The Coalition government's campaign to build a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia is going from bad to worse.
The government has been subjected to a barrage of friendly fire in recent months, in the form of strong criticism from pro-nuclear people. For example, two nuclear scientists recommended to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) that dump licences not be granted to the federal Department of Education, Science and Training. They based their objections on first-hand experience of DEST's mishandling of the latest "clean-up" of the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site.
Peter Johnston, professor of nuclear physics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, argued in a submission to ARPANSA that DEST "lacks the technical competence to manage the [repository] project".
Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson wrote in his submission: "It has to be noted that the same group responsible for the debacle of the Maralinga project have responsibility for the radioactive waste repository." Parkinson's submission is also critical of the non-independent regulator ARPANSA, which may explain why ARPANSA is refusing to post his submission on its website, citing "legal reasons".
The criticisms of Johnston and Parkinson were endorsed by professor Ian Lowe, co-chair of an ARPANSA forum held in Adelaide in February. Even the strongly pro-nuclear International Atomic Energy Agency has recommended that DEST employ more in-house expertise, and the head of ARPANSA, Dr John Loy, has publicly endorsed that view.
It was expected that ARPANSA would grant licences to build and operate the dump in April. Because of DEST's incompetence, and the strong opposition of environment groups and Indigenous groups such as the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta and the Kokatha native title claimants, licensing has been delayed and is unlikely to be completed by the end of the year.
Recently, the federal government was unable to get contractors onto the dump site to carry out studies necessary for the licensing process. South Australian Premier Mike Rann threatened to have them arrested for trespass, claiming that it is state land until the Federal Court had ruled on the validity of the federal government's compulsory seizure of land for the dump last year.
On June 24, the Federal Court ruled that the land seizure was invalid — a huge setback for Canberra's nuclear dumpsters. That led to speculation in other states that the nation's stockpile of radioactive waste might be coming their way. Perhaps trying to hose down such speculation, federal science minister Peter McGauran insisted that the dump will be built in South Australia "one way or another" — arrogance that will only harden opposition to the dump.
The federal government may appeal the legal decision in the High Court, but that is unlikely to succeed given that the Federal Court decision was unanimous and unequivocal. The government may try to amend the Land Acquisition Act, but that would be blocked in the Senate.
If re-elected, the Coalition government may go through the "normal" acquisition process instead of invoking the "urgency" provision in the Act as it did last year. Compulsory land acquisition could be thwarted once and for all if the state parliament passes a bill to make the nuclear dump site a public park and thus immune to acquisition by the federal government. Independents in the upper house of the SA parliament will be pressured to support a public parks bill in the coming weeks.
The election remains important to the dump campaign. Only the Coalition parties support the current plan for a nuclear dump in South Australia. Labor's position is that a dump needs to be established somewhere, but not in South Australia, and that the wishes of state governments and local communities will not be overridden. Those conditions may make it impossible to establish a dump anywhere — certainly not for some years. This is in sharp contrast to the federal government's plan to build the dump in South Australia immediately after the election and the granting of licences by ARPANSA.
Minister caught misleading parliament
Adding to his problems, federal science minister and chief dumpster Peter McGauran has been caught out misleading parliament. McGauran was asked the following question in parliament: "Did departmental officers develop a list of "experts" that were used to make public comments in support of the proposed nuclear waste dump ...?" His response in parliament on October 27 was: "No."
McGauran does not dispute that departmental officers developed a list of "experts" — in fact the list has been released under freedom of information legislation. He disputes whether the 'experts' were used to make public comments, telling the Adelaide Advertiser on June 17: "I was asked specifically were technical experts used to make public comments and the answer is no."
However, the freedom of information documents show that McGauran's department paid PR firm Michels Warren over $1000 to provide media training to some of the "experts" and to organise media interviews with them.
Moreover, transcripts and summaries of media interviews with a number of the enlisted "experts" are included in the freedom of information documents.
[Jim Green is a nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth.]
From Green Left Weekly, July 7, 2004.
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