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.

Peter Fray

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