Ferguson's Dumping Ground Fights Back


In February 2010, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson introduced the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill into the House of Representatives, saying it represented "a responsible and long overdue approach for an issue that impacts on all Australian communities".

The legislation names Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, as the only site to remain under active consideration for a national nuclear waste dump.

The proposal is highly contested by the NT Government and is also being challenged in the Federal Court by Traditional Owners. Despite this, the Bill is currently being debated in the Senate — and will likely pass.

Ferguson’s law is a crude cut and paste of the Howard government’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act that it purports to replace. It limits the application of federal environmental protection legislation and it curtails appeal rights. The draft legislation overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act and it sidesteps the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. It allows for the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land with no consultation with or consent from Traditional Owners. In fact, the Minister can now override any state or territory law that gets in the way of the dump plan.

Before it won government, Labor promised to address radioactive waste management issues in a manner that would "ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes", and to adopt a "consensual process of site selection". Yet despite many invitations, Martin Ferguson refuses to meet with Traditional Owners opposed the dump.

Traditional Owners are angry that they continue to be sidelined. Muckaty Traditional Owner Penny Phillips, from the Wirntiku group, told New Matilda, "How dare the government debate this legislation while we’ve got them in court challenging the nomination? They don’t know the outcome of the court case yet, it shouldn’t go ahead."

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has called for the vote on the proposed law to be delayed, saying "It is either a complete waste of the parliament’s time to be debating a bill that targets a site which, if the applicants to the Federal Court action are successful, will be taken permanently off the table or it may prejudice or get in the way of that action itself."

Nigel Scullion, Country Liberal Senator for the NT, was originally opposed to the dump being foisted on the NT. Last week he changed his mind after securing a deal with the Gillard Government for funding for an oncology ward in Darwin.

Medical professionals have called for federal politicians to stop using nuclear medicine as justification for the Muckaty proposal. Nuclear radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos wrote in the NT News:

"…the contention that is most in error is that the radioactive waste to be disposed of there is largely nuclear medicine waste. Nearly all such waste is actually short-lived and decays in local storage and is subsequently disposed of safely in the normal waste systems without need for a repository. The vast bulk of the waste… is Lucas Heights nuclear reactor operational waste, and contaminated soil (10 thousand drums) from CSIRO research on ore processing in the 1950s and 1960s."

Scullion’s deal would see an initial injection of $10 million by the Commonwealth — with states and the ACT then paying the NT to store waste produced in their jurisdictions. However, Scullion admits this sweetener was not needed for the Coalition to support Ferguson’s Bill, telling ABC News last week "We were supporting this in any event".

Penny Phillips asked in response "Who is Nigel Scullion to sell our land out from under us for $10 million dollars? He’s never even been out to Muckaty to see the land he’s trying to sell. That’s our land and we say no to the waste dump."

NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson has called the deal "offensive". Gerry McCarthy, member for the Barkly region where Muckaty is located, called it "bribery", adding: "This debate is far too important for a short term fix with a cheap approach to try and pay somebody off to get a storage facility established quickly."

A toxic trade-off of basic services for a nuclear waste dump has been part of this story from the start.

The Muckaty nomination was originally made with the promise of $12 million compensation for a small group identified by the Northern Land Council as the exclusive Traditional Owners. The Traditional Owner who was the main proponent of the dump passed away in late 2011. At a Senate Inquiry she gave the following evidence:

"As you have probably heard, the government do not have money for out-stations anymore … So we made a decision about this waste problem to get money to build up our outstations, to get money to go back to our land and have schooling, have employment, have health out on the land itself."

Both the NT and Commonwealth governments have systematically stripped back resources for small remote Indigenous communities, placing increased pressure on them to accept long-term and high impact projects like the waste dump.

While Ferguson’s legislation will inevitably pass the Senate with Coalition support, there is a broad and growing alliance that will challenge the proposal every step of the way.

After a trade union delegation visited Tennant Creek last August, Peter Simpson, from the Electrical Trades Union’s Queensland Branch, told the local newspaper the unionists had agreed to do everything they could to stop the nuclear dump from proceeding. A growing number of councils along the transport corridor have also voiced their opposition.

Traditional Owner Pamela Brown from the Milwayi group told New Matilda, "We want the government to come down and see us and we can show them all the sites, we want Martin Ferguson and the others to comes out to Muckaty. We want them to come out and see — people will do ceremony, our way, to prove who really owns Muckaty. That’s our way, not whitefella way, if we are talking about land".

Protest actions will continue in Tennant Creek across the Territory and a photo exhibition of the community titled "Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud" has begun a national tour.

The campaign against the Muckaty dump continues to call for a comprehensive and independent inquiry into the full range of radioactive waste management options in Australia.

In the meantime, there is a simple solution: leave the waste where it is produced at the Lucas Heights nuclear research centre, run by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which is south of Sydney. That is where the waste is produced, and that is where Australia’s nuclear expertise is concentrated.

As Dr Ron Cameron from ANSTO said: "ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time. There is no difficulty with that." Similar views have been expressed by the Commonwealth nuclear regulator, ARPANSA, by the Australian Nuclear Association and even by Martin Ferguson’s own department.

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.