Indigenous owners reject radioactive waste dump

Friday, June 15, 2007

Since community opposition stopped plans for a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia, John Howard seems determined to now go for a site in the Northern Territory — despite promising not to and opposition from Indigenous custodians.

From the "absolute categorical assurance" that the NT would not be saddled with a federal radioactive dump, the government announced in June 2005 that three Department of Defence sites in the NT — Mt Everard, Harts Range and Fisher's Ridge — would be assessed for suitability. Julie Bishop, federal science minister, rationalised this decision by claiming all three sites are "some distance from any form of civilisation".

There are in fact people living and running successful pastoral and tourist enterprises three, five and 18 kilometres from these sites, who believe it is very uncivilised to dump radioactive waste on their land without their consent.

The first defence site is Athenge Lhere (Mt Everard), 40 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. The Werre Therre community lives three kilometres away. According to traditional owner Steven McCormack, "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."

The second site, Alcoota (Harts Range), is 160 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs on the Plenty Highway. The Engawala community and Aboriginal-owned Alcoota cattle station are 18 kilometres north of the Harts Range defence site.

Mitch from the Engawala community says: "We stand strong in our own culture as Indigenous people, and want the land and water to be protected for all children, black and white. If this nuclear waste is so safe, why can't they keep it at the Lucas Heights nuclear plant in Sydney where it is produced and where the nuclear experts work?"

The third site is at Fisher's Ridge, 40 kilometres south of Katherine. Valerie and Barry Utley run a 230-square kilometre pastoral station, Yeltu Park, which surrounds the proposed site. Their home is around four kilometres from the site.

According to Valerie, "We know the area, and we see what happens after the wet season. All of a sudden there will be a sink hole where the limestone caves in. When somebody goes in there to examine the area, they'll realise that the place has limestone, not too far under the top soil, and regularly caves in to sink holes. There are springs in the area, and also flooding, and [putting the dump there] would be one of the biggest mistakes they could make."

The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (2005), which overrides NT laws opposing nuclear waste transport and storage, also allows the NT government or Land Councils to nominate sites other than Commonwealth defence land for assessment. The NT government remains opposed to the national dump plan, but after a year of meetings between federal government officials, the Northen Land Council (NLC) and some traditional owners, in May the full council of the NLC agreed to nominate Muckaty, Warlmanpa land, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, as an additional site for assessment.

If Bishop accepts the Muckaty nomination, a short scientific study will be carried out, and the preferred site of the four will undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment.

The traditional owners of Muckaty Land Trust, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, have been offered $12 million to nominate and surrender their land.

This offer has apparently been accepted by a small number of the traditional owners, but many others have been speaking out against the plan over the last year, including travelling to the NT and federal parliaments and to conferences interstate to talk about their concerns. Despite letters to Bishop and the NLC requesting that negotiations about the dump at Muckaty cease, the NLC has continued to provide what the government calls "positive and constructive assistance" to convince a community to nominate their land for the radioactive waste dump.

Muckaty traditional owner Dianne Stokes is strongly opposed. "Top to bottom, we got bush tucker right through the country. Whoever is taking this waste dump into our country needs to 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 is where our ancestors been born. Before towns, before hospitals, before cities. We want our country to be safe."

The NLC supported Bishop's amendments to the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (2006), which restricts public input into the dump's site selection. The changes to the law mean that a nomination of a site by a land council will still be considered valid even if that body has not demonstrated that: it has consulted with the traditional owners; the nomination was understood by the traditional owners; the traditional owners have consented as a group; and any community that may be affected has been consulted and had adequate opportunity to express its views.

The undemocratic changes also removed the right of any group — traditional owners, pastoralists or community members — to appeal site nomination on the grounds of "procedural fairness".

The amendments were designed to induce communities to offer up their land by indemnifying land trusts from any damage arising from a dump. It remains unclear as to who would be liable for damage. The waste generated at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in NSW must be properly stored and managed. It is far better to keep the spent fuel where it can be easily accessed and monitored by people trained in handling radioactive materials.

ANSTO, which runs the reactor, the nuclear regulatory body ARPANSA and the Australian Nuclear Association have all conceded that there is adequate room, and capability, to continue storing waste at Lucas Heights for at least the next 40 years. However, it seems the federal government is keen to move the radioactive waste to an area with fewer voters. If current stockpiles can be dumped out of sight "in the middle of nowhere", it helps it justify the controversial commissioning of the replacement reactor at Lucas Heights.

The transportation of radioactive waste is another major concern for communities along the likely routes. While a route will not be designated until a site is chosen, it is possible that the waste will be moved domestically via a combination of train and truck freight. Neither of these methods is guaranteed to be safe.

The government's own figures assessing the risk of moving the national store of waste to a dump in SA indicated a 23% probability of a truck having an accident. In the last six months in the NT, there have been two major truck accidents, including a 20-tonne cyanide spill that closed the Stuart Highway for a week.

When 11 carriages of the Ghan derailed in December 2006 at Ban Ban Springs, 130 kilometres south of Darwin, police commander Greg Dowd commented that, "It took some time to get to the train crash site" and that "emergency crews were glad the accident did not happen on an even more isolated part of the railway track". Though this is not the first incident on this relatively new line, FreightLink, which transports yellowcake oxide from the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia to Darwin for export, has nevertheless expressed interest in adding radioactive waste to its cargo list.

Radioactive waste is the final stage of the deadly nuclear fuel chain: it is a product of all the dodgy deals and damage that has been done along the way. Dumping this waste on Indigenous and remote communities is not responsible management: it is radioactive racism.

Radioactive waste management is a huge problem for Australia. The Howard government's short-term, irresponsible and stop-gap plans will unnecessarily damage communities, country and culture.

A strong alliance and support network has developed between the targeted communities and throughout the NT. But your help is needed to take this story to your families, friends and networks. You can support the targeted communities by informing and activating your local, state and federal representatives, and getting active in the anti-nuclear campaign.

Community opposition prevented a waste dump from being built in South Australia and, with your help, we can stop Howard's shameless promotion of an expanded nuclear industry, and his attempt to poison the heartland.

[Nat Wasley is an activist with the Beyond Nuclear Initiative and No Waste Alliance in Alice Springs. For more information, visit <http://www.no-waste.org>.]

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