Australian Fight Heats Up as Senate OKs Nuclear Waste Dump

CANBERRA, Australia, March 14, 2012 (ENS) – The Australian government has approved a bill creating the country’s first nuclear waste dump, over the objections of aboriginal and environmental groups and the Australian Greens.

The Senate passed the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 last week that provides for storage of nuclear waste in Muckaty Station, a remote aboriginal community in the arid central region of the Northern Territory.

Australian Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)

The measure was approved by the House of Representatives earlier and now goes back to the House for consideration of amendments that passed the Senate.

Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson welcomed the passage of the bill because he is concerned that the radioactive waste is currently held at over 100 “temporary” sites at Australian universities, hospitals, offices and laboratories.

There is also a need to store Australian research reactor waste returning from Europe in 2015-16, Ferguson said. “This legislation will pave the way for Australia to meet its international obligations to properly manage its own radioactive waste in a purpose-built facility.”

But conservationists and opposing politicians say the fight against the dump, like the waste, will remain hot for a long time.

Dianne Stokes, an elder of the Yapa Yapa clan, and her daughter, Sky, in Muckaty, October 28, 2007 (Photo by Bryan O’Brien courtesy no waste alliance)

The Australian Greens have vowed to step up the campaign against the planned nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station.

Greens Senator for Western Australia Scott Ludlam, said passage of the bill was “just the beginning of the next phase in the campaign to stop this waste dump.”

“The locals don’t want it and the Northern Territory government does not want it. Traditional owners visited the parliament and Dianne Stokes wept here in this very place telling the story of her country,” said Ludlam.

Senior aboriginal traditional owners from the region are taking action in federal court to stop the unpopular dump and a growing number of indigenous, public health, environment and faith groups, trade unions and the Northern Territory government all oppose the waste dump plan.

“There is a Federal Court case currently unresolved as to the status of this land,” said Ludlam, “yet the government pushes on – led by an energy and resources minister obsessed with the nuclear industry. This legislation does not just represent a problem for Muckaty – it places enormous and virtually unchecked power in the hands of one minister.”

Aboriginal leaders and their supporters on a march to Perth to publicize their opposition to the nuclear waste dump planned for Muckaty, August 24, 2011 (Photo by Footprints for Peace)

The Greens have pushed for the creation of a commission of experts to determine how best to deal with radioactive waste in Australia, rather than concentrating the decision-making power in the hands of one minister.

The Greens fought the bill for two years, and secured an amendment to ensure no international nuclear waste is stored in Australia.

“Under our amendment no nuclear waste will be imported to Australia,” said Ludlam. “Given some members of Parliament were actually proposing to advocate renting out space in Australia for the world’s high-level radioactive waste, this is the only useful innovation in a rotten bill.”

Speaking on behalf of the country’s largest environmental group, the Australian Conservation Foundation, nuclear free campaigner Dave Sweeney said, “Radioactive waste lasts a lot longer than any politician, so we need to get its management right.”

Dave Sweeney at Muckaty, March 30, 2010 (Photo by Australian Conservation Foundation)

Sweeney said the legislation “attempts to manage Australia’s highest level radioactive waste by dumping it on some of the country’s most disadvantaged people in the Muckaty region, 120 kilometers north of Tennant Creek.”

“In passing this legislation the Parliament has jettisoned international standards and responsibility,” Sweeney said. “Dumping nuclear waste on contested Aboriginal land is not responsible, credible or acceptable in the 21st century.”

“The Muckaty plan is most definitely a bad deal, but it is certainly not a done deal and the fight, like the waste, will remain hot for a long time yet,” said Sweeney.

The Beyond Nuclear Initiative said the radioactive waste management legislation passed by the Senate is “deeply flawed” and will not slow down its campaign against the waste dump.

Landscape at Muckaty, Northern Territory (Photo credit unknown)

But Ferguson points out that the legislation requires a site to be volunteered by the landowners before being subject to regulatory assessment. A facility can not be automatically imposed on a community in any state or territory. Affected landowners and communities must be consulted, and the selected site will go through full environmental, heritage and other approvals processes.

The bill provides two nomination processes: a Land Council to volunteer aboriginal land on behalf of traditional owners, and a nationwide volunteer site selection process.

The legislation recognizes that Ngapa land on Muckaty Station was volunteered by its owners and nominated by the Northern Land Council in 2007, Ferguson said.

In fact, one group of traditional owners volunteered the land, but that move is being contested in federal court by other traditional owners from the area.

Ferguson said the government will not act on this site until this case is resolved by the court.

Lawyer George Newhouse, representing the traditional owners, says the nomination of Muckaty as a proposed site is void.

Newhouse told the ABC when the case was filed in July 2010, “It is void because proper process wasn’t followed and the traditional owners for that site were not consulted and did not agree.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.