Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson announced on February 23 that he intends to pursue plans for a national radioactive waste repository at Muckaty, 120km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
Ferguson's media release asserted that he was restoring "fairness" to the difficult issue of managing Australia's radioactive waste.
Elements of the minister's announcement do just that — in particular, the repeal of the 2005-06 Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, extraordinary legislation that permitted the imposition of a dump in the absence of any consultation with, or consent from, traditional owners.
However, the minister's new legislation entrenches another unfair process which began under the former Howard government.
Section 11 of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 provides the minister with the power to override any and all state or territory laws, which might in any way impede his nuclear waste dump plans.
Ferguson said on February 23: "Our new law will effectively have the same application as the previous government in respect of that area. In no way can we allow any state or territory government to get in the way of establishing a repository".
Overall, the minister is pursing an approach scarcely less draconian than that of the Howard government.
Indeed, a reading of the bill reveals that Ferguson also intends to override the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 in relation to site selection. Thus Ferguson is denying the environment minister any role in the site selection process.
Ferguson claims that Ngapa traditional owners support the nomination of the Muckaty site. He well knows that many Ngapa traditional owners oppose the dump. As well as numerous, requests for meetings, he was sent a letter opposing the dump in May 2009 signed by 25 Ngapa traditional owners and 32 traditional owners from other Muckaty groups.
When quizzed about the letter on ABC radio on February 23, Ferguson quickly changed the topic.
Ferguson is also well aware of the unanimous resolution passed by the NT Labor Party conference in April 2008, which called on the federal government to exclude Muckaty on the grounds that the nomination "was not made with the full and informed consent of all traditional owners and affected people and as such does not comply with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act".
And Ferguson knows that Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, among many others, has acknowledged the distress and opposition of many Muckaty traditional owners.
A joint ALP media release issued in 2007 by Senator Trish Crossin, Senator Kim Carr and ministers Peter Garrett and Warren Snowdon said: "Labor understands that many families in the area are strongly opposed to the waste dump idea, and that these families are concerned their rights have been ignored in the process."
The nomination is hinging on a contract signed between the Northern Land Council (NLC), the federal government and the Muckaty Land Trust, but requests to view this contract — from traditional owners and a Senate committee dedicated to the issue — have been denied.
The Australian National Audit Office was approached to assess the validity of the "commercial in confidence" status of the contract, but merely referred the request to the department, who replied the NLC had requested it remain confidential.
If the negotiations are truly to be "open, transparent and accountable", catchcries the ALP use in regard to the new legislation, the site selection study and site nomination deed must be available for independent scrutiny.
Otherwise the negotiations will continue to be mistrusted by traditional owners and stakeholders shut out of many stages of the process to date.
Traditional owners opposed to the radioactive waste dump will continue to fight to keep their country clean – and they may prevail after yet another protracted struggle. Muckaty traditional owner Dianne Stokes has been speaking against the proposal since its inception and is determined to see it through.
"We have been writing letters to the government body signed by the traditional owners. We have been asking for someone to come and sit with us so that we can talk to them face to face. We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to."
Ferguson made repeated mention of nuclear medicine when he outlined his new dump process. But the ongoing practice of nuclear medicine is in no way dependent on securing a dump site — let alone the hotly-contested Muckaty site — and it is simply scare-mongering for the minister to suggest otherwise.
How should we handle the contentious issues surrounding nuclear waste? It's easier said than done, but we need a little common sense.
First, as with the production of all other hazardous materials, it needs to be demonstrated that radioactive waste is not being needlessly produced. It is by no means clear that Australia needs to operate our only research reactor at Lucas Heights.
Measured by radioactivity, the reactor (and, in particular, its spent nuclear fuel) is the source of well over 90% of the waste in question. The Labor Party opposed the construction of the new "OPAL" research reactor while in opposition.
Secondly, all options for radioactive waste management need to be considered — not just the option of "remote" repositories (which are always more remote for some than others).
This includes the option of ongoing storage at the Lucas Heights reactor site operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. ANSTO is the source of most of the waste and is host to most of Australia's radioactive waste management expertise. All the relevant organisations have acknowledged that ongoing storage at Lucas Heights is a viable option — ANSTO, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, the Australian Nuclear Association and even Ferguson's department.
Moreover, requiring ANSTO to store its own waste is the best — and perhaps the only — way of focussing the organisation's collective mind on the importance of waste minimisation principles.
Thirdly, if a site selection process is required it ought to be based on scientific and environmental criteria, as well as the principle of voluntarism, rather than choosing politically "soft" targets.
In 2005, the Howard government chose the Northern Territory, and ruled out NSW, on purely political reasons. When the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences conducted a national repository site selection study in the 1990s, informed by scientific, environmental and social criteria, the Muckaty site did not even make the short-list as a "suitable" site.
[Natalie Wasley is the Beyond Nuclear Initiative campaigner at the Arid Lands Environment Centre in Alice Springs. This article first appeared on Newmatilda.com on February 24.]