On Infinitely Dangerous GroundsPublished by MAC on 2005-08-15
On Infinitely Dangerous Grounds
15th August 2005
On August 15th 1945, the Japanese empire surrendered to the US military; an act undoubtedly brought about by the calculated US incendiarisation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a week before. Now, sixty years later, various government leaders, numerous peace groups, and journalists have united in deploring continued proliferation notably in Iran, but also India, Pakistan, South Korea and Israel.
The anniversary provided yet another opportunity for states which acquired the capacity of destroying millions of people in the fifties and sixties, to distance themselves from those that have since followed their lead.
Often masked by the simplistic and sometimes hypocritical rhetoric are three central truths. First, all nuclear weapons have depended on uranium as their prime source material. Second, the majority of fuel used in bombs derives from so-called "civil" reactors that also generate electricity. Third, mining uranium is uniquely hazardous. Only mineral sands extraction comes close, in terms of the degree of radiation to which workers, local communities and non-human species may be subjected.
For much of the first period of the "uranium age" (roughly 1940 - 1960), the mining of U308 (uranium oxide), its upgrading into enriched uranium, its incorporation as reactor fuel, and the consequent "recovery" of plutonium was principally determined, financed and promoted by four "warrior" nations: the US, UK, France and Russia. They were the true progenitors of "weapons of mass destruction"; the justification that the enormous releases of heat from atomic fission could power commercial electricity generators was tacked on later.
The fifties and sixties saw uniquely damaging, nuclear bombing ("testing") of Indigenous territory in the south west US and on South Pacific atolls. This carcinogenic legacy continues today, with some communities still unable to return safely to their traditional, but irradiated territory.
As the "Cold War" dominated Super-power politicking, so did the illusion that "deterrence" against nuclear attack depended on building more, and more destructive weapons - justified by the morally-twisted concept of MAD ("mutually assured destruction"). By the time of the first treaty to limit proliferation, so many nuclear weapons were stockpiled that - had they all been detonated - life on this planet would have been exterminated..
Hand-in-glove with this "arms race" came an inevitable scramble to seize and exploit uranium deposits, wherever they could be found. Virtually every country with some important mineraological history was subject to exploration. The Soviet regime plundered resources both within Russia (using the enslaved prison labour of the "gulag") and its satellite states. The US enlisted some of its biggest mining companies in a domestic search; Union Carbide was the prime source of enriched uranium for the military.
The French government, through state atomic agency, the CEA, and domestic company, Cogema, mined several sites in mainland France, while opening major projects in Niger and Gabon. The Indian government started its Jaduguda mine on tribal land in Bihar (now Jharkhand), under the aegis of the Uranium Company India Ltd. (UCIL). In the sixties and seventies some third world states - such as Brazil (from 1981) and Argentina (from 1962) - dug up their own yellowcake for nuclear programmes. Others got it from wheever they could. For example, Iran, under the US-supported Shah, purchased equity in RTZ's Rossing Uranium Ltd in Namibia. Japan's Marubeni corporation bought uranium oxide direct from Rossing, in flagrant violation of the government's embargo on trading with the South African apartheid regime).
Indeed, RTZ (now Rio Tinto) was pre-eminent in the exploitation of yellowcake for the world market up until the late eighties. In the early 1960s, RTZ chair Sir Val Duncan was (so he later recounted) called to the British Atomic Energy Commission and ordered "to go forth, find uranium and save civilisation". Within the decade, the company was exploiting the Rum Jungle and Mary Kathleen mines in Australia (the uranium from which was destined for nuclear weapons). Between 1956 and 1959, its Elliot Lake mines in Ontario, Canada, were the most important supplier of yellowcake to the US military. From 1976 the Rossing mine became the world's largest single producer of the deadly mineral, despite a United Nations Decree which expressly forbade exploitation of the territory's natural resources. Across the border in apartheid South Africa, uranium was also being obtained as a by-product of the company's Palabora copper mine. Meanwhile the UK-Australian conglomerate was contracting for yellowcake with a host of nation-states, including Spain, West Germany and the US, as well supplying more than half the UK's pretended needs.
But, in 1980, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, on east coast USA suffered a melt-down. It was the first acknowledged global nuclear "accident". The US government cancelled all new reactors (although its rivals, the French and Japanese refused to follow suit). Shortly afterwards, a much worse disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, seemed finally to set the seal of doom on civilian nuclear power.
By then, the movement against nuclear weapons' proliferation movement had segued into a broad coalition opposing all nuclear power. Rather belatedly, peace and environmental activists in the Americas, Europe, Japan and South Asia, recognised that opposition to uranium mining was key to their success. This would scarecly have been possible had Indigenous Peoples themselves not been able to show that - almost exclusively - it was their territory that had been purloined, dug up, and radiated to provide for the biggest mines.
The repudation of state capitalism in the USSR, at the start of the nineties, brought an official end to the "Cold War." Weapons were decommissioned (and some of the uranium "recycled"); putative nuclear reactor programmes were slowed, or cancelled, by most states that had previously factored them into their future energy supply plans. Coal and gas seemed to have taken up the slack. Certainly, uranium mining was not abandoned altogether (after all, the raw material was still required for hundreds of existing reactors). Nonetheless, anything resembling the yellowcake rushes of the previous four decades seemed unthinkable; a near-collapse in the spot market bore out this prognosis.
So what has happened, in a few brief years, to change it all around? In the last year alone, new uranium projects have been proposed in the US, Australia and India, whle China is intending to more than double its present number of reactors. Ironically, the reversal can partly be attributed to some of those very organisations and individuals that formerly led the opposition to nuclearisation, and moved onto campaign so vigorously against global warming as a consequence of burning fossil fuels.
Along this recent way, vital and fundamental objections to uranium power have been forgotten or ignored.
In the first contribution to this special posting, Helen Caldicott reminds us of those basic arguments. Following this, we briefly cover the unsolved (many would say insoluble) problems of safely disposing of mill tailings, including those deriving from by-product mines; finally, we point to the vast legacy of radiated wastes from plants which have burned uranium to produce electricity or atomic weapons.
All these consequences will be compounded, unless movements against the nuclear industry are now revived and can achieve success. Above all, we need to be reminded that the parameters of previous exploitation - whether at the mine or the dumping site - have not changed.
This is an industry that continues to depend on the exploitation of Indigenous territory and poorer, rural communities. It is as environmentally, socially, economically and morally unacceptable now, as when those obscene messengers of death were visited on the Pacific, sixty years ago.