Dave Sweeney, an activist in the anti-nuclear movement for many decades, works for the Australian Conservation Foundation and co-founded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). He sat down with James McVicar to talk about the past successes and present challenges of the anti-nuclear movement.
How did you first get involved in anti-nuclear campaigning?
I always had a long-time interest in peace. When I grew up, there was a lot of talk of nuclear war, and there was a significant protest movement for nuclear disarmament. I was very aware of that as a young secondary student, but I became increasingly aware of Australia’s role in the nuclear trade and the fact that we hold one-third of the world’s uranium, the primary source for nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
I was involved in street marches against nuclear weapons, but I thought it would be good if we could get in earlier and turn off the tap that feeds that industry.
I’ve worked with trade unions, media, environment and civil society groups, but a thread through that has been nuclear-free politics, resource politics, and how that interfaces with Indigenous rights.
What do you think is the legacy of those movements against nuclear weapons and against uranium mining in Australia?
The threads of nuclear-free and peace have been pretty constant in people’s concerns and aspirations. It’s greatly shaped how a lot of Australians and a lot of organisations and civil society groups see the world. It’s deep in union DNA—like they say, “Peace is union business”. If there hadn’t been people on the streets, advocating and arguing, then Australia would be a far more militarised and far more nuclearised nation than it currently is. I think the lasting legacy is a real scepticism about people who think we can either shoot or nuke our way out of problems.
A lot of people might not know that uranium is mined in Australia. What would you want them to know about the uranium industry in this country?
Uranium is often the forgotten part of the nuclear chain. It’s the basic fuel for nuclear power and nuclear weapons. And Australia has the largest deposits—35 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium. So that’s a very significant contribution that becomes a really major threat, a long-term environmental hazard. Every gram of Australian uranium becomes radioactive waste once it’s dug up. And it can also fuel nuclear weapons. Nine nations are declared nuclear weapons states; five of them developed their nuclear weapons capacity through a civilian nuclear program. So the distinction between military and civilian nukes is cigarette-paper thin. It’s more psychological than real.
The best contribution that we could make on a global level is to take Australia offline, to say: “If you’re looking for the fuel that feeds reactors and weapons and creates waste, Australia’s offline”.
Australia has a real dig it, rip it, ship it culture: it’s a big resource-based economy. So it’s been quite an achievement by people over the decades to constrain the uranium industry. We have two mines in Australia: a small one in northern South Australia called Beverley and a massive one called Olympic Dam—again in northern South Australia, 500 km north of Adelaide in Roxby Downs—owned by BHP.
But there are hundreds of uranium deposits in Australia and scores of projects that they’ve tried to start and, through community resistance and, particularly, Indigenous resistance, they haven’t gone ahead. So it’s only South Australia where uranium mining is happening, since Australia’s longest running uranium mine—the Ranger mine in the NT—closed in 2021. There, the local Mirarr traditional owners and environmentalists are working hard to ensure that Rio Tinto, the company that owns the mine, does a comprehensive and credible clean-up. That clean-up bill is now valued at over $2 billion, which gives an indication of how contaminating this sector is.
To constrain the uranium sector so severely has been a real tribute to sustained effort from a broad range of people over decades. There’s never been a uranium project in Australia that has gone unchallenged, and there have been big fights. Sometimes we lose, like at Olympic Dam. I was arrested 40 years ago protesting the development of that project. But readers will also remember the fight in Jabiluka over twenty years ago. That was a massive project planned in Kakadu. They were meant to have uranium mining until 2065. Well, uranium mining in Kakadu is over now; it ended in 2021. That’s 40 years early—and against the run of play: against what the conservative politicians wanted, what the Minerals Council wanted, what the mining media cheer squad wanted.
That action came from a broad range of groups. One ecological principle is that the healthiest ecosystem is the diverse one. The same goes for protest and social movements for change. Some people say it can only be direct action; some people say it can only be in parliament. They’re all wrong and they’re all right. If everybody uses the connections, power and ability they have—whether it’s lighting a candle in a church, locking onto a big yellow machine, asking questions in a shareholders’ meeting or calling your local MP—the whole spectrum is needed.
You have written about the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011 and how there was Australian uranium in the reactor when it failed. Where else is this stuff going?
There are two ports in Australia licensed to handle and ship uranium—the port of Adelaide and the port of Darwin. When that ship sails off, with barrels inside a shipping container, it effectively disappears off the radar. There’s all this talk about instruments and agreements and checks and balances, but in practical effect, these things are self-regulated and the checks and balances are remarkably cursory.
And even in countries where there is some sort of established system and transparency, the rules aren’t kept. There was concern after concern about the behaviour of TEPCO, the company that runs Fukushima. They were facing legal challenges about corner-cutting, corrupt and improper behaviour; there were all these whistleblowers saying their safety procedures weren’t being followed, and no pressure from Australia, which was selling them uranium. Then in March 2011, the tsunami happened: Fukushima melted down. It was a nuclear catastrophe with massive continuing damage. And it was confirmed in September 2011 that it was Australian uranium inside the Fukushima reactor. So when you hear about Fukushima radiation, it started in the back of a big yellow truck in the NT and northern SA.
Now, some of the environmental groups active in the nuclear-free space are campaigning to highlight and try to halt Japan’s plans to directly dump a million tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific. It hasn’t been front-page news in Australia, but it’s a really big concern in the Pacific. There are big concerns on the Japanese seaboard, in Korea and China. It’s extraordinary that a dozen years after a nuclear accident in a very advanced nation, with very sophisticated technology and a lot of money, the best they can come up with for their waste management treatment is to chuck it into the ocean. So if anyone still says this industry is clean, they’re either not looking or not wanting to look.
We can’t talk about nuclear in Australia without talking about the AUKUS deal, a major turning point in nuclear politics in Australia. What’s your advice to people who want to keep up the fight against nuclear?
AUKUS is a major injection of cash, profile, momentum and enthusiasm into the nuclear sector. A lot of people want a piece of what they see as a multibillion-dollar action.
Already they’re saying: If we have to deal with the high-level radioactive waste from our submarines in the future, let’s take the world’s high-level waste and use it as a financial opportunity. If we’re going to have nuclear reactors, shouldn’t we have domestic uranium and domestic nuclear fuel? Others are saying: If we’re having nuclear reactors at sea, why wouldn’t we move some reactors onshore? Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan, the Minerals Council: this whole chorus of nuclear promoters are saying AUKUS is a game changer and we’re now a nuclear nation.
So we’re contesting AUKUS in its own right, but also trying to ring-fence Australia’s domestic situation from whichever way AUKUS goes. We want to contest AUKUS; we don’t want to see it happen. But a pivotal priority is to make sure it doesn’t escalate to include nuclear weapons.
What people can do is critical. The maintenance of hope is critical. So we need to maintain our hope and express our views—in conversations, explain why we think it’s a bad idea, join public manifestations. It reminds people quietly sitting at home that they’re not alone, that they’re not Robinson Crusoe, that there are other people that feel this way and you’re not mad to think that what’s going on is mad.
Small actions can collectively strengthen and tie down the beast. And that can be across whatever range of activities you’re involved in or comfortable with. If you like direct action, do that. Just do something. Don’t acquiesce, don’t be quiet. And you can plug in to groups like the Australian Anti-AUKUS Coalition to stay informed.
And while Labor’s pretty locked into AUKUS, there are some in Labor and many in the unions who aren’t convinced. There are many members saying, “I didn’t stand in the rain and hand out how-to-vote cards for 40 years for this”.
At ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), we’ve pushed for an international treaty to make nuclear weapons illegal. In 2018, Labor said they agreed to a treaty to end nuclear weapons. We’re pushing them to sign it. That won’t roll AUKUS back or stop submarines, but it will stop the erosion of Australia either requiring, accepting, or acquiescing to nuclear weapons.
Sometimes people ask, “What can I do when it’s me against BHP?” Firstly, you’re not alone. And secondly, remember what the Dalai Lama once said: “Whoever thinks they’re too small to make a difference hasn’t spent a night in a room with a mosquito”.
We all need to be anti-AUKUS anti-nuclear mosquitoes. We can get in the ear of power and say, “No, not here, not us”.