Traditional owners to fight Ferguson's nuclear waste dump

March 19, 2012
Photo: Beyond Nuclear Initiative.

Resources minister Martin Ferguson introduced the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill into the House of Representatives in February 2010, saying it represented “a responsible and long overdue approach for an issue that impacts on all Australian communities”.

The bill names Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, as the only site to remain under active consideration for a national nuclear waste dump.

The proposal is contested by the NT government and is also being challenged in the Federal Court by traditional owners. Despite this, the bill passed a Senate vote on March 13 with only the Greens and Independent Nick Xenophon opposing it.

Ferguson’s bill repeals three Department of Defence site nominations made by the Howard government — Harts Range, Mt Everard and Fisher's Ridge — but preserves the highly contested Muckaty nomination.

Mitch, a spokesperson for Harts Range and Mt Everard said: “It is almost seven years since the NT dump plan was announced. We are happy that Harts Range is now off the list but we support the Muckaty people to say no. This proposal is based on politics not science. This is a very sad day.”

Traditional owners are angry that they continue to be sidelined. Muckaty traditional owner Penny Phillips, from the Wirntiku group, said: “The government should wait for the court case before passing this law. Traditional owners say no to the waste dump. We have been fighting against this for years and we will keep fighting. We don’t want it in Muckaty or anywhere in the NT.”

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called for the vote on the proposed law to be delayed, saying: “It is either a complete waste of the parliament’s time to be debating a bill that targets a site which, if the applicants to the Federal Court action are successful, will be taken permanently off the table or it may prejudice or get in the way of that action itself.”

Ferguson's law is a crude cut and paste of the Howard government’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act that it purports to replace. It limits the application of federal environmental protection legislation and it curtails appeal rights.

The draft legislation overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act and it sidesteps the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. It allows for the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land with no consultation with, or consent from, traditional owners. In fact, the minister can now override any state or territory law that gets in the way of the dump plan.

Before it won government, Labor promised to address radioactive waste management issues in a manner that would “ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes”, and to adopt a “consensual process of site selection”. Yet despite many invitations, Ferguson refuses to meet with traditional owners opposed to the dump.

Traditional owners have now written to the Governor General asking her to meet with them before considering whether to give royal assent to the law.


Nigel Scullion, Country Liberal Senator for the Northern Territory, was originally opposed to the dump being foisted on the NT. He has now changed his mind after securing a deal with the Gillard government to fund NT medical services.

Scullion’s deal would see an initial injection of $10 million by the Commonwealth — with states and the ACT then paying the NT to store waste produced in their jurisdictions. However, Scullion admits this sweetener was not needed for the Coalition to support Ferguson's bill, telling ABC News in February: “We were supporting this in any event.”

Traditional owner Penny Phillips asked in response: “Who is Nigel Scullion to sell our land out from under us for $10 million? He’s never even been out to Muckaty to see the land he's trying to sell. That's our land and we say no to the waste dump.”

NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson has called the deal “offensive”. Gerry McCarthy, a member for the Barkly region which includes Muckaty, called it “bribery”, adding: “This debate is far too important for a short-term fix with a cheap approach to try and pay somebody off to get a storage facility established quickly.”

Medical professionals have called for federal politicians to stop using nuclear medicine as justification for the Muckaty proposal.

Nuclear radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos wrote in December: “The contention that is most in error is that the radioactive waste to be disposed of there is largely nuclear medicine waste. Nearly all such waste is actually short-lived and decays in local storage and is subsequently disposed of safely in the normal waste systems without need for a repository.

“The vast bulk of the waste ... is Lucas Heights nuclear reactor operational waste, and contaminated soil from CSIRO research on ore processing in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Toxic trade-off

A toxic trade-off of basic services for a nuclear waste dump has been part of this story from the start. The Muckaty nomination was originally made with the promise of $12 million compensation for a small group identified by the Northern Land Council as the exclusive traditional owners.

The traditional owner who was the main proponent of the dump passed away late last year. At a Senate inquiry she gave the following evidence: “As you have probably heard, the government do not have money for outstations anymore ... So we made a decision about this waste problem to get money to build up our outstations, to get money to go back to our land and have schooling, have employment, have health out on the land itself.”

Both the NT and Commonwealth governments have systematically stripped back resources for small, remote Aboriginal communities, placing increased pressure on them to accept long-term and high impact projects like the waste dump.

Ferguson's bill passed the Senate with government and Coalition support, but there is a broad and growing alliance that will challenge the proposal every step of the way.

After a trade union delegation visited Tennant Creek last August, Peter Simpson, from the Electrical Trades Union's Queensland branch, told the local newspaper the unionists had agreed to do everything they could to stop the nuclear dump from proceeding. A growing number of councils along the transport corridor have also voiced their opposition.

Traditional owner Pamela Brown from the Milwayi group told New Matilda: “We want the government to come down and see us and we can show them all the sites, we want Martin Ferguson and the others to come out to Muckaty. We want them to come out and see — people will do ceremony, our way, to prove who really owns Muckaty. That’s our way, not whitefella way, if we are talking about land.”

Protest actions will continue in Tennant Creek across the NT and a photo exhibition of the community titled “Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud” has begun a national tour.

The campaign against the Muckaty dump continues to call for a comprehensive and independent inquiry into the full range of radioactive waste management options in Australia.

In the meantime, there is a simple solution: leave the waste where it is produced at the Lucas Heights nuclear research centre, run by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Sydney’s south. That is where the waste is produced, and that is where Australia’s nuclear expertise is concentrated.

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

Similar views have been expressed by the Commonwealth nuclear regulator, ARPANSA, the Australian Nuclear Association and even by Ferguson's own department.

[Natalie Wasley is the coordinator of the Beyond Nuclear Initiative. Visit]

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