An out of sight, out of mind approach to nuclear waste

Nuclear Waste at Muckaty - Cartoon
(Nicholson cartoon adapted)

Dave Sweeney ABC's The Drum 12th July 2011

The unassuming town of Tennant Creek hugs the Stuart Highway 500 kilometres north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

It is the principal service town of the Barkly, a region the size of the UK that is home to a smattering of gold, manganese and other mines, some of the world's biggest cattle stations and – if Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson gets his way – Australia's first national radioactive waste dump.

And, like the waste itself, the politics of how to manage radioactive waste are getting hotter and dirtier.

Mr Ferguson has consistently refused to meet with traditional owners or others affected by the dump plan, or to explore other management options. Instead the Minister appears intent on the development of a central dump site on contested Aboriginal land at Muckaty Station, around 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek.

The issue has deeply divided local Aboriginal traditional owners with one group signing a secret agreement in favour of the dump while many others remain bitterly opposed to both the plan and the process being used to advance it.

Before the 2007 federal election Labor promised a new approach characterised by international best practice and community consultation and consent. It promised transparency, accountability, procedural fairness and legal redress and to adopt a "consensual process of site selection" with "agreed scientific grounds for determining suitability".

Labor was highly critical of the previous Howard government's heavy-handed legal framework. However, reminiscent of Churchill in opposition and Chamberlain in government, federal Labor has instead continued the highly divisive approach of the Howard era.

There are serious and unresolved problems in the proposed National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (2010) currently before the Parliament that fail the test when it comes to reflecting international best practise in radioactive waste management and has been described by the Central Land Council as a "short-sighted political fix".

Labor's repackaged law fails to restore full 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.

The Howard government first nominated Muckaty 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 Muckaty nomination is highly contested and the subject of current Federal Court action by traditional owners opposed to the dump plan.

Much of the controversy and acrimony focuses on the way the Federal Government has gone about securing a 'voluntary nomination' from the Northern Land Council and one single Aboriginal family group. The terms of that agreement have never been made public, even to traditional owners opposed to the plan.

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. And to link hosting a perpetual industrial sacrifice zone with the provision of desperately-needed services for some of our nations poorest citizens is a profound failure of both policy and politics.

The non-transparent 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. The international expectation was clearly articulated by the UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in 2007 that "it is ethically unacceptable to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community".

Traditional owners opposed to a dump at Muckaty are taking legal action, travelling widely to address forums and exploring international avenues as part of their efforts to build awareness and halt the plan – and their supporters are growing.

The Northern Territory Government, Unions NT, the ACTU, medical and public health bodies, the Central Land Council and Indigenous rights groups, development and regional and national environmental groups including the Australian Conservation Foundation all oppose Labor's 'out of sight – out of mind' approach to radioactive waste management.

The most ethical and effective way to choose nuclear waste storage sites is based on sound science, voluntary consent, transparency and community dialogue. All these features are missing from Minister Ferguson's agenda and his planned legislation.

Radioactive waste is a reality and a serious issue. Its management should be based on the principles of reduction at source, transport minimisation and above-ground dry storage.

Imposing radioactive waste on the lands of Indigenous people in the 21st century is not responsible management. It is shameful political expedience. If this discredited approach is not changed a Government that started its tenure with a long-overdue apology will have something to be sorry about for many thousands of years.

Dave Sweeney is Nuclear Free Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation