“We want our land to stay in one position, we want our land to be safe so we can have a better place to live in and a better place to go and have a look around the beautiful land.”

They’re the words of protest from the traditional owners of Muckaty Station, a small NT homestead, 110 kilometres from Tenant Creek. The traditional owners of the land, made up of several families, say they have continually been ignored by the Labor government, which is pushing through legislation to construct a nuclear waste dump on their land.

Muckaty was nominated by the Northern Land Council for the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill in 2007. The nomination was approved by one small family of traditional owners, who are now considered by the majority of residents isolated from the local community. Since this date, the majority of traditional owners have tirelessly protested the bill with letters and petitions addressed to federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson.

Jim Green, from Friends of the Earth, says Ferguson has falsely claimed that Muckaty traditional owners support the nomination of the site.

“He knows that many oppose the dump — he has received a letter opposing the dump signed by 25 Ngapa traditional owners and 32 traditional owners from other Muckaty groups,” he told Crikey. “Senior Muckaty traditional owners have initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the Muckaty site. Yet, Mr Ferguson persists with the fiction the nomination of the Muckaty site has the support of traditional owners.”

The letter addressed to Ferguson and other government officials expressed desperate pleas from locals to have their opinion heard. They also invited the minister to visit the region so he can experience first-hand their spiritual connection with the land.

“We want you to come face to face … As the Warlmanpa group, we want to tell you what the country means with the designs and with the paints we have on our body,” they wrote.

Lawyer and human rights advocate George Newhouse is representing the traditional land owners.

“They are fighting for their land because it appears to the traditional owners that their sacred site has been taken from them and sold for a pinch of salt to the federal government, without their informed consent and in breach of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and other laws,” Newhouse told Crikey.

Ferguson’s office insists the minister met with a large delegation of Ngapa clan members and executive members of the Northern Land Council in Darwin in March, 2010. A spokesperson says the meeting confirmed the continuing support of the Ngapa clan and the full Northern Land Council for the facility.

“Five parliamentary inquiries in five years have dealt with the issue of radioactive waste management legislation, including traditional ownership of the site nominated by traditional owners at Muckaty Station,” the spokesperson said. “At the 2010 Senate inquiry, Kumanjayi Napurrula Lauder-Dixon (who has since passed away) said: ‘We are satisfied that the waste can be stored safely provided it has been through the environment impact process to be followed over the next few years. We are united on this decision as the Ngapa clan’.”

But Jim Green says the Ngapa clan are only a small family in the area who by no means represent the entire community of Muckaty.

“It beggars belief that Martin Ferguson and the Labor government consider it appropriate to move forward with the NRWMB — in particular those provisions in the act which target Muckaty and legitimise a sham ‘consultation’ process — while the Federal Court case unfolds,” he said.

Environmentalists and concerned interest groups have lined up to oppose the site. The Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) is concerned that nuclear medical waste is being used as a cover-up for the material being transported to the dump.

“I believe that Mr Ferguson feels the general public will be more accepting of the need for a nuclear waste dump if he says the waste is a byproduct of life-saving cancer treatments, and medical tests,” Margaret Beavis, who represents the group, said. “My sense is that this is politically driven.”

Beavis says all radioactive medical material needed could be sourced from overseas and can be stored and disposed of safely without the need for a dump.

“The vast majority of medical isotopes very rapidly loses their radioactivity, and after local storage is disposed of safely in the normal waste system,” she said. “In addition, we do not need a reactor in Australia to produce medical isotopes. They can easily be imported, just like other countries do.”

Ferguson says the dump will be used for waste from the production of nuclear medicines, not from medical treatments in hospitals.

“It is indisputable that production of medical isotopes at the research reactor at Lucas Heights produces radioactive waste that requires suitable long-term management arrangements,” the minister’s spokesperson said. “Hospitals all over the world use radioisotopes in medicine. In 2009, shortages in the supply of one of the most frequently used radioisotopes as a result of the temporary shutdown of reactors overseas, affected patient services for almost eight months.”

Australian supply made some contribution to addressing this global shortage, the spokesperson says. It also means Australia is insulated from the worst of a global shortage.But Beavis says the production of nuclear energy is not necessary.

“We do not need this reactor for medical purposes, whatever Mr Ferguson may state,” she said. “The big problem for any reactor is there is no long-term storage solution for waste. There is no long-term, high-level waste facility anywhere in the world.”

A report issued by MAPW nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos showed that if radioactive energy gets into the soil, air or water supply it can enter the body through food and water, which could cause cancer. It showed some radioactive energy can cause cancer for hundreds of thousands of years after initial exposure to waste.

Ferguson says any determination on whether a volunteered site is suitable for a facility will be ultimately determined by the Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and under the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act.

“The primary driver behind the establishment of such as site is for health and safety reasons and in order to meet Australia’s international obligations,” a spokesperson said.

The bill came before the Senate yesterday, but Greens Senator Scott Ludlam argued the debate was a “waste of time” while the Federal Court case was ongoing.

“Why on earth are we debating this today when you do not even know if you are dealing with the people who are appropriate to speak for the land in question? The action that has been brought in the Federal Court is not frivolous or vexatious; it is absolutely deadly serious for the people who are involved,” Ludlam told parliament. “Are you able to describe why we are even here debating this bill when you do not even know if the land in question was the Northern Land Council’s to nominate?”

Labor Senator Chris Evans said the government will “of course respect and abide by” the court’s decision but is “committed to making these legislative changes”.

Peter Fray

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