In her maiden speech last week, the first indigenous woman to be elected to federal Parliament, NT Senator Nova Peris, issued a call to arms over a proposed nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station. Peris said the NT facility would inflict “profound grief, suffering and loss on Aboriginal people”.

The nuclear dump has been on the table for a long time, and it took the Gillard government two years to pass the Radioactive Waste Management Act, which passed last year and includes plans for a permanent waste management site. So what happens next, and is this a done deal — despite Peris’ concerns about the impact on Aboriginal communities?

Why Australia might need a nuclear waste facility

Even though Australia doesn’t have nuclear power or nuclear weapons, we are still responsible for nuclear waste, mainly medical and research waste from Sydney’s Lucas Heights reactor. Australia is due to receive nuclear waste from France in 2015 and from the UK in the second half of this decade. This is waste we are obliged to take back after sending it to be reprocessed in the 1990s. The Act allows for this to be sent to a permanent facility other than the one at the Lucas Heights reactor, where small amounts of low-level nuclear waste are still produced. According to Dr Peter Karamoskos, nuclear radiologist and treasurer of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, Australia is responsible for about 5000 cubic metres of nuclear waste in various locations.

Should it be at Muckaty Station?

The reasoning for choosing Muckaty Station depends on who you ask. The area is 120 kilometres from the closest town of Tennant Creek, and is geologically stable (necessary for a nuclear waste facility). But it’s not the only site in the country that fits that criteria.

John Price, adjunct associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Monash University, told Crikey Australia had many sites that would be appropriate for storing nuclear waste. “Huge areas of Australia that have been identified as having stable geology, that don’t drain to the sea — I don’t know why they’ve chosen this station. I’d prefer they choose one that would be extendable for commercial operation.”

Price wants a permanent, expanded nuclear waste site, saying it could become a commercial venture to take other countries’ nuclear waste.

But Karamoskos says the facility proposed for Muckaty Station doesn’t fill the criteria for a permanent waste facility. It’s not capable of properly storing intermediate-level waste, only low-level waste. He says the proposed facility would only have an above-ground bunker, not the underground storage needed for intermediate waste. And Karamoskos is critical of the way both sides of government have dealt with the issue, saying we need a “cradle-to-grave strategy” for any nuclear activity and its waste.

Karamoskos says the decision is a “top-down approach masquerading as a bottom-up approach”, and that Muckaty is not actually the best place, but one that is politically expedient. “[The government] wouldn’t be able to do this in a state. John Howard originally tried to put a waste dump in a state, and South Australia changed its laws to stop it.”

Peris said the decision should be based on “science, not politics”, perhaps as a reference to the fact that as a territory the NT can’t refuse the site even though former Labor chief minister Paul Henderson spoke against it, whereas states can refuse sites proposed by the federal government.

Karamoskos says Mount Everard, 25 kilometres out of Alice Springs and considered in the 2009 report Proposed Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Facility, is a “better site foregone because they could get the Northern Land Council to volunteer Muckaty”.

Why the controversy?

The Muckaty Station facility has been on the cards for eight years, after the Northern Land Council recognised the Lauder family of the Ngapa people as the traditional owners of the land. The family is in favour of the facility, but other groups that claim traditional ownership are against it, including the Milwayi, Yapa Yapa, Ngarrka, and Wirntiku people, and some Ngapa clans outside of the Lauder family. These groups are taking the Northern Land Council to the Federal Court, claiming that appropriate consent was not achieved.

Lizzie O’Shea from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers is representing the groups against the deal, saying that traditional ownership overlaps several neighbouring groups. O’Shea says Muckaty is a sacred site “still very much alive in the minds of the local people”. The case is due before the Federal Court in June next year. Financial compensation is involved with nominating waste sites, and a down payment has already been distributed among community leaders, but O’Shea says, “my clients aren’t interested in the money, it’s traditional land”. O’Shea says the choice of Muckaty Station is political, not scientific; “it’s remote, and the people traditionally haven’t been empowered to resist these decisions. It’s a bit out of sight, out of mind.”

Will the Federal Court challenge get through?

Lizzie O’Shea says she is confident in the case put together against the Muckaty Station facility, but as the case isn’t about financial compensation it will have to go to court and not settle. If the case is successful, the government would be back at square one, looking for a new site that could and would accept nuclear waste.

Federally, the only party to oppose the dump being built at Muckaty is the Greens. So if the legal action fails, it seems likely the dump would be built.