Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s proposed "solution" to our 60 year radioactive waste legacy has sparked a major confrontation.
Prior to the 2007 election, Labor lied to Northern Territory locals, promising to scrap the previous Howard government’s aggressive imposition of a radioactive waste dump on Muckaty cattle station near Tennant Creek. Two years on, the Rudd Government has drafted an even more coercive regime and framed it within language of quiet deceit. Decide, Announce, Defend is the strategy. Right now, they have a lot of defending to do.
In February, more than two years after the ALP made an election pledge to repeal the previous legislation, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson announced his new National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. It is essentially a copy and paste job.
Like the existing Act, it explicitly overrides any state or territory laws that would hinder site selection and eliminates Aboriginal interests (the Land Rights Act and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984) as well as green interests (the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It goes further, erasing the property rights of any individual unlucky enough to be in the path of the dump or its access corridors.
It is a legislative battering ram that squarely lines up the Northern Territory as the target for the nation’s nuclear waste, with the remaining provisions vesting total discretion in the hands of the Minister to pursue the site at Muckaty Station.
This is the slimy underbelly of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s wonderful apology to the Stolen Generations: right here, right now in 2010, the Commonwealth is undertaking an appalling ram-raid on an Aboriginal community. Science, deliberative dialogue and careful consideration should be the pillars of debates around substances as long lived and dangerous as radioactive waste. Instead, the ALP has chosen a path of calculated conflict which it is going to regret.
The Government’s strategy is raising the temperature in Tennant Creek and the Barkly region. The tension was evident at Monday’s Senate committee hearing in Darwin.
A hush descended on the room when the Traditional Owners made their entrance in black T-shirts painted in two ancient Milwayi designs, evoking the dreaming of the land targeted for Australia’s 60-year inventory of radioactive waste. They were more than 1000 kilometres from home, but having made the decision to speak out they were not going to be denied. "The Senators can see from the drawings where we belong and what the country means to us," spokeswoman Diane Stokes said quietly but forcefully, backed by senior law men and women from all of the family groups represented on the Muckaty land trust.
Elders from the Ngapa, Milwayi, Ngarrka, Yapayapa and Wirntiku clans travelled to Darwin to reject the Government’s claim that any one person has the exclusive rights to say yes or no to the waste dump.
They gave first-hand accounts of the evasive process leading to the Muckaty site nomination. They outlined how their people were carefully excluded from the deliberative decision making process which is customary on important decisions to do with culture and country.
They reminded us of the findings of the Land Commissioner’s report, drawn up in 1997 when the station was handed back to its Traditional Owners, showing their dreaming tracks interweaving across the site and traversing great distances.
Even the name has been lost in translation. "Manuwangku", Diane told us. "It’s not Muckaty."
The Traditional Owners’ testimony was the highlight of the Darwin senate hearings, but the whole day had been a powerful experience. Witnesses including the NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson and local member of the NT Parliament Gerry McCarthy, the cheerfully unstoppable Natalie Wasley representing the Arid Lands Environment Centre, and the CEO of the Central Land Council all lined up to demolish the Government’s case for the waste dump.
Earlier in the day, a fiery rally on the steps of Parliament heard from union officials, a local doctor, MPs and Aboriginal campaigners and elders. Concurrent demonstrations as far away as Melbourne and Hobart drew the connections in Labor/Green marginal seats. The Government thinks it can quarantine an election year radioactive waste battle to a few seats that it’s prepared to write off in the Northern Territory. If you’re reading this from any postcode outside the Territory, you’re holding the key to proving them wrong.
This is the shape of the campaign to come. Behind the scenes, a team of experienced lawyers are researching legal options for throwing this case back into the teeth of the ALP. The Traditional Owners are strong in their law and have nowhere else to go. The Government has attacked them on their home ground, and they’ve assembled a powerful circle of allies around them to try and blunt the stress and inter-family tension that this kind of "development" inevitably brings.
"We want a better life for our children … [to]have schools, have employment, have health (services) out on our land itself."
These words stand as an accusation to all of us, not just successive governments that have failed to address third-world Aboriginal poverty.
They were spoken at the Canberra Senate hearings by Ngapa woman Amy Lauder, on whose shoulders the Government’s entire strategy rests. She’s holding out for promises of $12 million and a local school in exchange for millennial custodianship of reprocessed nuclear fuel rods and decommissioned reactor cores that will still be ticking several ice ages from now.
Employment opportunities: check. Six lonely security guards garrisoned to watch over this concrete tomb for all time.
Economic development: check. $12 million dollars divided over the 300 years — roughly 10 half-lives of the key radionuclides in the low-level waste — amounting to about $40,000 a year.
Long term outlook: check. Three hundred years is really just the down payment. Fully grasping the scope of this facility requires a deep-time perspective that collapses three-year electoral cycles into insignificance. The long lived intermediate level wastes (the reactor components and reprocessed spent fuel) need to be isolated from living beings for several tens of thousands of years at least. If the distant ancestors of the northern European Neanderthals had developed nuclear power, the saying goes, we’d still be guarding their waste.
The last time the Australian Senate shone a spotlight on Australia’s radioactive waste inventory was late 2008. We asked an official at Australia’s Nuclear Science Technology Organisation why the insistence on remote dumps. Why are we always seeking out remote Aboriginal communities to host this material, and why should it not stay close to our centre of nuclear expertise in Sydney? In a moment of frankness he now probably regrets, he told us: "…for political reasons… certainly there is no technical reason why it could not".
"Governments of both political persuasions over the years have told the local community that it will not be, but that ultimately is a political decision."
International "best practice" dictates that a central dump should be as close as possible to the source of the waste production processes to eliminate risk from transportation. It should stay under the active care and maintenance of those best qualified to keep it secure.
In contrast, the Rudd Government, with the support of Abbott’s Coalition, is charting a course of international worst practice by asking some of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia to host this toxic time capsule, in exchange for 21st century beads and blankets. It begins to explain the cool fury of the law men and women who presented their case to the Senators in Darwin.
(And of course, there is still no actual disposal strategy for the radioactive material in question — the Government plans to shunt it to Muckaty for intergenerational "interim storage", until such time as the people who generate these exotic poisons work out how to better model their dispersal and exposure characteristics into future geological ages.)
And there is another deep time perspective at work here — an oral and symbolic tradition that has carried pre-ice age stories with stunning fidelity into the present day. It doesn’t speak from old books or websites, but through the voices of people who have inherited an unbroken lineage of story and song that serves as a living map of this old continent. One day, production of these intractable wastes will finally cease and we’ll get around to developing a rational and humane long-term radioactive waste management strategy.
At that point, we’ll realise these folk can teach us some things about communicating matters of importance with the far distant future.
In the meantime, there are frontline communities that need to be supported, money to be raised, materials printed, how-to-vote cards considered and political courage tested. That stuff isn’t going to Manuwangku, Prime Minister. You’re not getting off the hook that easily.
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