Taking the A Train


APEC leaders ate Sydney seafood and drank Grange in early September, taking in views of the harbour from the Opera House, while behind them, downtown was barricaded as never before. Small businesses complained about losing money but local madams reported enthusiastic trade. Some of Sydney’s police, became badgeless, and took their irritation out on a few demonstrators and a press photographer.

As was predicted by columnist Peter Hartcher in The Diplomat, nothing earthshaking, region-transforming, or climate-changing happened during APEC. But quietly, during the summit, Australia agreed to sign on to George Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), and to sell uranium to Russia.

GNEP claims that it will ‘accelerate clean and safe nuclear energy.’ A select bunch of nuclear weapons states plus non-nuclear Japan and Australia went to Vienna after APEC and signed up to GNEP. Their aim or their pious hope is to control the distribution and reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the world. But it’s when they get to the storage of waste that all eyes turn to Australia, whose official line is to allow the export of uranium, but not to import nuclear waste. In Vienna, Australia agreed to ‘expand nuclear power to help meet growing energy demand in a sustainable manner and in a way that provides for safe operations of nuclear power plants and management of wastes.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

No-one in Sydney or Vienna mentioned a line of dots glowing in the dark. It starts from Lucas Heights (where, by the way, Australia’s only nuclear reactor has malfunctioned and been shut down for more than three months). It leads westward to Adelaide, then north to the Olympic Dam uranium mine, on through the desert past nuclear waste sites, military bases, and Aboriginal land, to the port of Darwin. The line completing the circuit and connecting the dots is the new north-south railway. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer calls speculation about a secret plan to import nuclear waste ‘wacky’ another good reason to look more closely at it.

Always considered uneconomic, the rail link from Alice Springs to Darwin was suddenly found to be viable in 1999. A government/business partnership undertook to build it for $1.3 billion. FreightLink, a consortium of foreign and local investors that owns the railway, with a 50 year contract to run its freight operations, is a joint venture between 11 participants including Kellogg Brown Root (KBR, 36.2 per cent), Barclay Mowlem (13.9 per cent), and John Holland (11.4 per cent).

The sole tender for construction of the line was KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the US company that Dick Cheney headed before he became Vice-President. Cheney visited Australia in the late-90s to negotiate the deal with South Australian Premier John Olsen and Prime Minister John Howard. Defence contracts won by Halliburton and its affiliates were worth $2.5 million in 2000; that amount increased to $18 million in 2003; and in the following year they secured more than 150 State and Federal Government commissions.

Just after the railway line opened, a leader in the Australian freight business predicted that the railway’s return on capital would be ‘smaller than a tick’s testicles.’ The company reportedly lost $17.7 million in its first half year (2004), $53.54 million in 2005, and a similar figure in 2006. To their initial $740 million, the stakeholders added $42 million, and later promised to invest an additional $14 million over three years.

In August 2007 FreightLink’s business was reported to have made ‘a slow start’. The company recorded its fourth annual loss in a row, having tried and failed a year earlier to sell a majority stake in the railway for $360 million.

The consortium transports iron ore from Frances Creek, manganese from Bootu Creek, and uranium from the Olympic Dam site at Roxby Downs. But there must be more to it than that and investors’ hopes of transporting copper from Prominent Hill in 2008 for them to remain interested.

The north-south railway passes between the largest uranium deposits in the world. In late 2006, just as Howard endorsed a report advocating nuclear power for Australia, a consortium of mining industry leaders announced their intention to build a nuclear power plant near Port Augusta, northwest of Adelaide. One of them, Howard admitted, had discussed it with him six months earlier. The railway would presumably be a vital link, carrying uranium ore to Darwin for export and processing overseas, and bringing it back to Port Augusta as nuclear fuel. The spent fuel could then either be transported to Darwin for export or carried south for disposal at a waste site in central Australia.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which proposes to control the export and processing of uranium and disposal of waste through a multilateral arrangement, has identified sites in South Australia as geologically the best in the world for disposal of nuclear waste. But no State government will take it. Downer said he wouldn’t want it near his Adelaide electoral office. Having promised before the 2004 election that the Government would not dump waste in the Northern Territory, Howard declared in 2006 that he would override Territory law and use Commonwealth land there for nuclear waste if he wanted to.

In April this year he promised to amend his own law prohibiting ‘nuclear activity,’ to allow for nuclear power, enrichment, and reprocessing of waste. He would also remove restraints on the mining and transportation of uranium ore. In June, the Federal Council of the Liberal Party endorsed the proposal for an international nuclear waste dump in Australia.

A survey found three ‘suitable’ sites under Federal Government control in the Northern Territory, two north of Alice Springs and one near Katherine. In November 2005, the enabling legislation to establish a ‘safe and secure facility’ had been pushed through Federal Parliament. Further changes enacted late in 2006 appear to remove the rights to procedural fairness of Indigenous people living there. In May 2007, Howard revealed a deal negotiated in secret for two years that would enable his government to store nuclear waste on a 1.5 square kilometre site on Muckaty station for 200 years, for a payment of $12 million to the Ngapa people.

At Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek, close to the Stuart Highway and the railway, Parsons Brinckerhoff are reported to be exploring for a waste site. The Minister for Science, Julie Bishop, does not call it a nuclear dump: it is to be a ‘radioactive waste management facility.’ But because no proven technology for permanent, secure disposal exists, how and where to dump nuclear waste are two questions that remain unanswered.

A third is: whose waste? If a nuclear power industry is set up in Australia, it will be Australian waste, which should be more methodically collected and more safely stored than it is now. But the US clearly has interests in Australian nuclear policy and in the railway. Given unresolved problems with three nuclear waste sites in the US, it could well be American waste too.

Some critics of Howard’s nuclear policy point out that power plants are 10 to15 years off, and doubt that he intends them to be built at all. Instead, Australian observers like journalist Julie Macken and the Wilderness Society’s Imogen Zethoven speculate that Howard’s real interest is in processing and exporting nuclear fuel and developing a world nuclear waste storage in Australia.

Dr John White, who has advised Howard and heads Australian Nuclear Fuel Leasing, told Macken the United States would be the biggest customer for storage, and would be so appreciative of access to the dump that Australia would never again be obliged to send troops to join American coalitions.

But for now, Howard’s nuclear plans are all over the place. He has reversed his statement that commercial considerations would alone dictate the site of nuclear power plants, and says he will hold local plebiscites first. But he has said nothing about any plebiscites on nuclear waste, and Julie Bishop still says she is considering four dumping sites, including Muckaty. Ian Macfarlane ruled out nuclear power stations in August, but Ziggy Switkowski said a re-elected Howard Government would legislate for them.

More speeches from Howard are likely, leading up to the election, about Australia being a ‘global energy superpower’ that is traveling on the ‘energy superhighway.’ Some Australians will feel good about that, as well as about their country’s part in defending freedom. But on and around the Adelaide-Darwin railway, a lot more is happening than we will find in the election slogans.

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.