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Not a wasteland: Northern Territory nuclear waste dump campaign growing stronger

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Natalie Wasley, Beyond Nuclear Initiative

July 15, 2009 will mark four years since the Howard government announced plans for a federal radioactive waste dump in the Northern Territory (NT), Australia. Three Department of Defense sites – Mt Everard, Harts Range and Fishers Ridge - were originally named, with Muckaty later added to the short list after being contentiously nominated by the Northern Land Council.

The July 15, 2005, announcement was made with no consultation with Traditional Owners or the NT government. It was a decide-announce-defend approach, typical of the previous Howard federal government. Senior Australian Labor Party (ALP) politicians called legislation facilitating the dump, the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (CRWMA), 'sordid', 'draconian' and 'arrogant'.

However, despite ALP election promises clearly stating that the party would repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, the Rudd federal government has continued to push forward with the plan. Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has not indicated any change in policy, despite ALP national policy on radioactive waste management calling for an 'open, transparent process' that 'allows access to appeal mechanisms'. The current process is vastly different from ALP promises and platform, and far out of step with international standards of consultation. (see Nuclear Monitor 686, April 2, 2009: "Australian Government poised for announcement on controversial waste dump")

The UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management report from July 2006 recommends that "Community involvement in any proposals for the siting of long term radioactive waste facilities should be based on the principle of volunteerism, that is, an expressed willingness to participate". The report acknowledges: "There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community".

In contrast, affected people in the Northern Territory found out about the dump proposal though the media. Pastoralist Barry Utley, who runs Yeltu Park station, surrounding the Fishers Ridge site on all four sides, recalls: "... a friend rang us that night and said, 'Did you happen to get the newspaper'? It mentioned that Fishers Ridge is to be one out of three sites chosen for a nuclear waste dump. The news turned our world upside down."

Traditional Owners, the NT government, national environment and health groups have written time and time again to Minister Ferguson asking when the dump laws will be scrapped and the site nominations revoked. The answers received are literally cut and pasted from one reply to the next. The letters say the Minister "will not take piecemeal steps or decisions on radioactive waste management," which has involved taking no decisions and keeping a closed door on this issue for the past 18 months.

Marlene Bennett, a Traditional Owner from the Muckaty Land Trust, one of the targeted sites, summed it up giving evidence at a Senate Inquiry last year: "I would just like to question why Martin Ferguson is sitting on this issue like a hen trying to hatch an egg".

While the letters from Ferguson state that "no decisions will be taken without appropriate stakeholder consultation," he was quoted on ABC on April 30 saying, "I'm not going to go around this country wasting taxpayers dollars having consultations about a potential site that has not been determined." He said that there would be proper consultation after a recommendation for an 'appropriate site' had been made.

With ALP policy and promises decaying significantly faster than radioactive waste, its no wonder communities are worried that the NT sites will still be targeted. More and more people are starting to speak out and demand action. Traditional Owners and community members from the targeted sites continue to travel around the country, speaking at public meetings and to media, to raise the national profile of the dump campaign.

A letter signed by 58 Traditional Owners of the Muckaty Land Trust was recently sent to Minister Ferguson. The letter reaffirmed opposition to the proposal: "We want you to know that Traditional Owners are waiting to show you that the country means something to them. That is why we want you to come along and to see because we don't want that rubbish dump to be here in Muckaty area".

There has been increasing support from trade unions, which is crucial to building pressure on the government in the lead up to the ALP National Conference at the end of July. On June 4, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress voted to support NT communities and workers fighting the proposed dump. The motion, which passed uncontested, demanded repeal of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act,  a scrapping of all site nominations, called for a public inquiry into radioactive waste management and, crucially, vowed to support Traditional Owners and trade unionists refusing to cooperate with implementation of the current dump policy.

Groundwork for this ACTU resolution began in April, when Muckaty Traditional Owners Dianne Stokes, Mark Lane and Mark Chungaloo spoke at a public meeting in Wollongong, hosted by the Illawarra Aboriginal Land Council. At the meeting, veteran union activist Fred Moore explained the breadth of support for Gurindji people during the Wave Hill station walk off in the late 1960's, recalling how the Seaman's Union had refused to load cattle from NT Stations in solidarity with the striking workers. The potential for similar action was raised by Maritime Union of Australia Illawarra secretary Garry Keane, who proposed that workers refuse to unload radioactive waste returning to Australia if earmarked for any of the Northern Territory sites.

The secretive transport and export of radioactive materials through Wollongong and out of Port Kembla only weeks earlier was strongly condemned by the local community. Everyone spoke about building alliances with people in the NT to collectively oppose government support for the nuclear industry.

South Coast Labor Council Secretary Arthur Rorris said: "It disappoints me knowing, and I think its shameful, that the lands of the first Australians, the Traditional Owners, are treated in such a way that they are regarded as a waste dump ... What was shown with the Lucas Heights [radioactive transport] is that the people of this region still support the nuclear free policy, it is something that the union movement will not change ... it's not going to change. "

On July 15 targeted communities in the Territory will be calling on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to immediately drop the waste dump plan and to remove Martin Ferguson from the radioactive waste portfolio. The campaign opposing the national radioactive waste dump proposed for South Australia was a six-year battle, but was won through community resilience and perseverance. People from targeted areas, living along potential transport routes and supporters nationally and internationally must maintain unwavering and vocal opposition to the Northern Territory dump plan to achieve the same result.


Source and contact: Natalie Wasley. Natalie is a campaigner with the Arid Lands Environment Centre and the Beyond Nuclear Initiative.

"Our land is our life. Once our great grandfathers walked this land. This waste dump will destroy our land and animals. We say no. No to the waste dump."
Christine Morton, Muckaty Traditional Owner.

"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 defence land. We don't want this poison here."
Steven McCormack, Traditional Owner living 4km from Mt Everard.