Radioactive waste and the nuclear war on Australia's Aboriginal people
From 1998‒2004, the Australian federal government used thuggish, racist tactics in a failed attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in South Australia. The government's subsequent attempt to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory was even more thuggish and even more racist. But that also failed. Now the Australian government has embarked on its third attempt to establish a nuclear waste dump and it has decided to once again try to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA despite clear opposition from Traditional Owners.
The latest proposal is for a dump in the spectacular Flinders Ranges, 400 km north of Adelaide in SA, on the land of the Adnyamathanha Aboriginal Traditional Owners.
The proposed dump site is adjacent to the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).1 "The IPA is right on the fence ‒ there's a waterhole that is shared by both properties," says Yappala Station resident and Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Regina McKenzie. The waterhole ‒ a traditional women's site and healing place ‒ is one of many archeological and culturally significant sites in the area that Traditional Owners have registered with the SA government over the past six years.
Two Adnyamathanha associations ‒ Viliwarinha Aboriginal Corporation and the Arnggumthanhna Camp Law Mob ‒ wrote in November 2015 statement: "We don't want a nuclear waste dump here on our country and worry that if the waste comes here it will harm our environment and muda (our lore, our creation, our everything). We call on the federal government to withdraw the nomination of the site and to show more respect in future."2
Regina McKenzie said on ABC television: "Almost every waste dump is near an Aboriginal community. It's like, yeah, they're only a bunch of blacks, they're only a bunch of Abos, so we'll put it there. Don't you think that's a little bit confronting for us when it happens to us all the time? Can't they just leave my people alone?"3
Dumping on South Australia, 1998‒2004
This isn't the first time that Aboriginal people in SA have faced the imposition of a nuclear waste dump. In 1998, the federal government announced its intention to build a nuclear waste dump near the rocket and missile testing range at Woomera.
In 2003, the federal government used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native Title rights and interests were extinguished with the stroke of a pen.4 This took place with no forewarning and no consultation with Aboriginal people.
Leading the battle against the dump were the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women from northern SA.5 Many of the Kungkas personally suffered the impacts of the British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s.
The Kungkas continued to implore the federal government to 'get their ears out of their pockets', and after six years the government did just that. In the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, with the dump issue biting politically, and following a Federal Court ruling that the government had illegally used urgency provisions in the Lands Acquisition Act, the government decided to cut its losses and abandon the dump plan.
The debate over nuclear waste dumping in SA overlapped with a controversy over a botched clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site in the same state. The federal government's clean-up of Maralinga in the late 1990s was done on the cheap and many tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology.6 Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the clean-up: "What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land."7
Radioactive ransom in the Northern Territory
From 2006 to 2014, successive federal governments attempted to establish a national nuclear waste dump at Muckaty, 110 km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. A toxic trade-off of basic services for a radioactive waste dump was part of the story from the start.
The nomination of the Muckaty site was made with the promise of $12 million compensation package comprising roads, houses and scholarships. Muckaty Traditional Owner Kylie Sambo objected to this radioactive ransom: "I think that is a very, very stupid idea for us to sell our land to get better education and scholarships. As an Australian we should be already entitled to that."
While a small group of Aboriginal Traditional Owners supported the dump, a large majority were opposed8 and some initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site by the federal government and the Northern Land Council (NLC).9
The conservative Coalition federal government passed legislation − the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act10 − overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act, undermining the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allowing the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent.
The Australian Labor Party voted against the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, with Labor parliamentarians describing it as "extreme", "arrogant", "draconian", "sorry", "sordid", and "profoundly shameful". At its 2007 national conference, Labor voted unanimously to repeal the legislation.
Yet after the 2007 election, the Labor government passed legislation − the National Radioactive Waste Management Act (NRWMA)11 − which was almost as draconian and still permitted the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent (to be precise, the nomination of a site was not invalidated by a failure to consult or secure consent).12
Radioactive racism in Australia is bipartisan − both Labor and the conservative Liberal/National Coalition voted in support of the NRWMA. Shamefully, the NLC supported legislation disempowering the people it is meant to represent.
The Federal Court trial finally began in June 2014. After two weeks of evidence, the NLC gave up and agreed to withdraw the nomination of Muckaty.13 Victory for the Muckaty mob! The announcement came just days before the NLC and government officials were due to take the stand to face cross-examination. As a result of their surrender, they did not have to face cross-examination in relation to numerous serious accusations raised in the first two weeks of the trial, including claims that the NLC rewrote an anthropologists' report.14
South Australia as the world's high-level nuclear waste dump
Now Aboriginal people in SA face another grave threat: a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste for storage and disposal as a commercial venture. The plan is being driven by the SA government, which last year established a Royal Commission to provide a fig-leaf of independent supporting advice.15 The Royal Commissioner was (and is) a gullible nuclear advocate and the majority of the members of the 'Independent Advisory Committee' were strident nuclear advocates.16
The plan to turn SA into the world's nuclear waste dump has been met with near-unanimous opposition from Aboriginal people.17 The Aboriginal Congress of SA, comprising people from many Aboriginal groups across the state, endorsed the following resolution at an August 2015 meeting:18
"We, as native title representatives of lands and waters of South Australia, stand firmly in opposition to nuclear developments on our country, including all plans to expand uranium mining, and implement nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our land. ... Many of us suffer to this day the devastating effects of the nuclear industry and continue to be subject to it through extensive uranium mining on our lands and country that has been contaminated. We view any further expansion of industry as an imposition on our country, our people, our environment, our culture and our history. We also view it as a blatant disregard for our rights under various legislative instruments, including the founding principles of this state."
Self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists
Australia's self-styled 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' – academic Barry Brook, uranium and nuclear industry consultant Ben Heard, and one or two others – have never once voiced concern about attempts to impose nuclear waste dumps on unwilling Aboriginal communities. Their silence suggests they couldn't care less about the racism of the industry they so stridently support.
Silence from Brook and Heard when the federal government was passing laws allowing the imposition of a national nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory without consultation or consent from Traditional Owners. Worse still, echoing comments19 from the right-wing Liberal Party, Brook and Heard said the Muckaty site in the Northern Territory was in the "middle of nowhere".20 From their perspective, perhaps, but for Muckaty Traditional Owners the site is in the middle of their homelands.
Heard's comments about the current proposed dump site on Adnyamathanha land in the Flinders Ranges of SA have been just as offensive. He claims there are "no known cultural heritage issues on the site".21 Try telling that to the Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners who live on Yappala Station, in the Indigenous Protected Area right next to the dump site. So where did Heard get this idea that there are "no known cultural heritage issues on the site"? Not from visiting the site, or speaking to the Traditional Owners. He's just parroting the federal government's racist lies.
Brook and Heard are also offering up the state of SA for an international high-level nuclear waste dump as if it was their personal property.22 No mention of Aboriginal Traditional Owners or their fierce opposition to such proposals.17
The intersection between nuclear waste and radioactive racism isn't unique to Australia, of course. In the U.S., for example, a 2010 article in Scientific American noted: "Native tribes across the American West have been and continue to be subjected to significant amounts of radioactive and otherwise hazardous waste as a result of living near nuclear test sites, uranium mines, power plants and toxic waste dumps."23
More bluntly, indigenous activist Winona LaDuke sums up the problem: "The greatest minds in the nuclear establishment have been searching for an answer to the radioactive waste problem for fifty years, and they've finally got one: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation".24
The racism associated with nuclear waste dumping in the U.S. is as plain as the nose on James Hansen's face ‒ but he hasn't said a word about it. Nor has the Breakthrough Institute or any of the other self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists in the U.S.
- Join the Facebook group: Fight to Stop Nuclear Waste in the Flinders Ranges, www.facebook.com/groups/941313402573199
- To donate to Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners to support their fight against the federal government, visit www.gofundme.com/28b7dmsk
- The Aboriginal-led Australian Nuclear Free Alliance is asking organisations around the world to endorse a short statement calling on nuclear nations not to dump their nuclear waste in Australia: www.anfa.org.au/sign-the-declaration
- Sign the 'No Dump Alliance' statement opposing international high-level nuclear waste dumping in Australia: www.nodumpalliance.org.au
3. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 26 May 2016, 'Indigenous owners appeal to Minister's 'human side' to shelve proposed nuclear waste site', www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2015/s4470183.htm
4. Senator Nick Minchin, Minister for Finance and Administration, Media Release, July 7, 2003
7. ABC Radio, August 2002. A number of Parkinson's papers and videos are posted at www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/britbombs/clean-up.
9. ABC, 13 March 2012, 'NT step closer to nuclear waste dump', www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3452671.htm
Elizabeth O'Shea, 19 June 2014, 'Muckaty nuclear dump defeat is a huge victory for Aboriginal Australia', www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/19/muckaty-nuclear-dump-defea...
14. Jane Lee, 4 June 2014, 'Indigenous land owners accuse lawyer of manipulating nuclear waste storage report', www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/indigenous-land-owners...
16. Jim Green and Philip White, Dec 2015, 'A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission', www.foe.org.au/rc-critique
18. Aboriginal Congress of South Australia, 2015, Submission to Royal Commission, http://nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/app/uploads/2016/03/Native-Title-Representati...
19. Erin Stewart, 31 May 2012, 'A community maintains its spirit in confronting ignorance', www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/a-community-maintains-its-spirit-in-c...
20. Ben Heard and Barry Brook, 25 June 2014, 'Nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush ', https://theconversation.com/nuclear-waste-is-safe-to-store-in-our-suburb...
21. Ben Heard, 12 May 2016, 'Location, location, location: why South Australia could take the world's nuclear waste', https://theconversation.com/location-location-location-why-south-austral...
22. Ben Heard and Barry W. Brook, 10 Feb 2015, 'Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities', http://theconversation.com/royal-commission-into-nuclear-will-open-a-wor...
24. 25 May 2005, 'Utah tribe cleared for decision on nuclear waste', www.indianz.com/News/2005/008380.asp
Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016