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Northern Territory

Feb 22, 2010

How to site a nuclear waste dump

Labor's opposition to an NT waste dump before the last election will return to haunt it as Martin Ferguson unveils a permanent waste facility this week. Where was the consent and consultation?

The Government is expected to announce tomorrow or Wednesday that it will repeal and replace the Howard Government’s much-criticised Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005, and that a nuclear waste dump will be established at Muckaty Station, virtually in the middle of the Northern Territory.

The legislation is likely to be considered by Caucus when it meets for this week’s session of Parliament.

The process of establishing a long-term nuclear waste facility to store uranium mining by-products and waste from the Lucas Heights reactor has been going on for decades.  A Howard Government attempt to force a waste dump on South Australia was defeated in 2004, prompting the Government to focus its efforts on establishing a dump in the Northern Territory, contrary to the strong opposition of the NT Government.

The CRWMA overrode the NT Government’s legislation blocking the establishment of a dump, blocked the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 from applying to the investigation of dump sites and voided the Native Title Act. Appeal processes relating to the investigation and selection of dump sites were severely curtailed.  And in 2006, the CRWMA was amended to override the consent procedures of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Consent and consultation are at the heart of the dispute over Muckaty Station, about 120 kms north of Tennant Creek, which was added to the Commonwealth’s list of NT dump sites when nominated by the Northern Land Council in 2007.  The nomination made on behalf of one group of traditional owners of the Muckaty lands, the Ngapa clan.

However, some traditional owners of lands close to or overlapping with the proposed site are opposed to the dump.  A Senate Environment Committee report in 2008 spent considerable time investigating the arguments of the NLC and traditional owners opposed to the dump, with the NLC strongly defending its consultation and the claims of the Ngapa groups.  The NLC subsequently provided material to the Committee detailing the consultation processes it had undertaken in the lead-up to the nomination, emphasizing that the nomination was not merely supported by the Ngapa groups (which the NLC argues are the only groups whose consent is legally required) but by the majority of other groups of traditional owners involved as well.

Labor’s 2007 election policy was to repeal the CRWMA and overhaul the consultation and consent process involved in site selection. Shadow Environment spokesman Peter Garrett had criticized the nomination in May 2005 because some traditional owners were opposed and the Howard Government legislation overrode consultation processes.  “It seems like the interests of Aboriginal people here are again going to be denied.”

In September 2007, Senator Kim Carr, stated: “Labor is committed to repealing the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act and establishing a consensual process of site selection.  Labor’s process will look to agreed scientific grounds for determining suitability.  Community consultation and support will be central to our approach.”

In the intervening two to three years, nothing has changed: Ngapa traditional owners continue to support the nomination, while some traditional owners nearby do not.

Early last week, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson travelled to Darwin for meetings with the Northern Land Council and the NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson. Henderson wrote to the Prime Minister in July 2008 repeating his Government’s opposition to a waste dump and seeking details of the “consensual approach” to which Federal Labor had committed.

Ferguson would evidently dearly love a waste dump nomination process that had the support, or more plausibly the non-opposition, of the Territory Government, based on a selection process that could be labeled “consensual”, which the Ngapa nomination provides, although Ferguson has undertaken no consultations with other traditional owners since becoming Minister.

Apart from the dispute between traditional owners, there’s a more fundamental question of why remote areas are preferred for nuclear waste dumps. The prerequisites routinely mentioned – geological stability and distance from groundwater – can readily be achieved elsewhere, without the expense and danger of transporting nuclear waste thousands of kilometres.

When asked at the 2008 Senate inquiry why Australian Governments concentrated on remote sites for waste storage, ANSTO executive Steven McIntosh said it was due to “political reasons”. “We cannot really comment upon that policy process [of siting remote dumps]. We understand, and I know that you say to leave politics aside, but politics frankly was the determining factor.”

When asked whether there were any technical reasons why a storage facility could not be constructed at Lucas Heights – where there would be no transport risks – McIntosh said there weren’t, but ANSTO had never looked properly at the issue.

Australia’s nuclear waste policy is not so much ‘evidence-based’ and ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  There’s a strongly held view within the Commonwealth that no community would ever accept a nuclear waste facility, so one will have to be forced on some luckless area because, in the long run, one is needed. Remote siting at least minimizes the political damage of this approach.

Still, it doesn’t eliminate it.  The nomination of Muckaty Station is bad news for Labor MP Damian Hale, who knocked off the CLP’s Dave Tollner by 196 votes in 2007.  Tollner didn’t help his own cause on the issue – he originally opposed a dump in the NT, but then, along with CLP Senator Nigel Scullion, failed to oppose the CRWMA in 2005.

Hale has said he’ll vote for the repeal of the CRWMA but won’t support the nomination of Muckaty.

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55 thoughts on “How to site a nuclear waste dump

  1. Meski

    The middle of erewhon, and the owners approve, sounds like a good location all round.

  2. Jenny McFarland

    The owners have probably been sold a crock if the “consultation” process used for the NTER is any indication. These consultations consist of a whitefella talking in a foreign language and making lots of promises. Few of these eventuate, and the price is horrendous – poison country for thousands of years. How is this a good outcome?? Roads are few and far between in the region – so hazardous waste will have to be transported thousands of kilometres right through remote urban centres to get to the dump. Siting decisions for the dump should be made on the basis of the science, not the shabbiest of politics.

  3. justinnt

    MeSki: out of sight / out of mind ? out of your mind if you think that’s a responsible approach to this important responsibility.
    as for land owner approval, this nomination by the NLC is fiercly contested : by Ngapa Traditional Owners, neighbouring Traditional Owners on the haulage road, and other local people. The Minister, and other members of Federal Government, for their part have ignored repeated correspondence from locals opposed to the dump, including a letter tabled in the Senate last year, signed by 57 Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the Muckaty Land Trust area, imploring Minister Ferguson to meet with them.

  4. Mark Duffett

    @Jenny McFarland, could you be any more patronising of the Ngapa?

    FWIW, if you read between the lines above, the science is saying it doesn’t matter all that much where you site the facility, at least in terms of natural risk (i.e. extremely low).

    And while it might be strictly the case that the Federal facility is planned only for mine waste and Lucas Heights material, I’d be very surprised if the States didn’t take the opportunity to try to deposit the waste for which they are responsible (medical isotopes and suchlike, currently in hospitals all over the place) as well. This disposal stream would be ongoing. So a Lucas Heights disposal site isn’t likely to eliminate any transport risks, such as they may be.

    My family might not live in Alice Springs any more, but you can rest assured this issue wasn’t the reason we moved.

  5. EnergyPedant

    Those who suggest closing Lucas Heights first have to face each person who’s medical treatment would have used isotopes generated there (practically every cancer patient and any number of different scans/tests).

    They should just build a dump somewhere and not tell anyone. Waste dumps are actually quite safe if they are built properly.

    As ANSTO say they could just store waste at Lucas Heights. Actually at the moment that is what they are still doing since there is no waste facility. Its just siting in Barrels in the basement (or somewhere else on site).

    However it being “Nucular” everyone turns NIMBY and every voter within 100km gets up in arms. Therefore you pick a location without many voters within 100km, basically that means one of those empty dry spots in the middle of WA/NT/SA/West Qld.

  6. SBH

    I hear you MESKI but it’s not in the middle of nowhere if you live there. Here’s an APH link which is worth reading as to the level of consultation and agreement by the TOs
    http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/eet_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/radioactive06/report/c02.htm

  7. SBH

    Oh its worth noting that there are at least five language groups (Warlmanpa, Warlpiri, Mudbura, Warumungu and Jingili) on Muckaty station and the original legislation required consultation with groups who would be affected as well as TOs of the land concerned.

    My concern is more about how those people were treated rather than the nuke aspect, I’d have to say and I probably tend to agree with energypedant. I mean no one complains about the ongoing release of isotopes form coal fire power stations but thats another story.

    What we have is the latest step in building infrastructure to increase the uranium mining industry and to introduce a nuclear power industry. That’s why after 100 years the train line to Darwin was finished by Haliburton, remember them? That infrastructure is being built up by stealth and with no debate with Australian public about whether that’s what we want

  8. SBH

    Maybe the TO’s should have a talk to the Jawoyn who know a thing or two about sickness country

  9. justinnt

    G’day Pedant,
    I propose closing lucas heights.
    I’ve had medical treatment with radio-isotopes.
    I’ve been convinced by the experts from the Medical Association for Prevention of War that Australia does not need a reactor program to ensure a first class health system.
    http://www.mapw.org.au/australian-issues/lucas-heights-reactor

    G’day Mark,
    noting that English is a foreign language is not patronising. neither is recognising that the department has repeatedly misled stakeholders.
    oh and you’re wrong about States’ waste. This dump explicitly disallows inclusion of medical and other low-level radioactive wastes from the states (except the NT) : it’s all about the Commonwealth’s long-lived reactor waste.

  10. Eponymous

    EnergyPedant opined
    “They should just build a dump somewhere and not tell anyone. Waste dumps are actually quite safe if they are built properly.”

    I actually find some solace in that remark. One of the risks when storing nuclear material is that bad people might want to dig it up and spread it out somewhere with a lot of people. If no one knows where that place is, this problem is solved!

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