Nuclear Waste Lasts Longer Than Politicians


Amid the busy news agenda and compressed news cycles of a federal election campaign many issues fail to make the radar or generate the attention and debate they deserve, irrespective of their importance or their impact on people’s lives. Nuclear waste made an impression on the media over the weekend when Bob Hawke came out in favour of using Australia as a nuclear waste dump.

That got more attention than the continuing struggle of Aboriginal people to save their land at Muckaty — north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory — from becoming Australia’s national radioactive waste dump, a case that involves an issue that will last far longer than any politician sits in parliament. 

Opponents to the federal plan — which is promoted by both major parties but has been vigorously opposed by the Greens and Independents — will today take their concerns before the Federal Court.

It is a long way from the lore of the world’s oldest continuing culture to the law courts of Melbourne but senior Traditional Owners are asking the Court to address key and unresolved issues of ownership, consultation and consent.

And they are calling on all political parties to clearly commit to not advancing the dump until the Federal Court has been able to hear and consider their case. Labor’s response to this request has been vague in detail but positive in tone while the Coalition has given no commitment.

Like all things nuclear, this is an issue with shelf life. 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 $12 million.

The deal was done without the knowledge or support of the rest of the Muckaty Traditional Owners and remains the source of bitter contest, deep opposition and the continuing Federal Court challenge. Far from reviewing its actions and the concerns of its constituents the NLC is now seeking to advance 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 described by senior ALP figures as "sordid" and "arrogant" and in Opposition Labor promised a new way. Labor’s approach to radioactive waste management under former Minister Martin Ferguson was instead 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 and all the time 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 and the experience to date at Muckaty has been a case study in how not to manage sensitive and complex policy issues.

The need to responsibly manage the serious and long term environmental and human risks posed from any industrial waste is a clear test of a mature society. When that risk involves the unique properties of radioactive waste then this need is even more important.

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.”

It seems extraordinary but, unlike most comparable nations, Australia has never had an open assessment of the best way to manage the nation's radioactive waste.

The current Muckaty plan is the end result of over two decades of non-transparent and non-inclusive policy making that has been determined by unaccountable departmental representatives and driven with various degrees of enthusiasm by a chain reaction of successive politicians.

The model is deeply flawed and has fundamentally failed.

The best way to advance responsible and effective radioactive waste management in Australia is to end the push to find a vulnerable postcode for a dumpsite and instead begin the process to identify what range of management options are available and which one ticks the most boxes.

A dedicated, open and expert National Commission into responsible radioactive waste management is not a do nothing option or a stalling tactic by opponents of the current approach. Instead it is a fundamental pre-condition to addressing a long standing federal failure of both policy and practise.

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 — and that is based on a simple two point plan: no movement at Muckaty pending a Federal Court decision and a parallel National Commission into responsible radioactive waste management.

For the sake of the concerned Muckaty Traditional Owners and all Australians — now and into the future — let’s hope that in this election window the politicians have the courage and the capacity to meet the challenge.

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