Origins of the Anti-Nuclear Movement in Australia

Grace Farley
March 15, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Fig. 1: Campaign Against Nuclear Energy Flyer. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Australia is a vast continental land mass that sits on the Indo-Australian plate. Despite its grand size, Australia's population is limited to the coasts due to the lack of available fertile soil. Despite a shortage of other abundant natural surface-level resources, the country contains about a third of the world's uranium deposits. These uranium stakes are sprinkled throughout the country, but currently there are only three operating mines. Australian uranium is highly coveted, given that it has high-quality reserves, along with the political stability. The other reserves are located in Russia (who does not export uranium), and South Africa. [1] These resources have long piqued the attention of both foreign and domestic powers alike, making the fact that Australia does not utilize nuclear power fascinating to many.

Origins Anti-Nuclear Movement

Australia has a long and storied history with Great Britain. During the 20th century, Australia continued to provide Great Britain with resources, including the uranium to support the production of the first nuclear weapons program in 1954. [1] This program developed the first nuclear weapons for Great Britain. During this time, there were covert nuclear weapons tests performed by the British government in rural Australia through an act passed by the government in 1952 that allowed the British access to these lands. The late 1950s showed a deterioration of public support for national nuclear weapons programs and testing in Australia, inciting the origins of the anti- nuclear movement in the country. [2] The 1970s also brought about additional environmental concerns regarding the potential contaminants and damage nuclear power plants and their waste could leave behind. As shown in Fig. 1, there were many national organizations such as C.A.N.E. (Campaign Against Nuclear Power) that were aimed at hindering the formation of nuclear power plants. Ultimately, these arguments established legislation in the late 1970s and early 1980s to limit and impose stringent regulations on uranium mining in Australia. With the price of nuclear power increasing drastically throughout this time, fossil fuels became a more appealing energy source. [2]

There are a broad range of rationales as to why Australians were against creating nuclear power facilities in the country. Economically, it seemed infeasible to build expensive reactor stations when there were lower-cost energy options, and the risks and fear of proliferation of a nuclear weapons program hampered any pro-nuclear organizations. Additionally, there are concerns over treatment of aboriginal Australians, given that many of the uranium deposits are found on aboriginal lands. [1]

Ultimately, the nuclear issue continues to be a politically debated topic in Australia. There are still concerns over nuclear weapons and environmental concerns regarding the safety and security of nuclear waste. Ever since the Ranger Inquiry of 1976-77, there have been contrasting views of what to do with nuclear power, but with changes in party, nuclear in Australia is still discussed on a national level. [2]

Future of Nuclear in Australia

Sentiments regarding the future of nuclear power in Australia remain divided, although the anti-nuclear arguments passed significant legislation over the past six decades that would make a switch to nuclear power difficult. Opponents to nuclear energy in Australia argue that there are currently cheaper energy solutions (namely coal and natural gas reserves) that can power the country, along with passing laws over the past few decades that provide significant hurdles in order to proliferate any nuclear power program. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott supported transitioning Australia to nuclear power, perhaps indicating a change in public opinion on the issue. [3] As of early 2017, Australia remains free of nuclear power plants with no plans to construct any new stations, but the debate remains open.

© Grace Farley. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Martin, "The Australian Anti-Uranium Movement," Alternatives Journal, 10, No. 4, 26 (1982).

[2] P. Grabosky, Wayward Governance: Illegality and Its Control in the Public Sector (National Gallery of Australia, 1990), Ch. 16, p. 235.

[3] C. Walker, "Election Aftermath: Full Speed in Reverse," Chain Reaction 119, 9 (November 2013).