Nelson's Dumping Ground


Julius Bloomfield, a traditional landowner from Mount Everard, north of Alice Springs, hands me a yellow felt circle, carefully cut out. It’s an imperfect shape, but an eloquent piece of felt. The yellow dot, an attached note explains, is for ‘the sun on our flag, and renewable energy.’ It also symbolises yellow cake, and a target. Bull’s eye.

Emily Austin and Eileen Brown at the Coober Pedy water bore

Emily Austin and Eileen Brown at the Coober Pedy water bore

I met Julius in mid-September. At that stage, the Arrente people of Mount Everard suspected that when it came to a decision about where to put a national radioactive waste repository, their opposition to the project would count for very little. According to the note, theirs are ‘expendable lives’.

On 15 July this year Dr Brendan Nelson, Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, finalised a list of possible sites for a nuclear waste dump: Mount Everard, on the Tanami Road 40 kilometres north west of Alice; Harts Range, on the Plenty Highway 165 kilometres north east of Alice; and Fishers Ridge on the Stuart Highway 47 kilometres south of Katherine. All three sites are on Commonwealth-owned Defence Department land. According to Nelson, the three potential sites will be assessed for their suitability over the next three years.

Public opposition to the waste dump runs high in the Territory, and enjoys the bipartisan support of Clare Martin’s Labor Government and the Opposition. Currently, various State and Territory regulatory laws and prohibitions apply to the transporting and dumping of nuclear waste, reflecting strong community concern about the practice.

However, last Thursday in Federal Parliament, Nelson unveiled a Bill that puts beyond doubt the Commonwealth’s power to proceed with their plans. The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill strips the powers of both the Northern Territory Government and the relevant Aboriginal Land Councils, which represent traditional owners, to oppose the dump.

The Bill decrees that all relevant Aboriginal heritage legislation and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 ‘will not apply to the site investigation phase of the project.’

It confers discretionary powers on the responsible minister, who may declare one of the three sites as suitable. The Bill also extinguishes all interests such as Native Title that the Commonwealth does not already hold in the site.

Finally, just in case any confusion remains, the Bill ensures the Commonwealth has the express authority to do anything ‘necessary or incidentally required to proceed with the establishment and operation of the facility, as well as the transport of waste.’

By this stage of the Bill’s reading, Warren Snowden, member for the Territory seat of Lingiari, had been kicked out of the House of Representatives chamber. Snowden could not help himself from interjecting. ‘Outrageous!’ he interrupted. ‘This is outrageous.’ ‘[Nelson]’s outrageous.’

The Northern Territory’s Chief Minister, Clare Martin, is furious with the Federal Government’s latest move. She is putting pressure on the Territorian Country Liberal Party Senator, Nigel Scullion, to cross the floor on this issue. The unimpressive Scullion looks unlikely to take a stand. Meanwhile, the NT Parliament has moved a resolution, condemning their inability to scrutinise, review or appeal the dump proposal.

The Kungkas rally against the nuclear waste dump.

The Kungkas rally against the nuclear waste dump.

It’s certainly an extraordinarily heavy-handed power grab. Or it would be, if the arrogant, anti-democratic thrust of so much Government comment and legislation at the moment hadn’t rendered the extraordinary, very ordinary. (Last week was a bad week for democracy. Senators were ridiculed for expressing concern that they were effectively left with one day to debate the new anti-terror law package, which provides for unprecedented State powers. For Kirk McKenzie’s review of a draft of that Bill, click here.)

Territorians are angry that they’ve been lied to about the dump. In the lead up to the 2004 Federal election, Environment Minister Ian Campbell made this statement in Darwin: ‘The Commonwealth is not pursuing any options anywhere on the mainland … Northern Territorians can take that as an absolute categorical assurance.’ The things you say, when you’re trying to win votes.

Nelson’s justification for the Bill was highly emotive.

The Government needs to have finalised its plan for the disposal of radioactive waste before the regulatory body APARNSA will license the construction of a new nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in suburban Sydney. The closing passages of the Bill’s reading stated that Lucas Heights, which produces medical isotopes, saves people’s lives everyday. This is grossly misleading.

Dr Bill Williams, from the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, has noted that ‘from February to May 2000, while the [Lucas Heights] reactor was shutdown for maintenance, we simply imported all our technetium [an isotope used in nuclear medicine], without any reported adverse patient outcomes.’

Dr Williams also cites research in the US which suggests that alternative production methods of technetium are not far off. Development and commercialisation of new technology could mean Lucas Heights’s existence is unjustifiable within years.

Let’s remember why the Government’s last attempt to impose a waste dump on an unwilling community went so disastrously wrong. In 1998 the Federal Government began a push to locate a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia’s arid north.

The move was deeply unpopular in South Australia. So much so that, in 2003, the Federal Government awarded a $300,000 contract to a Melbourne-based PR firm to sell the plan to a hostile public. The public didn’t buy it. In fact, in demonstrating its contempt for community opinion, the Federal Government cemented the passionate resolve of South Australians.

With the South Australian community behind him, Mike Rann’s Labor Government eventually took the Federal Government to court over the issue. On 24 June last year the Federal Court found that the Commonwealth Government had misused the ‘urgency provisions’ in a hurried compulsory acquisition of the relevant land parcel. The Howard Government decided an appeal would be too costly, (as in, it might cost them marginal Adelaide seats in the 2004 Federal election) and announced its decision to abandon the plan two weeks later.

Since 1998, when the waste dump plan for South Australia was first mooted, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of Senior Aboriginal women based in Coober Pedy in the State’s north, had insisted that they had a responsibility to care for their country. Their catchcry was Irati Wanti: the poison, leave it.

Protesting outside the Adelaide Convention Centre.

Protesting outside the Adelaide Convention Centre.

The Kungkas wrote many letters to politicians explaining that they had to look after the land, life and the future. Some of the Kungkas signed these letters which were drafted out loud and then written up in the campaign office with small, neat crosses. They are, it would seem, uneducated women.

Yet, the Kungkas consistently demonstrated that the Government was ignorant, and that they (the Kungkas) were knowledgable. The Government thought the country was dead, meaningless, remote. The Kungkas showed it was alive, filled with meanings and home.

But it seems the Government keeps ‘their ears in their pockets.’ ‘You don’t listen to us ladies,’ they wrote. ‘Do we have to talk over and over?’

Last weekend, just two days after Nelson introduced his radical Bill, the Kungkas launched a book in Coober Pedy about their successful campaign, Talking Straight Out. They are all too aware that while they can happily take ‘a good break’, the Government will try again, on other country.

They offer this advice: ‘Be strong like us. Don’t be scared of the Government. We weren’t scared and we’re elderly ladies.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.