Labor close to fission over nuclear waste dump
Few would dispute that Australia is in urgent need of a radioactive waste management facility. Over 50 years, some 4000 cubic metres of accumulated radioactive waste from hospitals and medical research facilities has stored up in hundreds lock-up sheds around the country. It is clearly an inadequate situation.
To make matters more pressing, Australia has an obligation to take back nuclear fuel from Sydney’s Lucas Heights research reactor, which was sent to Scotland and France for reprocessing and is due to return to Australia in 2015-16.
It makes sense to secure radioactive waste in one central, safe location. But because no one wants the thing in their backyard, the Northern Territory – which lacks the powers states have to fight off the federal government – is going to get it.
The deal, first struck by the Howard Government, and now being honoured by Labor, is to turn land on the Aboriginal-owned Muckaty station, 120km north of Tennant Creek, into a nuclear waste dump.
When in Opposition, Labor promised to repeal the legislation which would allow for the creation of a radioactive waste facility at Muckaty. In one of the most plainly insincere examples of legislative sleight of hand ever seen in this country, Labor did this week repeal the legislation - and reinstated legislation which gives an almost identical outcome.
All this for the sake of appearing to keep a promise.
This is not a story about the rights and wrongs of locating the waste facility in the Northern Territory. It is a catalogue of the deceit by politicians, on both sides, on this one issue. And it is a particularly hard story to sell. After all, unless you live in the Territory, the deceit has served you well: there will be no nuclear waste dump in your state.
Or perhaps that should be corrected to say that your state is unlikely to get the dump. The bill requires the government to make all efforts to ensure Muckaty proceeds. If for any reason it fails (and there are no signs of any wavering on behalf of Aborigines), Northern Territory Aborigines would be asked to volunteer another site.
If none was forthcoming, thereafter would kick in one of the most fiendish clauses devised by federal a legislature since John Howard declared Australia’s islands were not part of Australia for the sake of repelling unauthorised boat arrivals.
Federal Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, has said – should they fail to get a site on Territory Aboriginal land – they will call upon private property owners across Australia to volunteer their land for the dump. This would mean a grazier from NSW could offer his land. And there would be nothing any state government could do to prevent them building a site on private property right next to Grafton, Bundaberg, Swan Hill, Clare Valley, Launceston, or Toodyay.
The explanatory memorandum of Ferguson’s National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 states: “Clause 10 allows the Commonwealth, a Commonwealth entity, a Commonwealth contractor and an employee or agent of any of these persons to do anything in a State or Territory necessary for or incidental to the purposes of selecting a site on which to construct and operate a facility.”
It seems far-fetched that Ferguson would propose building a waste dump based on the nomination of one land owner, rather than a community or indeed a state government. But he’s done it. You can imagine what might happen: Ferguson would look through the list of people who had volunteered their land and settle on a site in, say, Western Australia, where there’s a Liberal Government. Or maybe in NSW if it goes Liberal.
In other words, if you live anywhere other than the Northern Territory, you’d better pray Territory Aborigines come through.
The story of the nuclear waste dump heading north began in 2003, when – based on best scientific advice – it was decided to locate the repository at Woomera, in South Australia. The South Australians objected and in June 2004 the Federal Court ruled that the Commonwealth’s plans to acquire land for the repository were unlawful.
The Howard Government, facing the 2004 election and sensing widespread discontent on the dump issue, promised not to locate it on mainland Australia. Environment Minister Ian Campbell, buying time for his government, made an absurd promise to locate the dump offshore, on one of our islands. Islands are susceptible to weather and inundation and they tend to be home to discrete colonies of unique animals. It was never going to happen.
Once re-elected, the government immediately reneged on the offshore plan and began sniffing around the mainland for a site.
By 2005, Brendan Nelson, then Minister for Education, Science and Training, said he would investigate potential sites on Defence land in remote parts of the Territory.
Bob Hawke put the accelerator on the issue, and upset a lot of true believers, by arguing that Australia should become home to a commercial repository for the world’s nuclear waste. He said Australia was geologically safe and, besides, we could use the money. The Americans would be particularly interested – they have faced their own problems building a national repository, coming up against community discontent, land tenure obstacles and cross-border transport issues.
The only problem with Hawke’s vision, made from the comfort of his semi-retirement, was that no federal government would ever dare trying to sell such a proposal to a country which still can’t quite get its head around uranium mining, let alone building nuclear power stations.
The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005 was introduced in October that year, identifying the three Northern Territory Defence sites as possible locations. The legislation dealt only with Australian low-level and long-life intermediate radioactive waste (Australia, having no nuclear reactors, has no high-level waste). It was clear we were not to become the world’s nuclear waste dump.
But we still needed a dump; and it would be located in the Northern Territory, that unfledged half-state which has long been a laboratory for Commonwealth policy experiments. The Northern Territory Labor Government was strongly opposed to having a dump forced upon it, and was joined in this by central Australian Aboriginal groups. But then NT Labor found it had an unexpected enemy within.
The Darwin-headquartered Northern Land Council, representing all traditional Aboriginal land owners across the Top End and right down to Tennant Creek, came up with an ingenious notion: what if the dump was on Aboriginal land?
Scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation were invited to address the full council of the NLC. The audience was surprisingly attentive. These people knew the insides of hospital better than most and understood the scientists when they talked about being injected with radioactive isotopes or being x-rayed. They were assured the waste would mostly be medical.
Traditional-owner groups began to entertain the dump notion. A group of traditional owners from Muckaty station put up their hands. (Some say the NLC put them up for them, but there is no evidence of this.)
For Aborigines, the leap in volunteering 225ha of their land for a dump was not as vast as some might imagine. The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu is, after all, on Aboriginal land. But the fact is these people from Muckaty, known as the Ngapa group, would never have offered their land in exchange for money if the Territory and federal Governments had bothered to supply their basic needs. But they hadn’t.
The Ngapa group, and the NLC, had in one surprising move asked Australia to reassess their perception of who Aborigines really were: not nihilists clinging to fragments of the past, but engineers of a brash new future. They could not wait for governments to fix their problems and had to take creative and difficult decisions to survive.
Environmentalists, central Australian Aborigines, Labor and small-town residents were deeply disturbed; but the Howard Government was elated that Aborigines, with whom they’d had so much trouble engaging, would come to them with such an unexpected offer.
In 2007, Howard altered the waste management bill to say that a land council could nominate land for a radioactive facility. Meanwhile, there were deep ructions around Tennant Creek about whether the Ngapa group were the true speakers for the land in question. Those ructions continue to this day, but a deal was signed which would give the Ngapa $12m in staggered payments for roads, housing and scholarships.
It doesn’t seem like much money, but the price was based on (generous) estimates of what land in that area might be worth if it was freehold. Which is not much. The Ngapa land is hard, dry country, rocky and barren, too tough in places for cattle but where important songlines traverse.
Labor, in Opposition, was disgusted. There was a joint media release from Senator Kim Carr, Peter Garrett, Warren Snowdon and Senator Trish Crossin. It began: “The next chapter has opened in the Howard Government’s nuclear waste dump fiasco, with the Government today accepting a highly controversial site nomination at the Northern Territory’s Muckaty station, before scientific testing of the area.”
The Opposition politicians said they were “profoundly disappointed” by the amended legislation. They said traditional owners had been stripped of their rights. They said science and community consultation should determine the location of the dump, not bullying by the Howard government.
It had long been Labor policy to build a dump somewhere but, as these politicians well knew, the argument was no longer about science. Scientists had already said the dump should be in Woomera. And the idea of community consultation on a dump was laughable. No community would ever agree to it – except a desperate one, like the Ngapa.
Labor promised to repeal the legislation, ostensibly to save the hides of Northern Territory federal politicians as they headed into a federal election but also, one suspects because Garrett, then Opposition environment spokesman, genuinely believed the Ngapa group had been bribed into offering their land for the dump.
After taking power in 2007, Labor’s Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, continued to say it would repeal the legislation, and that dump was needed. But that’s all he would say. His office became hostile to inquiries from the Northern Territory media. He deeply frustrated Territory citizens on his refusal to give any insight whatsoever into his thoughts on whether the dump would still be located at Muckaty.
There was no public consultation at all; no discussion - just an announcement this week that it would happen. No Labor minister would have ever dared treat the citizens of any other state in this way.
Ferguson’s bill, introduced to parliament on Wednesday does as Labor promised: it repeals Howard’s bill. And then it spins on its heel and locates the dump squarely back in the lap of the Northern Territory.
Questioned on ABC radio in Darwin this week, Ferguson said he had kept his promise of repealing the Act. Asked where the dump would be located, he continued to spin:
“It will be based on a proper process. It includes putting back in place normal procedural requirements going to scientific assessment. The operation of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act. And also, proper regard for the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act.”
Interviewer: Okay. So my question…
Ferguson: That means…
Interviewer: The question we’re trying to understand is where - what site will you be choosing or are you still working on that at this stage?
Ferguson: Well, firstly, the three (Defence) sites selected by the Howard Government will not be pursued, despite the fact that, scientifically, they actually stack up. We will proceed, firstly with the only voluntary site that we have, and that goes to the Ngapa land with respect to the Muckaty Station. That is a volunteer nomination. And we’re required, as an act of good faith and good spirit in accordance with the nomination deed to actually pursue that process. But I also have a capacity - if I assess that is not a proper site, then open up to a national voluntary site nomination process.”
Ferguson says that because the Howard Government signed a $12m contract with the Ngapa group, his government cannot now back out of it. And with spent fuel rods soon to return from Europe, the time is not available for Ferguson to rip up the Ngapa agreement. The dump has to be built and unless the unlikely happens and the deal collapses, it will be built at Muckaty.
It has been an exasperating ride with Ferguson. He has shown contempt for the Northern Territory people and now, as the barking-mad private land owner clause attests, contempt for all Australians. But least we now know it is over (even though he continues his bewildering double-speak, this week maintaining there was “no pre-determined site outcome”).
The dump site is perfectly located, transport-wise, lying an easy drive between the Stuart Highway and the Adelaide-Darwin railway line. One day soon, men in white suits will be routinely reenacting scenes from Repo Man as part of their daily grind. Reaction in Tennant Creek is mixed. Some see the dump killing their town. Others see the New Vegas.
The dump will be feature above-ground concrete bunkers to store the medical waste and a likely underground trench-bunker – with five-metre-thick concrete walls – for the reprocessed fuel rods.
All this leaves Northern Territory’s Labor Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, in a nasty bind. His only hope is that states might unite to forbid the transportation of radioactive waste across their land on the way to the Territory. But they’re going to be shovelling the stuff onto trucks and trains as fast as they can.
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