Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg’s announcement last Friday that the federal government was “committed to safely and responsibly managing the by-products” from Australia’s nuclear medical industry was uncontroversial and responsible. As was his commitment to establishing “a single, national radioactive waste management facility (read: “nuclear waste dump”) to enable this life-saving work to continue”.

So far so good.

But the choice of Barndioota — a scratch on a map with more dingoes and emus than people — as the most likely candidate for the dump has more than a few scratching their heads. I’ll bet Barndioota-to-a-brick that the Flinders Ranges will not be the site of the next nuclear waste dump.


One good reason is that both the Turnbull and Abbott governments lost the policy plot on storage of our nuclear waste.

Abbott’s resources minister Ian Macfarlane ducked and dithered and was blindsided when the previous proposed site — Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory — was taken off the table following the contentious settlement of litigation against the Northern Land Council in 2014.

Macfarlane’s adoption of a nationwide tender for alternative sites smacked more of quick fix and a withdrawal from the federal government’s acceptance of its responsibility to resolve a long-standing problem.

Frydenberg has done little more than adopt Macfarlane’s flawed policy and, if anything, appears even more reluctant to engage with this thorny issue.

Both have overseen a flight of institutional memory and capacity from the relevant ministry and department. Neither has had the length and depth of engagement — or knowledge of and interest in — the field that previous Coalition and Labor ministers applied to this project. Ministers like Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop, Martin Ferguson and Gary Gray knew the key players and were across the fine practical and policy details — neither Macfarlane or Frydenberg have been.

Now Frydenberg — a coming man in the Turnbull government and with an eye firmly fixed on a more senior ministry in the near future — has kicked the waste dump can down the road into a vague process that will run well past the general election in early July.

This process, rightly, requires further consultation with the local community and detailed design, safety, environmental, technical and indigenous heritage assessments that are likely to drag on for many months, if not years.

Frydenberg reckons there was “a broad level of community support [around Barndioota] for moving to the project’s next phase” and that the site prevailed because of its geological settings, technical capability and access to transport.

But Frydenberg appears not to recognise the most difficult hurdle for the project will be the trenchant opposition the proposal will face — is already facing — from the local Adnyamathanha peoples. They were fiercely opposed to the proposal when land in their country was first announced as one of three listed in South Australia in late 2015.

The Adnyamathanha (literally “people of the rocks”) is the collective name for the Kuyani, Wailpi, Yadliaura, Pilatapa and Pangkala clan and family groups that are the traditional Aboriginal owners of the Flinders Ranges. In 2009 their native title rights to a broad swathe of that country were recognised by the Federal Court.

In 2012, through their representative body the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, they joined with Indigenous Business Australia to acquire the Wilpena Pound Resort. Wilpena Pound — visited by 160,000 tourists a year — is, like much of the Flinders Ranges, of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Adnyamathanha peoples.

If the Adnyamathanha were shocked when the Barndioota site was short-listed in November last year, they are disgusted at the announcement of Barndioota as Frydenberg’s choice for the dump.

In a statement, Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association CEO Vince Coulthard rejected Frydenberg’s claims of consultation with his people, who he said had been shown “no respect”:

“This is in our sacred country with a very important spring just nearby. This is another example of cultural genocide. This cannot happen! … We believed they were going to meet with the board in an official capacity, prior to any announcement happening. But this certainly didn’t happen.”

And if Frydenberg and his bureaucrats think they can ignore the Adnyamathanha or that they will roll over without a fight, the most cursory investigation would show they are valiant fighters for their land and traditions and opposed to any inappropriate developments on their country.

They have cruel experience: the Leigh Creek coal mine is now closed, leaving no more than a massive hole in the heart of Adnyamathanha country.

The Adnyamathanha are also acutely aware of the risks involved at all points along the nuclear fuel cycle; for decades they have vigorously opposed the development and expansion of the Beverley uranium mine in the eastern Flinders Ranges.

The Adnyamathanha won’t be alone. Buoyed by their claims of victory at Muckaty Station in the NT’s remote Barkly Tablelands, you can bet Barndioota-to-a-brick that the raggle-taggle anti-anything-nuclear mob will be out in force again in the Flinders Ranges.

Muckaty Station was a long drive from anywhere and in the middle of even less. The Flinders Ranges is a few hours drive from Adelaide, a half-day or so from Melbourne and a day and a half’s drive from Sydney. And there is nothing that mob like better than making trouble on other peoples’ country.

*This article was originally published at The Northern Myth

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey