canberra Times, ACT, July 4, 1977
- Australian Union Boycott Blocks Uranium Shipment, New York Times, July 4, 1977
Explore resources about the anti-nuclear movement
- The Jabiluka Blockade – 22 years on
- Australians campaign against nuclear power and uranium mining, 1974-1988
- Project Iceberg: Fremantle’s response to visiting nuclear warships in the 1980s
- The Australian Movement against Uranium Mining: Its Rationale and Evolution
- From Protest to Politics: The Effectiveness of Civil Society in shaping the Nuclear-free Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand
Read more book excerpts from Interventions
- How Workers Defeated Anti-Strike Laws in the 1970s
- Defending Unionism: The Weipa Dispute, 1995
- The 1931 Perth Treasury Building Riot: Unemployed workers during the Great Depression
- Interventions book excerpts in the Commons library
- Boycotts and bans
- Columbus Australia (Ship)
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- History - Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti nuclear_Uranium
- Police brutality
- Waterside Workers’ Federation WWF