The Nuclear Exposure Tours (1990 - )

The first Nuclear Expose Tour was organised in 1990, six years after the Roxby Blockades of 1983 and 1984 where hundreds of people blockaded and hindered the establishment of Olympic Dam Operations (the copper/uranium mine at Roxby Downs in northern South Australia). During these blockades people had the powerful experience of seeing a uranium mine and listening to Aboriginal people who opposed the mine. Blockaders also had the opportunity to show their opposition to uranium mining in creative, colourful and sometimes dramatic ways.

It was in this tradition that the idea of Nuclear Exposure Tours evolved. The Anti-Uranium Collective at Friends of the Earth organised the tours with the aim of letting people witness and experience the nuclear industry first hand. People would be able to see and walk on the country affected, to hear what Aboriginal people had to say, learn about the anti-nuclear movement and strengthen opposition to the nuclear industry. We wanted to give people the opportunity to support traditional land owners in their opposition to the nuclear industry, so that the tour participants could return to their colleges, work places or communities with the story of their experience and to encourage them to play a role in the anti-nuclear movement.

The first tour to Roxby Downs was carefully planned, with members of the Friends of the Earth anti-uranium collective doing what we call, a "dry-run". Such a trip was not new; members of the collective had been visiting the Mound Springs area in northern South Australia and working with the Marree/Arabunna community there since 1987. The Mounds Springs are 120 Kilometres north of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine at Roxby Downs. Water for the mine, metallurgy plant and town was, and still is, being taken from the Great Artesian Basin and unique springs have dried completely and others have had a drastic reduction of flow. A trip to the Springs area led us to do a round trip to the town at Roxby Downs, the mine there and the tailings dam. Members of the anti-uranium collective were becoming familiar with the Springs and Roxby; this was another motivation for the tour, to share this experience with other people in an organised and constructive way.

The “dry-run” was important as permission from traditional land owners was needed to camp in their country and to obtain information on culturally appropriate behaviour. The anti-uranium collective also needed to meet with communities whose land they would be passing though to organise joint actions against nuclear activities in their areas. These included CRA's proposed mineral sands development near Horsham in Victoria and the Rare Earth Tailings dump at Port Pirie. Future tours took in the Beverley Uranium Mine and the Honeymoon Project, and at the invitation of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, camping at Ten Mile Creek just out of Coober Pedy. Recent tours have become focused on the proposal for a low to intermediate level nuclear waste dump in the Woomera area.

In organising the tours we at FoE always endeavour to make them more than just an out-back adventure! At Roxby Downs we organised public meetings on radiation exposure levels at the community centre, we leafleted the entire town on workers' and community health issues, we organised awareness stalls with local environmentalists and produced a performance at the Woomera Primary School that involved all of the students as well as the people on the tour.

Following a tour in 1996 the participants formed a collective and organised the 'Roxstop Action and Music Festival' in 1997, where over 300 people gathered at Roxby to protest against the expansion of the mine. Here they hosted a public meeting attended by over 120 people with the United States epidemiologist Dr David Richarson as the key note speaker talking about his work and the effects of low level radiation exposure on nuclear workers. Roxstop also included an exhibition of paintings by the Melbourne Artist Lyn Hovey in the Roxby Library. After three days at Roxby the protestors moved to Alberrie Creek on Finnis Springs Station where a music festival was held over three nights to celebrate the Mound Springs, while during the day there were cultural workshops and tours given by members of the Arrabunna community including Reg Dodd and Kevin Buzzacott.

In August 1998 the collective that had organised Roxstop received a fax from the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta. It said: "We're trying hard about this rubbish - the radio-active waste dump. We don't want that... We want your help! We want you to come up here to Coober Pedy and have a meeting with Aboriginal people (and any whitefellas from here who want to come)". In September of that year a group of over a dozen people travelled from Melbourne to Coober Pedy and held a public meeting with the Aboriginal people to discuss the dump.

Things have not always run smoothly for the anti-uranium collective. One year we were stranded for a night on the Borefield Road between the Oodnadatta Track and Roxby Downs with forty people and three buses when the road became impassable due to rain! Another time at Mambury Creek in the southern Flinders Rangers, emus raided our camp and scattered our provisions including cereal, bread and fruit all over the campsite while the campers were protesting in Port Pirie! But, there have been great high-lights. The first time we were invited to the Ten Mile Creek (just outside of Cooper Pedy) by the Kungka Tjuta, we saw the beautiful sight of moon rising over Lake Eyre South. At Ten Mile Creek we saw the effects of the leaflet on workers' health and exposure to low levels of radiation, we protested outside the Woomera Detention Centre, we saw the representatives of the Honeymoon Uranium Project squirm as tour participants asked difficult questions about the chemical structure of the waste solution to be pumped back into the aquifer. And we will never forget the warm greeting from members of the Adnyamathanha community at Nepabunna, even though we were four hours late!

There have been many great and rewarding outcomes from the Nuclear Exposures Tours. What stands out for us and what must be acknowledged here is the strengthening of the close working relationships we at Friends of the Earth have with the Aboriginal communities and the many individuals who have taken part in our tours. Every person who has gone on a tour has had an amazing, never-to-be-forgotten experience and many of the participants from various tours have made a considerable contribution to the anti-nuclear movement.

Ila Marks

Originally published in 30 Years of Creative Resistance