Click here for breaking news on Muckaty | June 19, 2014
Keep the Poison out of Muckaty
Kurlalu yarnmi Majju Majju Manu Wangku ka
Wangangka yama nyirrinjji mana Manu Wangku Kuna
The Australian federal government is advancing plans for a national radioactive waste dump on Aboriginal land at Muckaty, 120km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory (NT). The dump would house low and long-lived intermediate level waste including spent nuclear fuel rods returning from reprocessing in France and Scotland as well as decommissioned nuclear research reactor parts. Many Aboriginal Traditional Owners and the wider local community strongly oppose the dump plan. National health and environment groups and trade unions have pledged to support the community campaign.
The nomination of the Muckaty site was made in 2007 under legislation passed by the former Howard Liberal government. New legislation repeals the initial three sites that were nominated but entrenches the contested Muckaty nomination and expands Ministerial powers to override all Federal, State and Territory laws or protections.
The Muckaty nomination is being challenged by Traditional Owners in the Federal Court with trial set for June 2014. A fair, transparent and open process would allow the key issues of ownership, consultation and consent that are currently before the Court to be determined before there is any further government action on progressing the dump.
The federal government is essentially offering a toxic trade off to the Muckaty community. As Â government funding for remote Aboriginal homelands is being reduced it is understood that the compensation offered for the dump is Â linked to infrastructure, housing and education scholarships – things other Australians expect and receive as standard citizenship entitlements.
A series of truck and rail accidents in the Northern Territory over recent years has increased concern about the risks of transporting radioactive materials thousands of kilometres to a remote area.
The Muckaty dump plan lacks scientific and procedural credibility and community consent. It is time for a responsible and effective approach to waste management. Â The campaign is calling for an independent commission into the production, transport and storage of radioactive waste produced in Australia.
THE NATIONAL RADIOACTIVE WASTE DUMP PROPOSAL
In July 2005 the Australian government announced plans for a national low and intermediate level radioactive waste dump in the Northern Territory (NT), naming three potential sites. The facility would receive waste from federal agencies, including spent nuclear fuel rods due to return from reprocessing in France and Scotland from mid 2015.
There was no consultation with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, their representative organisations, the wider community or the Northern Territory Government before the proposed sites were named.
Legislation allowing the federal government to override NT laws and ignore any requirement for the consent of Â affected communities was rushed through the federal Parliament. The Australian Labor Party, then in Opposition, called the legislation âsorryâ, âarrogantâ and âsordidâ and pledged to overturn the laws if elected.
The laws were amended the following year to allow Aboriginal Land Councils or the NT government to nominate additional sites. The Northern Land Council (NLC) â a statutory Commonwealth authority responsible for representing Aboriginal peoples in the Top End of the Northern TerritoryÂ – nominated a site in the Muckaty Land Trust, 120km north of Tennant Creek in central Australia. This nomination was not a public process and full details remain confidential. Many Traditional Owners of the Land Trust spoke out against both the dump plan and process and remain firmly opposed to the proposal today.
The NT dump plan follows an abandoned proposal to dump radioactive waste in South Australia (SA). The âIrati Wanti’ campaign opposing the SA dump was led by a council of Aboriginal Women Elders with strong support from the community and state government. There is little doubt that the current plan is targeting the NT because it is seen as politically weaker than a state.
The decision to build Australiaâs first purpose built national radioactive waste facility in the NT â 3500 km from where most of the radioactive waste is currently produced and stored and where the trained experts reside â is a clear example of how less populated and remote areas are viewed as political sacrifice zones. When the plan was announced, the Science Minister asked “why on earth canât people in the middle of nowhere have low- level and intermediate level waste?â His successor said the proposed NT sites were âsome distance from any form of civilisation,â disregarding that one proposed site was only forty kilometers from Alice Springs, a major regional centre of 30 000 people.
The initial project timeframe assumed a facility would be operating by late 2012. This has been extensively delayed Â by the strong and sustained Â community resistance and a final dump site has not yet named or formally declared. The federal government has recently announced the first shipments of radioactive waste due to return from Europe will now Â be taken to the Lucas Heights reactor complex in southern Sydney for interim storage.
The Australian Labor Party was elected to federal office in 2007 on a promise of overturning the controversial dump laws and establishing a consensual process of site selection, with community consultation and support central to the approach. However, during his time as Resources and Energy Minister, Â Martin Ferguson instead continued to advance the Muckaty plan and routinely refused to meet with the Traditional Owners opposed to the site nomination. Replacement legislation has removed the three initial sites from consideration as pledged but preserves the Muckaty nomination. The new laws provide the Minister with power to override any and all federal, state and territory laws that might in any way impede the nuclear waste dump plan.
Key environmental and Indigenous checks and balances have been circumvented, with the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act (1984) suspended during site selection phase. The government’s refusal to allow access to key documents or engage with critics of the dump plan has created further suspicion and resentment. The Muckaty site nomination is now the subject of a Federal Court action in relation to key issues of ownership, consultation and consent.
Mark Lane Jangala, an applicant in the Federal Court case said, âThere was not a meeting in town consulting all of the Traditional Owners for the land, they just got the individual people they knew. The others, we were left out. We are going against it, we are fighting against it. We are going to challenge them in court then through our court- Aboriginal Law and culture with the dot paintings on our body. Both sides have law.â
Image: Mark Lane Jangala (c) Jon Lewis
Since the dump was announced, a broad and growing range of individuals and organisations with an active interest in social justice, environmental protection and responsible public policy development have supported the NT communityâs ongoing struggle. The Australian Council of Trade Unions National Congress voted unanimously to condemn the current approach.
âWe are not prepared to be the people who transport this back up to bury it in an area where the communities have no say, the Traditional Owners have no say whatsoever about this going in the groundâ Garry Keane, Maritime Union of Australia Illawarra Branch Secretary
The government’s claim that the NT dump is needed for continuation of nuclear medicine in Australia has been publicly contested by medical specialists and experts.
“It is at best misleading and at worst a lie to claim that a large-scale nuclear waste repository such as what is being proposed would be solely justified to handle the minuscule amounts of nuclear medicine waste generated in Australia.”Â Dr Peter Karamoskos, Radiologist.
Image: Unions NT representatives at Muckaty Station turnoff
Clearly the management of hazardous and long-lived toxic materials poses significant political and technical challenges. These are best addressed through open, robust and inclusive processes, not secrecy and exclusion. The current Australian approach to radioactive waste management is far behind other government approaches that recognise, as recommended by the 2006 UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management Inquiry, âIt is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling communityâ.
UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
The Australian government has entered into a number of conventions and treaties relevant to radioactive waste management and the use of Aboriginal Lands. The Muckaty plan is inconsistent with many of these responsibilities and obligations, including support given for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2009. The Declaration explicitly bans dumping of hazardous materials on Indigenous lands and territories without free, prior and informed consent.
Muckaty Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes, from the Yapa Yapa group explains, âTop to bottom we got bush tucker right through the country. Whoever is taking this waste dump into our country needs to come back and talk to the Traditional Owners. Weâre not happy to have all of this stuff. We donât want it, itâs not our spirit. Our spirit is our country, our country where our ancestors been born. Before towns, before hospitals, before cities. We want our country to be safeâ
After almost nine years community opposition to the NT dump plan remains steadfast. A broad alliance of civil society groups is calling for a comprehensive and independent inquiry into radioactive waste management. There is a pressing need to examine the range of management options for Australiaâs radioactive waste and to develop a less contentious and divisive approach. Surely the best scientific minds in Australia, aided by a robust process and input from key stakeholders, can find a more credible radioactive waste management option than dumping it in a shed on a remote cattle station almost 3500 km from where it was produced?
The Muckaty radioactive waste dump plan has caused great distress and heartache to the community. For many years Traditional Owners have awoken with a nuclear cloud hanging overhead. This cloud will only be lifted if the government breaks the pattern of short-term political thinking about the management of a very long-term and serious human and environmental problem.
In 2008 the federal Labor government offered a historic apology to the Stolen Generations. Despite the warranted acclaim for this apology, policies of dispossession and control live on through measures like the Northern Territory Emergency Response Intervention, the stripping of funding for homelands and the Muckaty radioactive waste dump proposal. The voices of those Aboriginal people concerned about and opposed to the Muckaty dump plan must be listened to, so there is not a need for a further apology to future generations left with an imposed, unwelcome and lasting toxic legacy.
Image: Kids preparing to march May 25 ,2013 (c) Tennant and District Times