An important legal action by traditional owners opposed to the Muckaty nuclear waste dump proposal will be the basis of a Federal Court trial in June. Natalie Wasley, spokesperson for the Beyond Nuclear Initiative, spoke to Green Left Weekly about the legal action, and the fight to keep Australia radioactive waste-dump free.
How is the court case to keep Muckaty radioactive-free proceeding?
The final directions hearing for the case was held on April 7, where preparation for the trial is done, exchanging reports and discussing the parameters of the trial, including dates and location for the hearing.
Justice North ordered evidence be taken in Melbourne, Tennant Creek and Darwin, pending arrangements in each location. It is very significant and important that evidence will be taken in Tennant Creek and possibly on country at Muckaty. This means that more of the traditional owners and affected community can be present at the proceedings, with evidence relating to the land in question taken on that country.
So the court case will be heard for one week in Melbourne, one week in Tennant [Creek], and around two in Darwin. The basis of the Federal Court case is that the Northern Land Council did not consult or get consent for the nomination from all people required.
For people who have not been out to the area, can you explain the difference between Tennant Creek and Muckaty?
Tennant Creek is a town and acts as a service centre for communities and outstations and pastoral stations in the region. Many of the Muckaty traditional owners live in Tennant Creek and the town has been the hub for the campaign against the proposed waste dump.
The Muckaty Land Trust is Aboriginal Land under the Land Rights Act and [is] located around 100 kilometres north of Tennant Creek. The land title is shared by five interrelated groups- Milwayi, Ngapa, Ngarrka, Wintirku and Yapayapa and has a pastoral station operating on it.
Who is running the court case?
The traditional owners, the applicants, are being represented by Maurice Blackburn Social Justice Practice in Melbourne pro-bono, with high profile QCs Julian Burnside and Ron Merkel acting as counsel.
Some of the arguments being made have not previously been tested in a court so many people are watching to see how the trial progresses. Land Councils have a statutory obligation to represent traditional owners — they must demonstrate consultation has occurred and consent gained — so the Maurice Blackburn legal team are saying this case has much broader implications than just the question of a nuclear waste dump. It could influence the way Land Councils do business with traditional owners and the government.
What about federal legislation that allows radioactive waste dumping even if traditional owners have not given consent?
Yes there has been legislation passed under Howard, then under the ALP government which allows nominations to be considered valid even if it is not demonstrated that traditional owners have given consent.
So while Federal legislation exists that would override Muckaty elders campaign against the dump, governments have not used it?
The federal government has continued to pursue Muckaty even though many Traditional Owners have clearly said no. It has been seven years since Muckaty was nominated for assessment, but they have not progressed because of the grassroots campaign. Traditional Owners have organised rallies in Tennant Creek, made films and toured photo exhibitions. Representatives have spoken all over the country at public meetings and visited politicians who were willing to meet.
It is important to note that although there has not been any other formal nominations, consultation meetings have been held about nominating a second site on Muckaty for assessment. So the Land Council and government are focusing their attention on this area.
What is happening with waste now?
The first shipment of radioactive waste due back from overseas reprocessing will be taken to Lucas Heights, the nuclear reactor complex [in] Sydney. There is nowhere else to take it as no remote site has been built. For the first time in decades it was acknowledged, by Martin Ferguson, that waste returning from being reprocessed overseas will be going back to where it was produced.
What has changed under the Coalition government for the campaign to stop the waste dump?
The price of uranium still low — since Fukushima there has been no nuclear renaissance like the industry tries to promote is going to happen. But there is already bipartisan support for the uranium industry across the country. An important factor stopping the industry and government moving ahead with mining uranium is the depressed uranium price, but if environmental assessment powers are handed to states and territories as proposed, there will likely be a push for increased activity.
Give us a feel for the campaign to date?
Well there has been a lot of support for the campaign. It's been nine years since the federal government first flagged locations in the NT to host the dump, and Muckaty has been fought off for seven years.
There has been consistent campaigning across the Territory — in the major towns along the transport route and communities that were initially proposed. We are confident that if the government pushes ahead with Muckaty, or another site is nominated, we will have grassroots support from across the NT to oppose it.
The waste has to be transported thousands of kilometres, so many communities will be directly affected. There are a lot of trade unions supporting the campaign: the Maritime Union of Australia NT branch is hosting a campaign dinner, and the last national branch conference passed strong resolutions to support the community.
The last two ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) congresses have passed motions supporting the Muckaty campaign — calling on the government to back off the site and offering support to workers refusing to cooperate with the waste dump policy. A national trade union delegation with representatives from a range of unions visited Tennant Creek and Unions NT sent a delegation to the last annual community rally.
What will the Radioactive Exposure Tour do for the campaign?
The Radioactive Tour has played an important role informing people of Australia's radioactive past and present over the decades it has been rolling. The aim is for participants to go back to their cities and towns inspired to continue campaigning in support of the communities they visited. We hope that meeting the Muckaty mob will kick start some great solidarity actions around the country during this very important year for the campaign.
[For more information, visit Beyond Nuclear Initiative.]