Paving the yellowcake road: Land rights, conservation, and the politics of uranium in Australia, 1972–1984

Paving the yellowcake road: Land rights, conservation, and the politics of uranium in Australia, 1972–1984
Picture: Kakadu National Park, Vladimir Haltakov via Unsplash

The extraction, exportation, and use of uranium is highly contentious. Since the early 1970s, Australians have been divided on these issues. Some consider uranium as symbolic of national development, growth, wealth, prestige, and geopolitical power. Others maintain its exploitation is the product of environmental injustice, scientific hubris, and corporate greed. Yet few scholars have sought to historicise these divisions, despite the fact that contemporary contentions over uranium are only set to rise in Australia amidst the worsening climate crisis. This paper seeks to demonstrate how deeper and more nuanced appreciations of the uranium industry’s past are required for understanding uranium’s social and political present, not least in relation to ongoing tensions over land rights and sacred site protection. Explicating some of the key intersections between race and uranium in the 1970s and 80s facilitates a discussion of how land rights and racially exclusive conservation debates shaped and challenged the uranium industry in this period, while also highlighting the 'unstable relations' between Indigenous communities and anti-nuclear groups. As this paper will demonstrate, uncovering the nuanced ways that uranium became woven into the social, cultural, and political fabric of Australian life at the industry’s peak (1970s–2000s) makes understandable contemporary debates and divisions over uranium.

Dr Jess Urwin is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Centre for Environmental History at the ANU. Her research explores the relationship between nuclear processes and colonialism across twentieth-century Australia with a particular focus on uranium mining, nuclear weapons testing, and radioactive waste disposal. Her work has been published in numerous scholarly journals including History Australia, Australian Historical Studies, and the Australian Journal of Politics and History, as well as on public platforms The Conversation, Inside Story, and the Australian Book Review.

Please note that the School of History seminars will run in-person only this semester.

Date & time

Wed 20 Sep 2023, 4.15–5.30pm


RSSS Auditorium, Ground Floor (Level 1), RSSS Building, ANU, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601


Dr. Jessica Urwin


David Romney Smith


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