Farmers, Traditional Owners fight radioactive waste dump

September 8, 2020
Rally against the Kimba waste dump proposal in February. Photo: Jim Green

In a marginal grain-growing district of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, construction for a national repository for Australia’s radioactive wastes will begin soon — or so the federal government hopes.

A 160-hectare tract of farmland has been purchased near the small town of Kimba and, as inducement to deliver support for the plan, local residents have been promised a $31 million “community development package.” A non-binding ballot conducted last November among residents of the Kimba District Council area recorded 62% in favour of the scheme.

But opponents of the dump remain active and vocal. As well as farmers and townsfolk concerned for their safety and for the “clean and green” reputation of the district’s produce, those against the plan include the Barngarla First Nations people, who hold native title over the area.

Critics argue that last year's ballot sought the views of only a narrow section of the people affected. In particular, members of the Barngarla people, who do not live locally, are angry at being excluded.

The federal Coalition government, however, has not been deterred. In June, the House of Representatives passed a set of amendments to the legislation governing the scheme. These changes would strip opponents of the dump — including the Barngarla — of the right to mount legal challenges.

The amendments still have to pass through the Senate. But, confident of victory, in July the government set up the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency as part of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. With its base in Adelaide, and a satellite office in Kimba, the agency is to “lead the process to deliver” the waste dump.

Low and intermediate-level wastes

In volume terms, the great bulk of the radioactive waste currently produced in Australia results from nuclear medicine, and is considered low-level. These materials do not require shielding in handling or storage, but must be kept secure until the radioactivity has decayed to the point where they can safely go to landfill. At present, these wastes are stored at more than 100 sites around the country, mostly in hospitals or universities.

The amount of low-level waste created here each year is about 40 cubic metres, roughly three truckloads, suggesting that the need to collect these materials into a centralised store is questionable.

More than likely, the risks of shifting these wastes exceed those of keeping them where they are for the decades needed until their radioactivity falls to natural background levels.

There are also intermediate-level wastes. These accumulate at a rate of about five cubic metres a year, and are in a very different category. Highly dangerous, they require shielding, and must be kept secure for as long as 10,000 years. They consist almost entirely of spent nuclear fuel from the research reactor at Lucas Heights, near Sydney, returned after reprocessing in Europe and currently stored on the reactor premises.

The waste dump planned for the farm property Napandee, near Kimba, is meant to provide a permanent home for Australia’s low-level wastes — but not for the intermediate-level materials. The latter are to be held in above-ground canisters at the facility until permanent storage provisions have been made.

Will this “interim” storage turn out to be permanent?

Kimba is remote enough that the temptation will be great for governments to leave these dangerous, long-lasting materials there indefinitely.

Meanwhile, if the Napandee dump is to hold the intermediate-level wastes for only a few decades, where is the need to move these materials there at all? The store at Lucas Heights has room to hold the wastes for many years to come, while permanent disposal methods are being devised and tested. Simply keeping the materials on site would avoid the risks of multiple handling and long-distance transport.

Community rifts

In Kimba, the social rifts from years-long disagreements over the dump remain painful. Many local people look to the facility to sustain a town that is steadily declining as farmers are compelled to “get big or get out”, and as the regional population shrinks.

Farmer Heather Baldock, who supports the dump, lamented to a Senate committee hearing in August: “We lose students, youth, neighbours, friends, sporting club members, emergency service volunteers … We gain more empty houses and property for sale.”

The federal government has suggested that a total of 45 jobs will be created by the facility — a big boost for a town of barely 600 people. Many of these jobs, however, will likely be part–time, or will be performed on a fly-in-fly-out basis.

The $31 million community package will create excellent town amenities, but not a long–term basis for the local economy. It will not solve the worst problem confronting regions like northern Eyre Peninsula: global warming, which raises temperatures, reduces already sparse rainfall and sends farmers into crippling debt.

Opponents of the dump, meanwhile, speak bitterly of the deceits by a government determined to impose its scheme regardless of local objections.

Farmer Peter Woolford, who heads the group No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land in Kimba or SA, told the Senate hearing: “The path that the federal government has taken … has been a long road of propaganda, manipulation and promises without justification.”

The flow of information to the community, Woolford noted, has been tightly controlled and almost entirely narrated by the department. “No assistance, practical or financial, has been given to provide independent advice. Every speaker who has visited Kimba at the expense of the government has been a supporter of the proposal.”

Ballot manipulation

Opponents of the scheme are especially angry at the way the terms of last year’s ballot were manipulated. Rejecting a call for voting to be open to all residents within a 50-kilometre radius — a far more meaningful measure of the people for whom Kimba is the local hub — the government and the Kimba District Council insisted on the smaller area within the council boundaries. If the 50-kilometre boundary had applied, critics argue, the vote would have failed.

Particularly impressive has been the resolve of the Barngarla people to have their say in deciding the outcome. In 2018, the Barngarla fought and lost a court case against the district council, demanding to be included in the prospective ballot.

Excluded from the official vote, the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation organised its own independently-run ballot. This recorded a total of 83 members against the dump and zero in favour. A recent letter from the Barngarla to the federal resources minister stated: “The systematic racist behaviour by your government is a stain on the collective consciousness of this country.”

In any case, opponents of the dump ask why “community support” for the dump should be measured only by the views of a few hundred people. Why should the decision not be one for the whole population of South Australia — where indications are that the idea of hosting a radioactive waste dump is highly unpopular?

As Woolford pointed out, of 2789 submissions received in a public consultation 94.5% oppose the facility.

[Renfrey Clarke is active in the Don't Dump on SA campaign.]

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