Plan to use Aboriginal land as a nuclear waste dump is flawed and misguided
Radioactive waste management is difficult, but secretive deals made without Aboriginal Traditional Owners’ full consent are even more worrying. A transparent debate is needed
This week, federal resource minister Gary Gray is talking radioactive waste with Aboriginal people in remote central Australia.
Six years ago an Aboriginal clan group, the Northern Land Council (NLC) and the then Howard government signed a secret deal to develop Australia’s first purpose-built national radioactive waste dump at Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
The commercial-in-confidence plan saw the clan group “volunteer” an area of the shared Muckaty Land Trust for the burial and above ground storage of radioactive waste in return for federal payments, promises and a “package of benefits” worth around $12m.
The deal was not known about or supported by the rest of the Muckaty Traditional Owners and remains the source of bitter contest, deep opposition and a Federal Court challenge. Now Gray is back to talk with the NLC about a second site nomination on Muckaty. Unfortunately the new plan appears to follow the old pattern of secrecy, exclusion and contest.
The original Howard plan was energetically embraced and promoted by former resource minister Martin Ferguson, despite conflicting with Labor policy and senior ALP figures describing the legislation to make the dump possible as “sordid” and “arrogant”.
Ferguson’s approach to radioactive waste management was characterised by a closed mind and a locked door. Aboriginal Traditional Owners opposed to the dump plan had their meeting requests rejected and correspondence effectively ignored. Unsurprisingly, community confidence in the process eroded.
Radioactive waste is a serious and growing international challenge. Despite decades of industry assurances and high cost government projects, not one nation has a final disposal facility for high level radioactive waste. Division and debate runs deep over how best to manage this material.
But while the disagreements are many, there is a growing consensus about some fundamental approaches to radioactive waste management, especially when it comes to community consent.
In a 2006 report, an expert UK committee on radioactive waste management stated “it is generally considered that a voluntary process is essential to ensure equity, efficiency and the likelihood of successfully completing the process. There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community.”
The current Muckaty plan and process is at sharp odds with this common sense and common decency approach.
It is also in conflict with Australia’s international obligations under the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples which explicitly requires that “states shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of Indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.”
The Muckaty plan lacks consent at home and credibility abroad. It is flawed and failing and it is time for a new approach – one that reflects and is informed by best practise, sound science and respect.
Radioactive waste management is difficult. Only time can take the heat out of the waste – but transparent and robust processes and policy development can take the heat out of the waste debate.
Australia has never had an independent assessment of what is the best (or least worst) way to manage our radioactive waste. Decades ago unelected bureaucrats decided a centralised remote dump was the best model and ever since a chain reaction of politicians have tried – and failed – to find a compliant postcode.
Australia is better placed than some countries to do things differently – and better. We have much less radioactive waste than nations with domestic nuclear power and ours is mostly stored at two secure federal sites – the Woomera prohibited area in South Australia and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Lucas Heights nuclear facility in southern Sydney.
ANSTO, which produces and houses most of Australia’s radioactive waste, is upgrading its storage facilities. It and the federal nuclear regulator agree ANSTO has the ability and capacity to securely manage all radioactive waste on site, including material due for return from overseas.
This reality provides Australia with some much needed breathing space. For more than two decades, politicians have talked big and listened little – and they have spectacularly failed come up with an agreed, credible and mature approach to radioactive waste management.
It is time to move away from the obsession with finding a place to dump and instead build a space to discuss. We need to get the policy architecture right so future generations of Australians will not have a radioactive legacy that is badly wrong.
A public and independent national commission would advance the discourse on what constitutes responsible radioactive waste management and to move all stakeholders out of the trenches and to the table.
In a long overdue and most welcome change of style, if not yet of substance, the latest federal minister with responsibility for this issue has acknowledged that there are deep Aboriginal and wider concerns over the Muckaty plan.
A minister named Gray should be well-placed to show leadership on an issue of inter-generational national importance that is not – and should never be – just black and white.