For people against uranium mining at the Angela Pamela site near Alice Springs, Friday December 4 was a good night .
The Super Raelene Brothers, a popular local band, teamed up with a group of Arrente-western Luritja musicians to sing a catchy little ditty that says no (“wiya”) to Angela Pamela in Luritja and Western Arrente – and has already been downloaded on to dozens of mobile phones around the town. There was some fire in the speeches, but mostly it was the sausages that sizzled, as a couple of hundred people enjoyed the balmy summer evening, the rich cool grass of the Town Council lawns and the cameraderie of being united against a common foe.
To top it off, outspoken and articulate independent MLA Alison Anderson got up and spoke against the mine in public for the first time.
In the struggle for Angela Pamela it looked like a clear victory for the Nos.
But today and next week the war will go on, and anti-mine campaigners will have to consider what the best tactics might be for future battles. If they are to win, they may have to pay more more heed to what is happening in the minds of not only Governments and opposition parties, but also those who have little or no commitment to their agenda.
Cameco will soon publish a new “information bulletin” in the local media. It will include what Cameco considers hard facts, some of which already are seeping into the public domain. In last Friday’s Centralian Advocate, for example, one of the most vocal and articulate opponents of the project bravely acknowledged that he had got one of his facts wrong, and the distance between the bottom of the uranium ore at Angela Pamela and the water table was in fact 700 metres. The latest studies suggest that it may be even more. That’s at least seven hundred metres of ‘impermeable’ rock. With that kind of evidence it will become harder to raise a sense of outrage by repeated claims that a mine would be ‘directly over our water supply’. The uncommitted punter would like to know what the risks actually are, however small. And what about the tailings?
Then there is the dust issue. Jess Abrahams from the Arid Lands Environment Centre stated unequivocally Alice Springs would have radioactive dust clouds if mining went ahead. A scary prospect, but it’s also a big call. Not ‘could’ or ‘might’, but “we’re gonna have”. Basil Schild talked of town camp residents getting “lungfuls of radioactive nucleides every time the wind blows the wrong way.” In response, Cameco can argue that dust from mines like Ranger and Olympic Dam has been constantly monitored and found to be consistently well below the danger threshhold. They will present studies that show people who live near uranium mines in Australia do not suffer higher rates of cancer and other diseases than other people. Opponents must produce studies that disprove them or face accusations of fear-mongering. If it turns out that the mine is not open-cut, as Basil asserted it would be, but underground, as it may be, the argument is in more trouble. Perhaps “could” is more effective than “will” , at the risk of losing short-term (but short-lived) dramatic impact.
Of course there are other statistics in this debate that go back a lot further in time – to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Long Island, to the high rates of cancer that occurred among miners before proper ventilation was introduced to extract radon gas. But many people – including some in Alice Springs – have accepted nuclear power and uranium mining not as they were, but as they are in 2010: a fait acomplis on which many millions of people rely. And the reality is that in recent decades, the safety record of uranium mining has been way better than that of coal.
And yet there have been accidents that have seriously affect local environments close to towns, and one of the most effective planks in the Alice Springs campaign has involved the detailing of those accidents – some of which have involved Cameco. Campaign strategists will have to assess what emphasis to give to Cigar Lake and Port Hope as world-wide pressure to extend nuclear power, and hence mine more uranium, increases. Not only has the new federal opposition leader jumped on the nuclear power bandwagon immediately after his election, but lefties like Philip Adams are weighing the evidence as they hear about the latest kinds of reactors, or discuss the possibiilty of thorium reactors, which can reportedly solve the problem of nuclear waste from traditional power stations by simply incinerating it.
Campaigners may have already decided it’s best not to muddy the debate with science – science that is only likely to get complicated. That’s risky, and ignores the reality that many ordinary people endeavour to understand the science of all sorts of complicated things, including climate change (which, ironically, leaves them open to considering the alleged benefits of the nuclear cycle). It’s true that supporters of uranium mining have been relatively quiet in the letters pages of the local newspapers in Alice Springs. This might be seen as an argument that, as Jess Abrahams says, opposition to Angela Pamela is growing. But it might also point to a flaw in the campaign: the fact many letter-writers have inhibited free and open discussion among assumed equals. There has been a stated or unstated assumption that the neutral or pro-mining people don’t care about Alice Springs and the environment, only about money.
One letter-writer suggested that people who presented arguments in favour of mining, should be suspected of being Cameco stooges, funded out of its lavishly appointed publicity campaign. Others have consistently assumed the high moral ground, often with a palpable sense of righteous anger. A recent letter accused people who favoured a mine of being morons, despite himself appearing to think that minesite was also to be used as a nuclear waste dump.
Of course the anti-mining coalition cannot control the output of every letter-writer, but there has been a conspicuous shortage of letters that acknowledge people’s right to hold a different opinion without being considered morally bankrupt. In my opinion such an attitude is not only likely to discourage people from expressing their views or doubts in the paper, but also increase the resentment many people in the town already feel towards the “intelligentsia”. Threats by doctors to leave town if the mine goes ahead may have a similar effect.
Recently on this site the CSIRO’s Mark Stafford-Smith said he thought there had to be a “huge discussion” about the role of nuclear power in our society, and that it “would be helpful if we could have it in reasonably sober terms, supported by data, rather than emotionalism”. The Angela-Pamela debate is about one aspect of nuclear power: mining uranium near a large town like Alice Springs. We know all that uranium mining and nuclear power is an emotional subject, but that doesn’t mean we should give open slather to feelings with no regard for facts or others’ opinions. Feelings won’t necessarily win the battle, and apart from that, we owe ourselves the right to rational and informed discussion. If we don’t take it up, we risk creating an even more divided town – whatever happens to Angela-Pamela.