Michels Warren and Nuclear Waste Dumping in SA

A case study of a PR company spinning for the nuclear industry (1999-2004).

Michels Warren PRopaganda


June 2004 marks the fifth anniversary of PR company Michel Warren’s involvement in the federal government’s plan to establish a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia. A great deal of information is now available about the role of Michels Warren in this controversy thanks to documents released under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation.

Parts of the FoI material were discussed in a media release from the SA environment minister John Hill on May 5, 2004 (included below), but a closer reading of the FoI documents reveals much else of interest - including proof that federal science minister Peter McGauran has misled the Parliament.

Misleading statements by the federal government

While this paper focusses on the role of Michels Warren, it should be noted that the FoI material reveals evidence of the federal government misleading the Parliament and the public.

The FoI material reveals that the dump could be 25 times larger than the government has ever publicly acknowledged. A February 10, 2000 email from a senior government official, Rosemary Marcon, says that the “actual disposal area is a 500mx500m” (250,000 square metres) and she repeats that statement in a March 22, 2000 email. Yet public statements from the government refer to a 100mx100m disposal area - 10,000 square metres (e.g. Environmental Impact Statement, p.11.) Had the reference to a much larger dump been made once, and/or had it been made by a junior official, it might be passed over as an error. But the statement is made twice, and it is made by a senior government official.

In response to a Question on Notice, federal science minister Peter McGauran asserted unequivocally that departmental officers had not developed a list of ‘experts’ to make public comments in support of the proposed nuclear waste dump. (Senate Hansard, October 27, 2003, p.16471, Question No. 2134, full text copied below.) However, the FoI material makes it clear that such a list was indeed developed. A July 6, 2000 email from Caroline Perkins, a senior government official, lists four “technical experts ... who have agreed to assisting us in general”, though their names are blanked out. McGauran’s unequivocal assertion that departmental officers had not developed a list of ‘experts’ to comment on the dump was clearly false - and he was clearly misleading the Parliament and the public.

A 2002 government document released under FoI legislation (and previously leaked), titled “Communication Strategy for the National Radioactive Waste Repository Project”, states that: “An Adelaide based communications consultant, Michels Warren, has been subcontracted ... to assist with the development, implementation and refinement of this strategy which has entailed the following: ... enlistment of a scientific liaison officer and other willing experts”.

A 2003 document written by Michels Warren discusses plans to organise eminent Australians and members of South Australian medical and science community to participate in the ‘communications’ program. Michels Warren states: “This would involve a concerted program of letters to the editor of The Advertiser and responding and participating on talk radio programs.”

The government and Michels Warren seem to have struggled to find “willing experts”. For example, Mike Duggan from Michels Warren said in a July 6, 2000 email that it would be a “great idea” to gather experts for a media conference, “if possible at one of the universities or hospitals where waste is held”, in support of the dump - but no such media conference eventuated.

Those ‘experts’ that have been enlisted have been error-prone. For example, the FoI material contains a summary of a May 2000 radio interview with Dr Leon Mitchell of Flinders University, who falsely claimed the dump would be lined with an impermeable layer to isolate it from the underlying earth (the dump trenches will be unlined). Mitchells also said the dump was for things such as watch dials not nuclear power plants and reactors. In fact, dismantled nuclear reactor components will be sent to the dump (if it proceeds), and that reactor waste will amount to up to 5,000 cubic metres, which is greater than the entire existing stockpile of 3,700 cubic metres of waste destined for the dump. Michels Warren was involved in organising radio interviews with Mitchell, the FoI material reveals. Other enlisted ‘experts’ have falsely claimed that the dump is only for low-level waste, and one ‘expert’ even claimed that the waste would not be buried!

McGauran misled Parliament on another point. He asserted unequivocally in a response to a Question on Notice that no ‘experts’ were provided with media training by consultants to the department. The FoI material reveals that McGauran’s claim was false. On July 12, 2000, Michels Warren charged the government $240 to provide a written briefing to one of the enlisted ‘experts’, Dr. Gerald Laurence, in preparation for media interviews. On July 7, 2000, Michels Warren briefed another enlisted ‘expert’, Dr. John Patterson, for a radio interview. Then on July 12-13, 2000, Michels Warren billed the federal government $800 for media training with the government’s scientific liaison officer on the dump project, Dr. Keith Lokan.

Why Michels Warren would be conducting briefings about the dump is anyone’s guess. The FoI material is replete with factual errors. For example, a draft letter to a newspaper, states: “Unequivocally, it [the dump] will only ever contain low-level waste.” Yet the dump will take both low- and intermediate-level waste, including (according to the EIS, pp.45-46) long-lived intermediate-level waste. The draft letter also states that “Australia produces no high-level waste ...” Yet the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, operator of the reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, acknowledges that its spent nuclear fuel meets the heat and radiological criteria for classification as high-level waste, and the New South Wales Environment Protection Agency has also acknowledged that the Lucas Heights reactor generates high-level waste.

The context for the “willing experts” strategy is made clear in the FoI documents. Market research by the McGregor Tan company revealed: “A knee-jerk negative reaction to sighting the Commonwealth crest - it is interpreted as the symbol accompanying government propaganda.” The market research also revealed: “Cynical responses to government promises and attempts at reassurance.” And McGregor Tan found that: “Ministers’ statements are rarely believed, regardless of the individual Minister’s honourable intentions.”

Michels Warren’s nuclear dump PRopaganda

Michels Warren has been involved in the following campaigns (among others): a controversy over cadmium at West Lakes, Bridgestone tyres, bacteria in fast food, SA Water contamination, ETSA Utilities, the SA Freemasons, Telstra, WMC Ltd., and campaigns on behalf of the corporate owners of the Beverley and Honeymoon uranium mines in South Australia.

Michels Warren has been involved in the nuclear dump campaign since June 1999. Its involvement has consisted of several discrete contracts rather than an ongoing involvement. A July 8, 1999 letter from Stephen Middleton from Michels Warren states that the company is “delighted to be part of the project” and has “hit the ground running” since it started on the project in the previous month. Michels Warren has maintained its enthusiasm. A 2003 document - a tender seeking involvement in the federal government’s covert plan to seize control of land for the dump site - states that: “We are available 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to provide our support to the Minister and this project.”

A September 27, 2000 email written by Stephen Middleton from Michels Warren talks about the need to “soften up the community” and “sell” the repository: “We will lose ground once again unless we can soften up the community on the need for the repository and the reasons why SA has been identified as the best location. The prospect of the Minister announcing the preferred site before we can get to the community with something that explains what it all means makes my head spin. The wider research into issues such as Lucas Heights, uranium mining, the nuclear fuel cycle etc etc can be tackled as a separate issue. It should not hold up anything we are doing in terms of selling the repository to South Australians. The rest of the country probably doesn’t care less about the repository, but it is a big issue in SA. Further delays could be potentially disastrous.”

Why on earth is a South Australian company willingly involving itself in the federal government’s nuclear dump plans? After all, Michels Warren itself acknowledges that the dump is an unwanted imposition on SA. A 2003 Michels Warren document released under FoI legislation states:

“The National Repository could never be sold as “good news” to South Australians. There are few, if any, tangible benefits such as jobs, investment or improved infrastructure. Its merits to South Australians, at the most, are intangible and the range and complexity of issues make them difficult to communicate.”

So why is Michels Warren dumping on its home state? Money, of course. The federal government has acknowledged making the following payments to Michels Warren (in response to a Question on Notice from Senator Bob Brown - copied in full below):

* $359,000 in financial years 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03 (Senate Hansard, October 27, 2003, p.16471 - copied in full below).

* in 2003, Michels Warren and the federal government signed a $107,000 contract for work connected to the government’s compulsory seizure of land for the dump. At least $26,000 of that amount was paid (and quite possibly the entire $107,000).

* undisclosed payments to Michels Warren in 1999-2000.

The 1999-2000 payments amount to at least $102,000 up to May 31, 2000, according to a document included in the FoI material (Progress Payment Certificate, Number 12, August 24, 2000).

So in total, Michels Warren has been paid at least $487,000 to dump on SA ... and possibly much more.

Michels Warren staff have been paid at rates up to $192.50 per hour (GST inclusive) for their work on the nuclear dump campaign.

The detailed breakdowns of payments to Michels Warren raise further concerns about whether tax-payers are getting value for money. For example:

* $160 to draft a letter to editor of Mt Barker Times

* $894 for Michels Warren employees to attend a public meeting organised by the Australian Conservation Foundation and for preparatory and debriefing work surrounding the meeting (a full house at the Adelaide Town Hall, with approximately 1000 people attending).

* $225 to draft a letter to a constituent.

* $240 to schedule talk-back radio interviews.

Michels Warren is not the only company in receipt of government funding for PR and research in relation to the nuclear waste dump, e.g.

* $61,369 paid to Worthington Di Marzio in 2003 for market research. (Senate Hansard, October 29, 2003, pp.16681-2, Question No. 2139.)

* $72,000 paid to Hill & Knowlton in 2002-03. (Senate Hansard, October 27, 2003, p.16471, Question No. 2136.) Hill & Knowlton is well known for its involvement in the imaginative ‘babies in the incubator’ fiasco in Iraq in 1990-91, and for its work with tobacco companies, Enron, etc.

Monitoring protesters

An August 16, 2000 “high priority” email reveals that Caroline Perkins, a senior official in the Department of Industry, Science and Resources - at that time under the direction of Senator Nick Minchin - was asked to compile information on protesters. "[T[he minister wants a short biography of our main opponents in the Ivy campaign by about 11am our time (pre-rally)”, the email said. The rest of the email is blacked out under FoI provisions. The email refers to a Michels Warren employee - no doubt Michels Warren helped compile the biographies.

In 1999 Michels Warren was working hard “obviating the impact of campaigns by opponents and the ‘I’m With Ivy Campaign’ run by Ch 7.”

The Michels Warren worksheet for February 2000 includes the following: “Liaise investigator re green planning. Liaise R Yeeles [from WMC Ltd.] re updated intelligence.” Was Michels Warren employing a private investigator as that comment suggests?

And on March 28, 2000, $150 for activities concerned with a “Protest at South Australian Parliament”, and $160 four days earlier to “Liaise WMC, Police and media re weekend protests.”

And in April 2000: “check re new protest activities”, “liaise SA Police re same”, “internet search re protests”, and “update intelligence re OHMS Not Boms protest group”.

In March 2000, Rosemary Marcon, a government official, asked Michels Warren for the details of  an “activist website which we should monitor”. She was advised by Michels Warren that the site is <www.lockon.org>. Evidently that piece of ‘intelligence’ was off-beam - the website advertises streaming live shows from nude male dancers in Montreal!

The FoI documentation is frequently contemptuous of opponents of the planned nuclear waste dump (about 80% of the South Australian population). The option of displaying the Environmental Impact Statement in the Conservation Centre of South Australia is treated as a joke. Opponents of the dump are described as “anti-nuclear anarchists”. Michels Warren co-founder Daryl Warren refers in a July 14, 2003 email to protests and “demons”. On July 10, 2003, Warren stated that: “It has become apparent during the week that people seem to have lost the plot on the repository as it becomes embroiled in a political fight.”

In response to an invitation to the federal science minister to attend a conference at Adelaide University in March 2000, Michel’s Warren employee Stephen Middleton recommends against attending the conference. Middleton wrote: “The better option is to:

(i) dismiss the gathering as nothing more than a stunt

(ii) attempt to discredit it with counter media measures before, during and after.”

Doctoring photos

The FoI material suggests that photographs have been doctored to suit the government’s ends. A February 14, 2000 email from a senior government official to Michels Warren’s graphic designer refers to a photo “with the sandhills removed.” The rationale was explained in a December 13, 1999 email by the same government official: “Dunes are a sensitive area with respect to Aboriginal Heritage.”

The February, 2000 email also asked: “Can the horizon be straightened up as well.”

Scare campaign

A recurring theme in the exchanges between the federal government and Michels Warren is the attempt to justify the dump by mounting a scare-campaign in relation to existing storage facilities. Yet they get their lines muddled up. One document released under FoI includes that statement that “none” of the waste “is stored satisfactorily” in existing stores. That is in direct contradiction to a June 2000 document document under Senator Nick Minchin’s name (“Radioactive waste: the eight biggest myths”), which states: “The safety of the storage of radioactive waste is proven by the fact that there are fifty stores around Australia housing radioactive waste and there has never been an accident exposing a person to unsafe levels of radiation.”

And in a May 17, 2000 media release, Minchin said: "South Australians have nothing to fear from radioactive waste. The fact is that waste is already stored in downtown Adelaide in complete safety." Anyone claiming otherwise was merely trying to "whip up anti-radioactive waste hysteria", Minchin claimed. So by his logic, Michels Warren and the federal government itself are guilty of trying to whip up hysteria.