Mythical lizard haunts Australian uranium extractors


    Anti-nuclear protesters camping at what they describe as “the gates of hell” — that is, on the edge of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine in the desert of South Australia — decided to play a game of cricket on Tuesday, July 17, in order to publicize their message: Uranium isn’t Australian.

    “It’s just not cricket,” they chanted, “and that’s why we picket.”

    Police, however, wanted to play rugby. After a scrum, the cops confiscated the ball but failed to clear demonstrators from the road leading to the mine’s entrance. Then came the tear gas. Next, the mounted police.

    The activists, who were gathered in the Outback to shut down what is slated to be the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, should have known better than to tempt BHP’s army. Earlier that day, six protesters had been dragged away by officers of the law for serving porridge at the mine’s gate. After the cricketers were cleared from the road, three female activists attempting to relieve themselves in the bush were carted away by two policemen.

    There’s no room for nature’s business in the uranium business. That’s why BHP is digging into the belly of Kalta, the sleeping lizard who, according to aboriginal legend, lives under the rocks at Olympic Dam. BHP is sucking yellow uranium poison out of Kalta’s belly and feeding it to nuclear reactors around the world.

    It already takes about 9 million gallons of water a day to wash all that poison down the throats of global markets — water sucked out at no cost to BHP from the region’s only reliable freshwater source, the Great Artesian Basin. But the Melbourne-based multinational plans to expand its mining operations at Olympic from an area of about 1,700 square miles to a terrain roughly eight times that size. The $30 billion expansion would make Olympic Dam at Roxby Downs the world’s largest open-pit mine.

    An additional 53 gallons of water a day will be used up should mining at Olympic expand. The amount of diesel required to extract and transport BHP’s uranium would cause South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to skyrocket by 12 percent.

    Olympic currently operates under the Roxby Downs Indenture Act of 1982, which granted BHP exemptions from laws covering native sovereignty, public disclosure, environmental impact and water preservation. The Indenture Act was amended in 2011, when BHP began scouting out more land. Critics say the law is essentially a contract between BHP and the South Australian government for the corporation to do what it likes.

    Meanwhile, the effects of BHP’s mining are felt far beyond the Outback. Approximately 4,400 tons of Australian uranium per year are used to feed aging reactors in the United States, which jeopardize the civilian population centers that they surround. A major portion of the stuff comes from BHP. The company is to Australia’s uranium industry what Nirvana was to grunge; they’ve cornered the market.

    Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan — after the United States and the European Union — was Australia’s third best uranium customer, importing nearly 2,700 tons a year. The uranium fuel pellets that melted down three reactor cores at Fukushima on March 11 of last year were from Olympic Dam.

    Dr. Jim Green, an anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia, accuses BHP of turning a blind eye to fraud and safety problems in Japan’s nuclear industry in the run-up to the meltdowns. Despite widespread documentation of data falsification and safety breaches, he says BHP continued to peddle its toxic product to the quake-prone nation in the run up to the Fukushima meltdowns.

    According to Friends of the Earth, the amount of uranium BHP is seeking to dig up at Roxby Downs each year is enough to fuel 95 nuclear reactors, “which will produce 28.5 tonnes [31.4 tons] of high-level nuclear waste per year.” Nearly 3,000 nuclear weapons could be made yearly from the poison from Kalta’s belly — a real threat, since, as the group notes, “BHP sells uranium to nuclear weapons states, states refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, states blocking progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, states with a history of secret nuclear weapons research, and states stockpiling [so called] ‘civil’ plutonium.”

    Australian hip-hop activist Izzy Brown, who is working to shut Olympic down, said, “If you look at the disaster at Fukushima and other reactor meltdowns, you look at the use of nuclear weapons, you look at the use of depleted uranium in bombs, in bullets in Kosavo, in Iraq the damage is exponential.”

    Since Olympic Dam’s inception in 1988 it has been a Fukushima to South Australia’s indigenous community. As Eileen Wingfield, a Kokatha elder explains:

    Many of our food sources, traditional plants and trees are gone because of this mine. We worry for our water, our main source of life. The mine causes many safety risks to our roads — transporting the uranium from the mine. It has stopped us from accessing our sacred sites and destroyed others. These can never be replaced. BHP never consulted me or my families, they select who they consult with. Many of our people have not had a voice. We want the mine stopped now, because it’s not good for anything.

    As mass demonstrations were held in Japan against the re-ignition of reactors this week, in South Australia Kalta started biting back. Hundreds of anti-nuclear activists converged to establish the “Lizard’s Revenge” protest camp, where they are holding teach-ins, concerts (with a solar-powered sound system), film screenings (wind-powered) and demonstrations (people-powered) with the aim of shutting down the mine.

    Protest organizer Nectaria Calan said police did not respond kindly to the activists’ presence at Roxby Downs:

    [T]hose seeking to participate have arrived to discover road blocks preventing access to the site and a ‘protected area’ declaration, under the Protective Security Act, that suspends their freedom of movement, rights to privacy, and other civil liberties.

    Protesters entering and leaving the campsite have been patted down and searched by authorities.

    But police have not been entirely successful in their attempts to corral demonstrators. Aside from the little game of cricket, activists broke through Olympic Dam’s outer gate last Monday. Aboriginal activists among them burned grass to purify the land. It took approximately 40 mounted police to push them back.

    Then, on Thursday, came Kalta’s incarnation: a scaly, pissed-off station wagon. Activists parked their automotive Kalta on the main road leading to Olympic, slashed the lizard’s tires and chained themselves to the beast. “No uranium leaving today,” was the message, “thank you much.”

    Once again, it took the authorities’ strong arm to clear the way for BHP to continue to spread its uranium around the globe. But resistance is also spreading, and not just in South Australia. In recent weeks, Japan’s anti-nuclear movement has brought more bodies into the street since the country’s student movement in the 1960s, seriously threatening the future viability of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda should he continue on his pro-nuke path. In the United States, long considered the stalwart of pro-nuclear sentiment, thousands are expected to take part in a weekend of actions this September in front of the White House and at the headquarters of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to demand the shuttering of the country’s reactors.

    Lizard’s Revenge is experimenting with resistance tactics that can be applied to block all manner of eco-cidal projects that the 1 percent has in store for us. With the Keystone XL pipeline set to rip through Texas, frackers sharpening their drills for New York and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission blindly greenlighting reactor relicenses, perhaps it’s time we here in the United States play a little baseball.

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