Labor reneges on nuclear waste promise

Dave Sweeney Sydney Morning Herald May 13, 2010

Dianne Stokes and Mark Chungaloo
Dianne Stokes and Mark Chungaloo oppose the plans for a nuclear waste dump up in Muckaty NT.
Photo: Eddie Jim

Before the 2007 election, federal Labor promised a new approach to the management of radioactive waste, characterised by international best practice, full community consultation and consent. It promised to restore transparency, accountability, procedural fairness and legal redress.

Its approach would be unlike that of the Howard government's, by adopting a "consensual process of site selection" with "agreed scientific grounds for determining suitability" and "community consultation and support".

And it was scathing of the Howard government's legal framework – the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act. Senior ALP figures lined up in the Senate like planes above Sydney to denounce the laws as "sordid", "arrogant" and "draconian".

Expectations were high but delivery has been woefully low. In late February 2010 the stridently pro-nuclear Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, broke two years of silence to introduce Labor's "new" approach.

The big news was that the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act had morphed into the National Radioactive Waste Management Act. Instead of the promised repeal we got a cynical repackaging.

Labor's proposed recycled law fails to restore procedural fairness and appeal rights, suspends the application of key indigenous and environmental protections and overrides all Commonwealth, state and territory laws that might delay or frustrate the opening of a waste dump.

What a difference three years makes: Churchill in opposition, Chamberlain in government.

Last Friday – conveniently after business hours – a Senate inquiry gave a green light for this cut-and-paste legislation to be considered by Parliament, despite growing indigenous and wider community opposition and the bill's non-compliance with Labor's radioactive waste policies and promises.

There is only one site in Australia under consideration to host Ferguson's radioactive waste dump – Muckaty, in the Northern Territory.

The Howard government first nominated Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, as one of four possible sites for a nuclear waste dump in September 2007.

It was a controversial choice then and remains so now. The federal government secured a "voluntary nomination" from the Northern Land Council and one Aboriginal family group. The terms of that agreement have never been made public.

While some members of the Muckaty Land Trust support a national waste dump in return for cash benefits and access to improved services, many do not.

The recent Senate inquiry perpetuated this selective hearing when it claimed the Muckaty nomination was voluntary, despite acknowledging that the committee "did not have access" to the key legal or anthropological documents.

No other OECD nation, in 2010, would allow a "commercial in confidence" to be the basis of a national radioactive waste management strategy.

The secretive process by which Muckaty was chosen is out of step with growing international support for genuine community consultation and consent in decisions about nuclear facilities, as articulated by the UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in 2007: "There is growing recognition that it is ethically unacceptable to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community."

Imposing radioactive waste on the lands of indigenous people in the 21st Century is not responsible management. It is shameful political expedience.

There are a number of furphies about radioactive waste in Australia. One furphy says because this nuclear waste is "low" and "intermediate" level it is not harmful to humans.

There is no "safe" level of exposure to ionising radiation. This waste may be produced in hospitals and university laboratories, but it is still radioactive and needs to be shielded from humans and the environment.

If it leaks and gets into the air or water table it is dangerous to humans. It emits radiation and can, therefore, cause fatal cancers and other diseases.

Another furphy is that access to nuclear medicine in Australia is dependent on putting a nuclear waste dump in the NT.

This is an emotive and improper link. Medical experts – including nuclear medicine practitioners – confirm that Australians can continue to have unimpeded access to diagnostic and therapeutic nuclear medicines without the need for this dump.

Another furphy is that of urgency. Ferguson argues that we need to move urgently on radioactive waste because "time is not on our side". With 95 per cent of Australia's radioactive waste in secure storage in two dedicated Commonwealth facilities it is hard to see Ferguson's case for urgency.

A more sensible approach, given the length of time radioactive waste remains a direct hazard, would be to take the time needed to get the policy architecture right.

The ethical, democratic and effective way to choose nuclear waste storage sites is based on voluntary consent, transparency and democratic dialogue, features missing in Ferguson's plans.

As our political leaders position themselves for the election it is time for the Rudd government to honour its 2007 election commitment on radioactive waste.

It is time for politicians to stop playing political football with a human and environmental threat that will last far beyond their limited tenure.

Dave Sweeney is a nuclear free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Nuclear waste dump report flawed

Andrea Hayward May 8, 2010 AAP Sydney Morning Herald

A Senate report backing the federal government's plan to establish a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory has been labelled by critics as flawed and a whitewash.

The federal government is considering Muckaty Station, near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, for a facility that would store low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste.

The national radioactive waste management bill has been examined by the legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee to repeal the waste act and substitute a new process to select a site for radioactive waste.

The report, released late on Friday, recommends Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson consult all parties with an interest in, or who would be affected by, a decision to select the Muckaty Station site as the location for the dump.

Australian Greens nuclear spokesman Scott Ludlam said the government had used a Labor-led Senate committee to whitewash a report into its plan to establish the nation's first radioactive waste site.

"This makes a mockery of the Senate's role to scrutinise important legislation," Mr Ludlam said in a statement on Friday.

"Labor had to be dragged kicking and screaming to actually hold an inquiry and refused to hold a hearing at Tennant Creek, the major town near the only nominated site, Muckaty Station," he said.

"Now, it's used its Labor majority committee to ignore the overwhelming evidence from over 230 submissions to rubber stamp its plan to impose this controversial waste dump on an unwilling community."

The land was nominated by the Ngapa traditional owners, one of five family groups who are custodians of the land.

But others oppose the dump.

Traditional owners who oppose its location have flagged legal action, saying they were excluded from the process.

Mr Ludlam said there had been no procedural fairness or judicial review from the Muckaty nomination.

He said it also over-rode state and territory laws, Aboriginal heritage and environmental protection laws.

"Something as important as building a nuclear waste dump should be done through a proper scientific, accountable, transport and consultative process, as Labor promised," Mr Ludlam said.

Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) nuclear-free spokesman Dave Sweeney said the Muckaty plan was in conflict with Labor's policy ahead of the 2007 federal election.

"If Labor pursue down the path they are going, what they are doing is actively using the same policy agenda and the same techniques as the Howard government used for radioactive management," Mr Sweeney told AAP.

The Senate committee had acknowledged it had not seen the government's agreement with the Northern Land Council but it used the same secret agreement to justify the claim the nomination of Muckaty was voluntary, Mr Sweeney said.

"There's no other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nation that in 2010 would be starting a national radioactive waste management system based on such a flawed set of understandings," he said.

"The proposed National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 removes procedural fairness and appeal rights from the Muckaty community, suspends the application for key indigenous and environmental protections and over-rides all Commonwealth, state and territory laws that might delay or frustrate the opening of a waste dump."

The ACF would pursue a full range of options to stop the nuclear waste dump, including legal action, Mr Sweeney said.