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SA’s Radioactive Royal Commission

There are currently two proposals in Australia for construction of radioactive waste facilities, one for national and one for international waste, operating under separate but parallel processes.

The national facility is proposed for management of domestically produced low and intermediate level waste. The most dangerous of this waste arises from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods that were used in the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor near Sydney. For twenty years there has been a search for a site – the shortlisted areas have always been remote and have always been contested.

A site proposed in SA in 1998 was challenged and finally defeated in 2004 by the ‘Irati Wanti’ campaign, a phrase meaning ‘The poison, leave it’. The NT was then targeted- three Department of Defense sites and one that was nominated by the Northern Land Council against the express wishes of Traditional Owners. This was a place called Manuwangku, or Muckaty, and it was also defeated in June 2014 after an eight-year campaign.

The only area currently under assessment is on Wallerberdina Station on Adnyamathanha Land in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. It is located next to Yappala Indigenous Protected Area, one of only 72 around the country, and has important freshwater springs and many thousands of artefacts on the site. Traditional Owners have spent years documenting the cultural storylines that run right through the nominated site and are deeply disturbed by the proposal.

Clearly we need to address management of existing waste. But this important issue cannot be resolved if the federal government continues trying to impose it on an unwilling remote community.

With small amounts of money being offered in exchange for hosting domestic nuclear waste, we cannot allow this to become the 20th century version of flour, sugar, tea and blankets.

SA Nuclear Royal Commission

An even more ominous cloud is currently overhead South Australia: the plan for an international nuclear waste importation and storage industry, being actively advanced through a Royal Commission. In November the SA Premier will announce how he intends to respond to recommendations that this leap of faith be made. This is not a proposal for a small or trial facility- it is a plan to host up to one third of the world’s high-level radioactive waste.

This is a forever decision that impacts the whole country now and many generations into the future.

Why consider international waste?

One of the major driving factors behind the establishment of the Royal Commission was the crisis in the South Australian economy and the loss of jobs through the manufacturing downturn.

There is however, no established market for trade in international nuclear waste, meaning that costs and income predicted in the report are based on extremely optimistic assumptions. This includes the assumption that Australia, a country with very little nuclear experience, will be able to do something that no other country has ever managed, at a much lower cost than experienced countries estimate.

The modelling also doesn’t include billions of dollars of extra costs like transport, shipping and insurance. Consultants who did the modelling acknowledge the project could cost double their estimates.

An emotive argument often used is that Australia has a ‘moral obligation’ to take back radioactive waste given that we have mined and exported uranium. However this does not consider the ethics of burdening many generations with the cost and risk of managing highly radioactive waste.

Uranium mining is only the first of many stages in the nuclear fuel chain that also involves enrichment, fuel production and ultimately use in nuclear power plants. Companies generating income throughout this process are very happy to take the profits from their activities, but always try to push the costs (financial, environmental and social) back on to the public.

If we accept the logic that we are ultimately responsible for the waste products associated with our exports, shouldn’t we apply it to all our export products, like copper or steel? And shouldn’t other countries be held similarly accountable for the waste produced from their exports?

From a social justice point of view, this proposal is an unacceptable double whammy for Traditional Owners, who have consistently opposed uranium being mined from their land and now also face prospects of the waste products being returned.

Another argument is that Australia should host waste because we are more politically and geologically stable than other places. High-level nuclear waste stays dangerous to humans for tens of thousands of years. To put that into context, the pyramids in Egypt were built around 4,500 years ago. Predicting levels of political stability over such a time period is ridiculous. And with the melting of ice sheets as a result of global warming likely to increase earthquakes and other seismic activity, geological stability is also becoming harder to predict.

Can a facility be ‘safe’?

In all the years since the Hiroshima bomb, not one country in the world has worked out how to store high-level nuclear waste safely for the length of time it remains dangerous to humans. The US spent over $10 billion and invested 20 years planning to store high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, then abandoned the plan due to community opposition.

Finland is building a domestic final disposal waste facility, but this will only start receiving used fuel next decade. Before we know whether the technology will even work, the Royal Commission proposes that South Australia import 20 times their planned volume.

The only real-life experience with a deep underground nuclear waste facility anywhere in the world is the intermediate-level Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico. In 2014 there was a fire closely followed by an unrelated rupture of one of the underground barrels, followed by failure of the filtration system. Workers were exposed to radiation and the WIPP will now be closed down for at least four years and the repair bill will be over $500 million.

Three low and intermediate level repositories in the USA have been closed because of environmental problems. Farmers in the Champagne region of France have taken legal action in relation to a leaking radioactive waste dump. In Asse, Germany, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over two decades.

Transport and waste stockpiling

NT Chief Minister Giles met with Premier Weatherill in May to discuss Darwin Port being used to receive international waste shipments destined for storage in SA. This could see many decades of radioactive transports through the Territory, where truck accidents and train derailments happen all too often.

The Royal Commission recommends we import high-level nuclear waste and place it in above ground storage for at least 17 years while a deep underground repository is built.

A grave concern is that the underground repository doesn’t eventuate. Toxic waste will be stockpiled above ground in Australia and we can’t give it back. What then?

Moving forward on radioactive waste management

We need to urgently slow down production of these intractable materials globally. Processes nationally or internationally looking for locations for radioactive waste repositories must begin to prioritise social considerations to find suitable areas for facilities.

The Royal Commission final report acknowledged that there is opposition from Traditional Owners across SA to expansion of the nuclear industry. Government campaigns to ‘recognise’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution are hollow until they recognise the injustices already suffered at the hands of this industry and recognise the staunch resistance to future nuclear projects.

How to support the campaign

In response to the Royal Commission a group of Traditional Owners, medical professionals, trade unions and other civil society groups formed the No Dump Alliance and have invited individuals and organisations to sign on to a ‘Statement of Concern’.

Yami Lester, Ambassador of the Alliance:

“In 1953, I was just ten years old when the bombs went off at Emu and Maralinga, I didn’t know anything about nuclear issues back then, none of us knew what was happening. I got sick, and went blind from the Totem 1 fallout from those tests, and lots of our people got sick and died also.

Now I’m 74 years old and I know about nuclear issues. Members from the APY, Maralinga-Tjarutja and Arabunna, Kokatha lands say we don’t want nuclear waste on our land. There are big concerns. And I worry because I know it is not safe for South Australia land and the people. Why does the Government keep bringing back nuclear issues when we know the problems last forever?”

It means a lot to me to be in this Alliance. I would like others to listen and join, become a member and fight together.”

Down The Radioactive Rabbit Hole: Questions Keep Mounting

* Article first published in New Matilda, May 12, 2016

Down The Radioactive Rabbit Hole: Questions Keep Mounting

Adnyamathanha Elders are “shattered” that of the six sites shortlisted by the Federal Government for a national nuclear waste dump, the one on Wallerberdina Station in the Barndioota region of South Australia, is now the only one pegged for further assessment.

Regina McKenzie, Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner and direct neighbour to the nominated site, said the community is devastated, “like somebody had rang us up and told us somebody had passed away”. The Australian Conservation Foundation, too, are calling the proposal “disturbingly familiar to past failed federal approaches.”

Image: Regina McKenzie at Hookina Creek (by Natalie Wasley)

The nominated site, leased as a pastoral property from the South Australian Government by  former Liberal Senator Greg Chapman, is located next door to Yappala Station, which was declared an Indigenous Protected Area by the Federal Government in 2014.

There are many thousands of Aboriginal artefacts registered in the area, including an ancient Aboriginal skull fragment. The Adnyamathanha people have been meticulously mapping and registering the storylines and sites. The landscape is stunning, with Hookina Creek on the property framed by the iconic Flinders Ranges. Wilpena Pound is around 30 kilometres away.

Minister Josh Frydenberg had accepted six site nominations out of the 28 that were originally put forward. Communities in each of the six areas – Barndioota included – formed action groups and began a process of building local awareness and conveying opposition to the government during a 120 day ‘consultation’ period prior to the Minister’s recent decision.

There was also an unprecedented display of solidarity between the affected communities, with social media discussions evolving into a joint lobbying trip to Canberra in early March 2016. When the shortlist was announced on Friday April 29, representatives from all of the groups released a joint statement reiterating support for their friends and colleagues at the named site.

Buried in Minister Frydenberg’s media release was a comment that “the government remains open to considering new expressions of interest for additional facility sites or locations”. With the dust and initial shock still settling for the South Australian mob, this sentence begins to stand out from the rest of the text.

If the government was so confident about achieving the ‘broad level of community support’ needed to progress discussions in the Barndioota region and obtain consent for any future waste facility, why would they be entertaining the acceptance of other nominations?

Communities shocked to find they were on the earlier list of six shortlisted sites were given 120 days to hear from Department representatives and discuss the proposals – and to build their local campaigns.

Parallel to this, an Independent Advisory Panel was meeting to compare and analyse the sites according to their ‘Multi-Site Criteria Analysis’. Any further nominations would surely need to be subject to at least the same level of discussion and scrutiny for this to be considered a fair process.

So has the nomination process recommenced? Will it be advertised again in the national papers, or is the government relying on people to take initiative and study the project website page calling for nominations even though the (very short) shortlist of one possible site has been announced?

How long will nominations remain open and how will communities find out that a site in their region might have been nominated?

And what does this mean for Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners and local residents who are on a knife-edge coming into this ‘Phase 2’ of the consultation process? How long will this process now drag on for them as the ‘preferred so far but maybe we can find something better’ location?

The mental health impacts for communities in nominated areas cannot be downplayed.

Residents in the Kimba region of South Australia spoke openly about how the nomination process had damaged and divided the community. Traditional Owners of Muckaty in the Northern Territory, whose spirited and sustained resistance defeated a long standing earlier federal dump plan in 2014, have constantly spoken of how stressful it was having the government target their land.

Young Warramungu and Warlmanpa woman Kylie Sambo reflected on this experience in a recent support message to the Adnyamathanha. “I know you will be deeply hurt. We were so confused and scared. People got sick with worry, some old people even passed away during our fight. I learned so much about how tricky and cruel the government can really be,” Sambo said.

For over twenty years now, a succession of Federal Government Ministers have tried the same divisive Decide-Announce-Defend tactics, hoping to steamroll a facility onto a site considered politically vulnerable and expendable.

Each time they have been challenged and beaten by remote Aboriginal communities organising locally and in alliance with civil society organisations, including national public health groups, environment groups and trade unions.

Radioactive waste management is a social justice and environmental issue. Traditional Owners living remotely across Australia have repeatedly refused to allow their country to be used as a sacrifice zone.

Any responsible approach needs to start with a commitment to stop the production of more waste and the phase out of the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. We need processes that will transcend election cycles in favour of respect for country and communities, both now and long into the future.

Until then, every attempt to dump the waste ‘out of site out of mind’ on unwilling communities will be met with fierce resistance.

Barndioota (SA) the only site to be assessed for national radioactive dump

Federal Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg has announced that Barndioota in the Flinders Ranges region of SA is the only site that will be further assessed to host the national radioactive waste facility. Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners are devastated to hear the news, with Elder Enice Marsh stating she is ‘shattered’ by the decision. Traditional Owner and neighbouring landholder Regina McKenzie said “”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).”

The Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association CEO Vince Coulthard said in a press release “This is our land, we have been here forever and we will always be here and we are totally opposed to this dump. ATLA is the main “key stakeholder” yet they have shown us no respect. This is in our sacred country with a very important spring just nearby. This is another example of cultural genocide. This cannot happen!”

Representatives from the other nominated communities have released a statement offering ongoing support to their friends near the Barndioota site, stating they “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the community and “will offer whatever support [they] can.” The affected communities have supported each other throughout the nomination process and undertook a joint lobbying trip to Canberra in February this year.

Keep up to date via the facebook page Fight the Nuclear Waste Dump South Australia.

Supporters are also encouraged to upload a photo to the FB page with a sign calling for ‘No Nuclear Dump in the Flinders Ranges’ (see example below of a resident of Quorn, a town near the proposed site).

Paul Levai

Chernobyl 30 year commemoration: No uranium sales to the Ukraine.


26th April marks 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in the Ukraine. Many plant ‘liquidators’ died within days, and massive radioactive releases produced an ongoing three-fold increase in thyroid cancers and other genetic illnesses. Over 5 million people today continue to live in contaminated areas.

Despite this important anniversary, which should be time for reflection and a revisiting of Australia’s role as a uranium exporter, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has signed a deal to sell uranium to the Ukraine.

Commemorations are being held around Australia to remember all whose lives have been impacted by the Chernobyl disaster, or who will be into the future, and to urge the Australian government to stop all uranium exports. We have to stop this toxic nuclear cycle.

Sydney event

Perth event


“There remain serious containment and waste management issues at Chernobyl and there are very real security concerns about Ukrainian nuclear facilities being targeted in the current conflict with Russia.

Australia has properly suspended uranium sales to Russia – it makes no sense to start selling uranium to Ukraine now.

There can be no nuclear business-as-usual in the shadow of Fukushima – a disaster that was fuelled by Australian uranium.

Following Fukushima the UN Secretary-General called for Australia to have a dedicated risk analysis of the impacts of the uranium sector – this has not happened and needs to.”

Dave Sweeney, Australian Conservation Foundation Nuclear Free Campaigner




Black Mist White Rain speaking tour has begun

For many people in Australia and the Pacific, nuclear weapons are not a distant, abstract threat, but a lived reality – a persistent source of pain and suffering, of contamination and dislocation. Indigenous communities, long marginalised and mistreated, bear the brunt of this ongoing scourge.Over four days in four cities, join us in exploring the ongoing impacts of nuclear testing in our region and the inspiring triumph of cultural survival. The stories from the front lines are a driving force behind the movement for a nuclear weapons ban, which is gaining momentum worldwide.

Please reserve your seat by clicking the registration links below. More detail is on the ICAN website here and on the facebook event page here.
Monday 4th April at 6pm
The Joinery
111 Franklin St, Adelaide

Register here.

Karina Lester | Yankunytjatjara-Anangu
Rose Lester | Yankunytjatjara-Anangu
Sue Coleman-Haseldine | Kokatha-Mula
Abacca Anjain-Maddison | Republic of the Marshall Islands
Gem Romuld | International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

MC: Helen Connolly | Australian Red Cross | South Australia Executive Director

Tuesday 5th April at 6pm
Drill Hall
26 Therry St, Melbourne

Register here.

Sue Coleman-Haseldine | Kokatha-Mula
Karina Lester | Yankunytjatjara-Anangu
Abacca Anjain-Maddison | Republic of the Marshall Islands
Tim Wright | International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Wednesday 6th April at 6pm
Redfern Town Hall
73 Pitt St, Redfern

Register here.

Sue Coleman-Haseldine | Kokatha-Mula
Rose Lester | Yankunytjatjara-Anangu
Abacca Anjain-Maddison | Republic of the Marshall Islands
Daryl le Cornu | International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

MC: Jody Broun | Australian Red Cross | NSW Executive Director.

Thursday 7th April at 6pm
Metro Arts
109 Edward St, Brisbane at 6pm.

Register here.

Sue Coleman-Haseldine | Kokatha-Mula
Rose Lester | Yankunytjatjara-Anangu
Abacca Anjain-Maddison | Republic of the Marshall Islands
Dr Bill Williams | International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

MC: Kevin Keeffe | Australian Red Cross | Queensland Executive Director.