Fighting Ferguson's nuclear dump

Fighting Ferguson's Dump

Natalie Wasley

In February 2010, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson introduced the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill into the House of Representatives, saying it represented "a responsible and long overdue approach for an issue that impacts on all Australian communities".

The legislation names Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, as the only site to remain under active consideration for a national nuclear waste dump.

The proposal is highly contested by the NT Government and is also being challenged in the Federal Court by Traditional Owners. Despite this, the Bill passed a Senate vote on March 13 with only the Greens and Independent Nick Xenophon opposing it.

Ferguson's legislation repeals three Department of Defence site nominations made by the Howard government − Harts Range, Mt Everard and Fisher's Ridge − but preserves the highly contested Muckaty nomination.

Mitch, a spokesperson for Harts Range and Mt Everard said "It is almost seven years since the NT dump plan was announced. We are happy that Harts Range is now off the list but we support the Muckaty people to say no. This proposal is based on politics not science. This is a very sad day."

Traditional Owners are angry that they continue to be sidelined. Muckaty Traditional Owner Penny Phillips, from the Wirntiku group, "The government should wait for the court case before passing this law. Traditional Owners say no to the waste dump. We have been fighting against this for years and we will keep fighting. We don't want it in Muckaty or anywhere in the NT."

Ferguson's law is a crude cut and paste of the Howard government's Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act that it purports to replace. It limits the application of federal environmental protection legislation and it curtails appeal rights. The draft legislation overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act and it sidesteps the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. It allows for the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land with no consultation with or consent from Traditional Owners. In fact, the Minister can now override any state or territory law that gets in the way of the dump plan.

Toxic trade-off

A toxic trade-off of basic services for a nuclear waste dump has been part of this story from the start. The Muckaty nomination was originally made with the promise of $12 million compensation for a small group identified by the Northern Land Council as the exclusive Traditional Owners.

The Traditional Owner who was the main proponent of the dump passed away in late 2011. At a Senate Inquiry she gave the following evidence: "As you have probably heard, the government do not have money for out-stations anymore ... So we made a decision about this waste problem to get money to build up our outstations, to get money to go back to our land and have schooling, have employment, have health out on the land itself."

Both the NT and Commonwealth governments have systematically stripped back resources for small remote Indigenous communities, placing increased pressure on them to accept long-term and high impact projects like the waste dump.

While Ferguson's legislation passed the Senate with government and Coalition support, there is a broad and growing alliance that will challenge the proposal every step of the way.

After a trade union delegation visited Tennant Creek last August, Peter Simpson, from the Electrical Trades Union's Queensland Branch, told the local newspaper the unionists had agreed to do everything they could to stop the nuclear dump from proceeding. A growing number of councils along the transport corridor have also voiced their opposition.

Traditional Owner Pamela Brown from the Milwayi group told New Matilda, "We want the government to come down and see us and we can show them all the sites, we want Martin Ferguson and the others to comes out to Muckaty. We want them to come out and see — people will do ceremony, our way, to prove who really owns Muckaty. That's our way, not whitefella way, if we are talking about land".

Protest actions will continue in Tennant Creek across the Territory and a photo exhibition of the community titled "Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud" has begun a national tour.

The campaign against the Muckaty dump continues to call for a comprehensive and independent inquiry into the full range of radioactive waste management options in Australia.

In the meantime, there is a simple solution: leave the waste where it is produced at the Lucas Heights nuclear research centre, run by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which is south of Sydney. That is where the waste is produced, and that is where Australia's nuclear expertise is concentrated.

As Dr Ron Cameron from ANSTO said: "ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time. There is no difficulty with that." Similar views have been expressed by the Commonwealth nuclear regulator, ARPANSA, by the Australian Nuclear Association and even by Martin Ferguson's own department.


Natalie Wasley is the coordinator of the Beyond Nuclear Initiative.