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Australian government poised for announcement on controversial waste dump

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Natalie Wasley, Beyond Nuclear Initiative

After a decade of a haphazard and bullying approach to radioactive waste management, there had been a cautious sigh of relief when Labor committed to a different approach. The Rudd Labor government has continued with a culture of secrecy and broken promises regarding radioactive waste management in Australia. Recently the Australian Labor Party voted against a motion put up by the Greens to repeal the controversial waste dump laws, leaving targeted communities extremely concerned that an announcement of a dumpsite will be made soon.

The previous conservative Liberal/National government spent ten years trying to force a national radioactive waste dump on Kokatha land in South Australia. A strong community campaign led by Senior Aboriginal cultural women, the Kungka Tjuta, and supported by national environment, health and student groups and the South Australian government forced the federal government to abandon that plan in 2004.

The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta wrote in an open letter: "People said that you can't win against the Government. Just a few women. We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up. We told Howard you should look after us, not try and kill us. Straight out. We always talk straight out. In the end he didn't have the power, we did."

Though there was a ‘categorical assurance’ that a federal radioactive dump would not be imposed on another location in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia, in July 2005 it was announced that three Department of Defence sites - Harts Range, Fisher’s Ridge and Mt Everard- had been short-listed for assessment.

There was no consultation with the Northern Territory Government or affected Traditional Owners and communities. None.

The draconian and undemocratic Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (CRWMA) 2005 was then pushed through federal parliament, overriding NT laws prohibiting transport and storage of nuclear waste. A raft of environmental, public health and safety protections went out the window because of this legislation. The legislation even prevents the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 from having effect during investigation of potential dumpsites.

Amendments passed the following year to the CRWMA override Aboriginal Land Rights Act procedures requiring informed consent from all affected people and groups. In fact, these changes explicitly state that site nominations from Aboriginal Land Councils are valid even in the absence of consultation with and consent from traditional owners.

Under the amended process, a site in the Muckaty land trust (120 km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory) was nominated by the Northern Land Council. Former Science Minister Julie Bishop accepted the contentious nomination in September 2007.

Though a small number of traditional owners agreed to the nomination in return for an Aus$12 million dollar conditional package (if the site is finally selected), there has been sustained public opposition from a much larger group of traditional owners from the Land Trust.

 Sammy Sambo, an elder of the Milwayi clan of Muckaty expresses the concern held by many people; “We use that land for men’s cultural ceremonies which came from our great grandfather. If they put a waste dump at Muckaty it betrays the next generation”.

Julie Bishop had arrogantly asserted that the sites under assessment were “far from any houses” and “some distance from any form of civilization”. Traditional Owner from Mt Everard, Steven McCormack emphasizes; “This land is not empty - people live right nearby. We hunt and collect bush tucker here and I am the custodian of a sacred site within the boundaries of the defense land. We don't want this poison here”.

Steven and his family live only three kilometers from the Mt Everard site and run a number of small business projects from their homeland, including hosting ‘culture camps’ for school children from interstate.

The Harts Range site is near Alcoota Station, a thriving Aboriginal owned and run cattle enterprise. William Tilmouth, chairman of Alcoota Aboriginal Corporation says that; “Other pastoralists have also expressed concern over the perception by the public that the beef will be contaminated. The cattle industry out here prides itself on being clean and green”.

In relation to the dump, the government has promised only 30 jobs for construction and 6 ongoing security positions (operating on rotation). Local industries near all of the proposed sites provide community based and long term employment for many more people.

A number of senior Australian Labor Party Ministers and Senators released media statements prior to the 2007 federal election pledging repeal of the CRWMA if elected. ALP politicians had referred to the legislation as ‘draconian’, ‘sordid’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘profoundly shameful’ when it was rammed through by the previous regime.

The Labor party’s national conference in April 2007 also voted to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (CRWMA) if elected, with Labor promised a method of addressing radioactive waste management issues which is "scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms" and to "ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes". [1]

After a decade of a haphazard and bullying approach to radioactive waste management, there had been a cautious sigh of relief when Labor committed to a different approach. However, the Rudd Government, with Minister Martin Ferguson in charge of the radioactive waste portfolio, has continued to be every bit as secretive.

On March 18, 2009, the ALP voted against a motion put up by the Greens to repeal the controversial waste dump laws, leaving targeted communities extremely concerned that an announcement of a dumpsite will be made soon.

The UK Committee on Radioactive Waste report released in June 2006 highlights how internationally; “There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community” [2].

In the case of the Northern Territory waste dump proposal, Muckaty Traditional Owner Marlene Bennett summarizes the approach;

“Most of our mob, we found out when we read it in the paper. What sort of consultative approach by the government is that?”

Australia remains a signatory to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) statement of principles, which encourages uranium-exporting countries to take back high-level waste produced overseas in nuclear reactors. While the Rudd Labor government has ruled this out in the short term, it is important that international campaign groups support the remote Aboriginal communities in Australia resisting the imposition of a domestic dump, to resist the possibility of a high level international dump also being imposed in the future.

Dianne Stokes, a Muckaty Traditional Owner from the Yapa Yapa group who has spent years fighting the dump proposal expounds; “Top to bottom we got bush tucker right through the country. Whoever is taking this waste dump into our country needs to come back and talk to the Traditional Owners. We’re not happy to have all of this stuff. We don’t want it, it’s not our spirit. Our spirit is our country, our country where our ancestors been born. Before towns, before hospitals, before cities. We want our country to be safe”.



Source and contact: Natalie Wasley at Beyond Nuclear Initiative, Uranium Project.