No NT nuclear waste dump!

Indigenous communities, environmentalists and human rights activists are gearing up for a fight against the federal government’s push to create a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. Traditional owners in the area of the proposed waste dump at Muckaty Station, located around 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, are strongly opposed to it. The dump represents another step towards Australia playing a larger role in the deadly and unsustainable nuclear industry.

Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson confirmed on February 23 that Muckaty Station is to be the location for the dump, which will store nuclear waste from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney. In Darwin on March 3, Ferguson also confirmed to reporters that the dump in 2014 and 2015 will store nuclear waste from Scotland and France that “originated” in Australia. “We have a responsibility internationally ... to actually establish a national repository to store our waste”, AAP quoted him as saying.

In an article published online by New Matilda on February 24, Natalie Wasley, a Beyond Nuclear Initiatives campaigner at the Arid Lands Environment Centre, highlighted that the “new legislation entrenches another unfair process which began under the Howard government. Section 11 of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 provides the Minister with the power to override any and all State/Territory laws, which might in any way impede his nuclear waste dump plans. Ferguson said yesterday: ‘Our new law will effectively have the same application as the previous government in respect of that area. In no way can we allow any state or territory government to get in the way of establishing a repository.” Wasley also noted: “The Bill reveals that Ferguson also intends to override the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 in relation to site selection”.

Continuing from Howard

The Rudd Labor government is continuing where John Howard’s Coalition government left off, pursuing divide-and-rule tactics pitting traditional owners against each other. It views the dump as key for a lucrative international nuclear waste trade. Despite assurances before the 2007 federal election that Howard’s waste plans would be re-assessed and the views of traditional owners respected, Labor’s only changes are tokenistic, while the lies and disinformation about the dump are the rehashed views of the previous government.

Justin Tutty, a Darwin-based campaigner with the Northern Territory-based No Waste Alliance, told Direct Action that Labor has “broken a federal election promise [to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act] ... cheated on that promise by presenting a new draft bill to replace the old one with a bit of a redraft; that’s all it is’’.

Tutty said that the new legislation will override fundamental rights of traditional owners, including those recognised under the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The new legislation uses “excessive federal powers to lock out people” who should be consulted. Tutty also believes that the government’s temporary ruling out of four other possible sites will galvanise efforts across the NT and interstate. “The focus for the groups across the territory can now be on Muckaty Station.”

Unsurprisingly, the federal opposition backs the Muckaty Station proposal, declaring its support shortly after Ferguson’s February announcement. ABC News online also quoted opposition leader Tony Abbott on March 31 as saying that the opposition would support other locations too if the Muckaty Station proposal fell through.

Supporting the Rudd government’s strategy of pressuring traditional owners, Ferguson stated that if the Muckaty Station site could not go ahead: “Let’s just say, around Australia I am quietly confident there are a number of traditional owners, including in the Northern Territory, who would like to explore this”.

Ferguson has put forward the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 and the repeal of the draconian Radioactive Waste Management Act brought in by the Howard government. That act allowed the imposition of a waste dump without any approval by or consultation with traditional owners. The changes in the new bill are superficial and farcical, as highlighted by submissions and discussion in the Senate inquiry of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

The Greens, traditional owners and environmental activists have questioned the secrecy surrounding the arrangement struck by one part of the Ngapa family in the Muckaty Station Trust with the Northern Land Council (NLC) and the Howard government, which the Rudd government is seeking to uphold.

WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam is pushing for the documents of the agreement to be made available for scrutiny. So far, all that is known publicly is that one of the five traditional owner groups from the area is party to it. Ludlam was quoted by the ABC on March 30 as stating: “I think it is highly likely that the whole government strategy rests on this process remaining shrouded in secrecy ... therefore [it is] very difficult to challenge legally, so I will be surprised and delighted if the land council or the government hands over those documents”. He added: “If they do not hand them over in the course of the Senate inquiry, then we are just going to have to continue to pursue them”.

Money replaces consultation

It has been revealed that the traditional owners who consented to the use of land at Muckaty Station for the waste dump have been offered $12 million. This comes at a time of heightened pressure on Indigenous communities in the NT under the oppressive “intervention” policy. Ludlam told the inquiry, “The amount of compensation in a way is immaterial” because “it is still not going to be any form of compensation for the permanent sacrificing of an area to this kind of radioactive material”.

Ferguson and the Rudd government have not taken up offers from traditional owners to meet them on their land or at Tennant Creek to discuss their concerns. The government has flatly ruled out a Senate hearing at Tennant Creek. “Traditional owners, Tennant [Creek] residents and Barkly region pastoralists are extremely disappointed that the Senate Committee will not sit in Tennant Creek. The distance and cost to travel to Darwin makes it impossible for the majority of concerned people to attend the hearing”, noted Wasley on March 24 on the BNI blog. Wasley has issued an appeal through BNI on behalf of senior Muckaty community members for funds to get them to the hearings in Darwin on April 12.

In response to the visit organised by the NLC on March 29 to the Lucas Heights nuclear facility and Senate hearings in Canberra with traditional owners involved in the agreement to permit the waste dump, traditional owners Pamela Brown and Beryl Brown issued a media release on March 30. In part it read:

“If the NLC and Amy Lauder [Muckaty Station elder supportive of waste dump] are in Canberra, I want them to tell the the government people where they really stand and tell them the whole truth, that Muckaty doesn’t belong to them.

“Tell the government there that they changed the documents stories, they should know that culture and dreaming never change, they stay the same. Elders are telling us that Amy Lauder and her family don’t have any dreaming on Muckaty. Government should listen to all of the Elders who know all dreaming stories on Muckaty.”

Protest actions and public meetings in opposition to the waste dump have taken place in March, and further activities are planned. On March 3, a town meeting in Tennant Creek attracted 150 people, including traditional owners from the Muckaty Station area. According to a report in the March 5 Northern Territory News, “The gathering heard from a number of speakers that despite Northern Land Council claims that the nomination of the site was consensual, hundreds with traditional ties to the land vehemently opposed it”.

On March 29, No Waste Alliance activists and supporters in Darwin staged a protest against the presence of Ferguson for a media event at the popular Crocodylus Park tourist attraction. He was forced to scurry out through the workers’ entrance. This action and the others that in association with Senate sittings are part of the build-up to a national day of action on April 12. “It will be a busy time here in Darwin”, Tutty told Direct Action. “There will be a public meeting with traditional owners opposed to the dump the night before and a rally on the day before the Senate hearing in the afternoon.” Tutty added that there will be solidarity protests across Australia, in capital cities and on university campuses on that day, and that there are plans for other actions in the future.

[For more information about the April 12 national day of action and other nuclear waste dump activities, visit the No Waste Alliance website. For information on how to help traditional owners from Muckaty Station to get to Darwin for the Senate hearing on April 12, visit the Beyond Nuclear Initiatives blog.]