Ferguson's nuclear dump challenged in court

June 19, 2010
Photo: Beyond Nuclear Initiative

Traditional owners of Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory have launched a federal court challenge over a proposed nuclear waste dump on their land.

A small group of traditional owners signed a deal for $12 million in exchange for roads, housing and infrastructure, but senior elders from all five of the clan groups for Muckaty maintain that they did not consent to the waste dump proposal.

A team of lawyers from around the country visited Tennant Creek to meet with the Muckaty people, and have subsequently launched the federal court action. The Commonwealth government and the Northern Land Council are listed as defendants.

Mark Lane Jangala has campaigned for several years against the proposed site because of its cultural significance.

“I am senior Ngapa man for Muckaty and I did not agree to the nomination of the site, along with other senior Ngapa elders for Muckaty Station who did not agree. We don't want it. There was not even a meeting in town to consult all of the traditional owners”, Lane said.

“I want to look after my country and Dreaming, look after the sacred sites I am responsible for and to make sure my children are raised properly in their country."

Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson has put before parliament draft legislation — the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill — that overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1984 and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in relation to site selection.

The bill also overrides any current or future state and territory laws that could impede his waste dump plan and, to add insult to injury, it curtails procedural fairness and appeal rights.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry into the bill, the NT Central Land Council said the government was pursuing "an approach characterised by the desire to find a politically expedient solution, contempt for state and Territory laws, and disregard for decision making processes enshrined in the [Aboriginal] Land Rights Act”.

Friends of the Earth has launched the Nuclear Freeways Campaign to alert councils and communities along potential transport corridors through New South Wales, South Australia and the NT about Ferguson's nuclear dump plans.

Most of the waste comes from the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor site in southern Sydney, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Responsible waste management

If not a dump at Muckaty, how should Australia's radioactive waste be managed? A common-sense approach has the following three elements.

First, it needs to be shown that radioactive waste is not being produced unnecessarily, that the benefits outweigh the risks. The government has not even attempted to demonstrate a net benefit for the proposed nuclear dump.

Second, all options for radioactive waste management need to be considered, not just “remote” repositories (always more remote for some people than for others). The option of ongoing storage at the Lucas Heights site needs to be independently assessed.

All relevant organisations have acknowledged that this is a viable option, including Ferguson's own department, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, the Australian Nuclear Association, and ANSTO itself.

As ANSTO's Dr Ron Cameron has said: “ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time. There is no difficulty with that.”

Requiring ANSTO to store its own waste is the best and perhaps the only way of focusing the organisation’s mind on the importance of waste minimisation. It also avoids the risks of transportation.

Third, if a site selection process for a waste management facility is required, it ought to be based on scientific and environmental criteria, as well as the principle of voluntarism.

When the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences conducted a national repository site selection study in the 1990s, the Muckaty area did not even make the short-list as a “suitable” site.

[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth. Email or phone 0417 318 368 for more information.]

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