Sydney’s Inner West residents are familiar with the colourful mural fronting the Crescent at the foot of Johnston St. Annandale, opposite Rozelle Bay. Among the local events and characters commemorated in the quirky sketches is a reference to the mysterious and highly dangerous night-time transport of uranium yellowcake from the Lucas Heights reactor through the streets of the Inner West to White Bay. Although the mural was repainted in the 1980s and political slogans referring to the 1975 sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Governor-General, John Kerr were painted over, a reference to the yellowcake protests was included in the new work.
The front page screamer in the weekly Guardian of July 12, 1978 was the first most residents of Newtown and Marrickville knew of the midnight yellowcake convoys, although political activists in Annandale had been actively protesting them a year earlier.
Yellowcake powder is an intermediate form of uranium, produced from crude ore, but needing further processing to be suitable as nuclear fuel. The yellowcake transported secretly through Inner West streets to the White Bay container terminal to be shipped overseas was produced at the Lucas Heights reactor near Sutherland.
“Convoys of yellowcake have been racing through Marrickville streets early in the morning. But nobody knows anything about it.
Neither the Marrickville Council, nor the Newtown police have been told.”
“If there should be an accident involving yellowcake, there is no organisation to cope with it.
“Newtown police say they would get in touch with Marrickville Council. “However Marrickville Council officially knows nothing at all about the shipment.
“Its workers have received no training in handling a substance like yellowcake, and the council has no protective clothing for them.
“Shire Engineer, Mr Bob White says an accident would be the responsibility of the State Emergency Service, which would initially call on council trucks and workmen.
“The State Emergency Service has an office in Newtown Town Hall — but it is hardly ever used.
“So far there have been seven convoys of 15 trucks, each convoy carrying up to 2000 tonnes of yellowcake. They travel through heavily populated suburbs of the municipality.”
In ‘Yellowcake’ we hear about the midnight convoys from Tom, chatting over a beer at The Courties (Courthouse Hotel):
…real cloak an dagger stuff: convoys of
radioactive uranium yellowcake racing
along narrow Newtown an Marrickville
streets before dawn, with no-one know-
ing a thing about it.
‘…I could just see a bunch a hoons in a hot
wired car runnin a red light an crashin
into one of those convoys—huge pileup—
radioactive dust flyin every-bloody-where.
Contamination of a nation—
The Guardian’s editor wrote a strong comment about the lack of information surrounding these mysterious convoys, and the unknown levels of danger they danger they flirted with.
. . . Nobody is willing to admit responsibility for the uranium convoys racing through Marrickville streets late at night;
Nobody knows what will happen if there is an accident.
All three levels of government simply refer enquiries
back to each other. It’s like an endless piece of string.
What happens when that string breaks? Nobody knows.