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Northern Territory

Jun 20, 2014

Muckaty battle won, but war far from over

The Warlmanpa have successfully blocked government plans to put a nuclear waste dump on their land. But will that be the end of the story?

Image: Monica Napper

After much wrangling, yesterday the federal government agreed not to continue with its original plans for a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station, a win for the local Aboriginal community. But another fight could be coming.

The Northern Land Council and federal government yesterday announced their acceptance of a settlement offer made by Warlmanpa people challenging the acquisition of their land for a nuclear waste dump in the Federal Court. The NLC nomination, made in June 2007, will not be acted upon by the Commonwealth, and in return the Warlmanpa agree not pursue costs or seek compensation for their treatment.

It is a welcome decision. New NLC chief executive Joe Morrison, whose statement was published on Crikey blog Northern Myth, inherited a nightmare and has played a crucial role in brokering this fantastic outcome. He is to be commended for this.

Unfortunately, Morrison has tried to blame the litigation itself for “divisions” in the community. He has also blamed “special interest groups” for “whipping up” opposition to the dump proposal, allegedly frustrating the rights of Aboriginal people to deal with their land.

But the nuclear waste dump plan was designed to dispossess Aboriginal people, as government strategy for dealing with disposal of some of the most toxic industrial waste produced in Australia.

If the Commonwealth had acted on the NLC nomination, this would have triggered powers in the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (CRWMA) that handed all rights in the land to the Commonwealth, potentially forever. It would have also allowed for compulsory acquisition of surrounding lands without anyone’s consent.

Among a number of explosive allegations that will now never be tested, evidence appeared to show that the deal was presented to traditional owners by NLC principal lawyer Ron Levy as “as good as a lease”, because of Commonwealth assurances that the government was only planning to store “intermediate-level waste” (spent nuclear fuel rods from Lucas Heights) for the short term. But while it discusses the possibility of return, no actual requirement to return land by a fixed date appears in the deed of agreement, and the legislation is clear such repatriation would be entirely at the relevant minister’s discretion.

Evidence presented by all parties demonstrates that the Commonwealth and NLC officials placed a heavy emphasis on the “low-level” radioactive waste — hospital gloves and the like — throughout the consultation process. Information about the most pressing source of anxiety — the spent nuclear fuel rods — was scant and came with consistent reassurances that it could be handled in a way that was perfectly safe.

However, provisions in the CRWMA itself foreshadowed possibility for radioactive contamination of the nominated land, indemnifying the Land Trust from liability. Such contamination would also affect the prospects of any potential return to Aboriginal hands. None of this was ever explained to Traditional Owners.

Compensation came not in the form of direct royalty payments but into an as yet non-existent charitable trust. Warlmanpa people opposed to the dump have expressed their outrage that the money would be used to provide what they consider basic services, such as roads and housing maintenance. The Commonwealth Department of Education offered $1 million in scholarships.

In an interview on NT ABC news last night, Joe Morrison was asked what would be done differently if the process were  repeated. He said more effort would be made to properly inform people in detail about the nature of the facility and to ensure wider consultation and support. These are very welcome comments.

Sadly, the Commonwealth is showing no such signs of change, issuing a thinly veiled threat to the NLC that it has “three months” to find a new site on Muckaty. The strategy of attacking the land rights of impoverished communities to deal with radioactive waste looks set to continue. But the Warlmanpa have proved they can be defeated.

* Paddy Gibson has collaborated with Warlmanpa opposed to the dump since 2007. 

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3 thoughts on “Muckaty battle won, but war far from over

  1. Camille Bache

    All radioactive waste facilities are designed with numerous layers of protection to make sure that people remain protected for as long as it takes for radioactivity to reduce to background levels. Low-level and intermediate wastes are buried close to the surface. An explosion in a French nuclear waste treatment factory left one dead and injured four others. No radioactivity was released in the incident, experts say. France depends on nuclear power more than any other country in the world.

  2. Damien

    Hi Camille,

    Firstly, this case was about what level of risk from nuclear waste Traditional Owners want to accept as owners of their traditional lands. Both risk in terms of impacts from the facility on the site and surrounding area, and risk in terms of general support for the nuclear industry. This is also mediated by the complex cultural values these Traditional Owners have in this land, and their responsibilities to it.

    Its got nothing to do with how much risk you or anyone else, who does not own this land or have 10,000 years + of passed on cultural responsibility for its stewardship, thinks should be acceptable.

    Secondly, I have found that most proponents of this nuclear waste facility can be as extreme and illogical as the zealous objectors to anything nuclear, they just premise their whole view on the huge and completely false assumption that for the life of this waste (100s to 1000s of years) there will somehow magically be the will, technology, financing and resources to maintain those “layers of protection” you refer to, day in and day out without fail or human error.

    Your talking about Governments who can’t even commit funding or political will for anything beyond 3 year election cycles – and out of anything, the funding a non-economic resource like a waste which produces no return and is out of sight and mind of any politically significant popluations is going to be the first thing to be subject to complete neglect and budget cuts when things get tough.

    I’m not saying these risks mean that we can’t have, or TOs can’t accept, nuclear waste facilities. But we have to realise that the sheer longevity of this nuclear waste means that these risks have to be seriously considered and acknowledged in making any decisions.

  3. JohnB

    This is not a good news story. The Commonwealth appears to have counted among the $12M money that would have or should have flowed in any case, so the real offer to the traditional owners could be worth far less than the headline amount.

    The waste, typically gloves, etc as stated in the article is already being stored in our cities and towns in a couple of hundred locations dotted around Australia, reportedly including ad-hoc facilities in hospital grounds and so forth.

    This appears likely to result in a lose-lose outcome. The TO’s might come away with either no facility and no payment or a smaller facility and very little payment, so their peoples receive no net benefit.

    Alternatively, business-as-usual will result in many uncoordinated repositories for low and medium grade waste to continue in the long term. This may not statistically present significant hazards for the local communities, but it certainly is not a good look.

    That still leaves us with the Lucas Heights fuel rods plus a minor quantity of high level medical and industry wastes. There are technically adequate containment and storage options for these, but the business-as-usual option is less palatable. These really need specially designed storage, such as is/was envisioned for Muckatty.

    If the fall-back proposal is to continue to hold this in drums at Lucas Heights and industrial repositories indefinitely, then the TO’s and their communities again end up with zip.

    Nobody is going to win out of this except for a group of city-based lawyers.