BY AMY MCQUIRE, APRIL 3, 2012
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
Muckaty Traditional Owners on Anzac Hill, Tennant Creek. Photo courtesy Tennant and District Times
NORTHERN TERRITORY: The Gillard government’s plans to put a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory have been labelled “disgraceful” and a case of “radioactive racism” by opponents.
The National Radioactive Waste Management Bill passed Parliament in mid-March, clearing the way for medical, research and industrial nuclear waste to be stored at the site at Muckaty Station for what could be three centuries.
The legislation nominates Muckaty as the only site under active consideration for nuclear waste storage, despite currently being the subject of a Federal Court action over whether traditional owners have given their consent for the dump.
In 2007, the Northern Land Council (NLC) nominated the site under the Howard government’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005. It was approved by one group of Ngapa Traditional Owners.
But there are also Traditional Owners who claim they were never consulted, that the NLC’s process was secretive, and they never would have given their consent.
These Traditional Owners mounted a legal challenge against the nomination in June 2010.
The new legislation has been deemed a “cut-and-paste” version of the Howard government’s laws on radioactive waste management.
Nat Wasley from the Beyond Nuclear Initiative labelled the passage of the legislation “disgraceful”.
“If the minister truly respects the court case and the outcome, it makes sense that the court would make a determination before pursuing any legislation directly related to the case,” Ms Wasley told Tracker.
Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation told Tracker the government’s actions had been very disappointing.
“This legislation is in two parts. The first part specifically and solely names Muckaty as the only site under active consideration for a waste dump. It’s the only place named and yet it’s the focus of a current federal court case,” Mr Sweeny told Tracker.
“Our view is very simple on this. If the judge and jury’s out, the government shouldn’t be in.”
Mr Sweeney says despite Labor being critical of the Muckaty nomination in Opposition, it had largely continued the Howard government’s plan.
“The NLC deal with the Howard government is the architecture and foundation of the Muckaty dump plan.
“That was a deal that was a commercial-in-confidence secret and has never been sent. It hasn’t been provided to the Australian Senate even though they had an inquiry into Muckaty.
“It has not been provided to traditional owners. I was a backroom deal.
“Part two of the legislation shows that if for any reason Muckaty falls over, the government will open this process to a volunteered site from anywhere in Australia.”
Dianne Stokes is a Muckaty Traditional Owner and a steadfast opponent to the proposed dump.
She has many questions following the passage of the legislation.
“Why did the government start this debate before the court process,” Ms Stokes told Tracker.
“They knew the court case was coming, even (NT Senators) Trish Crossin and Nigel Scullion knew we were saying no to the waste dump.
“I’m happy this court case is coming up. Even though (the legislation) has gone through, and they think they can get away with it… we are going to fight this waste dump with our law.
“We’re challenging it in court, and we’re going to dance and protest and make the old people alert before the time comes for the challenge.”
Elizabeth O’Shea, from Maurice Blackburn lawyers, is representing a number of Traditional Owners in the federal court case.
She says that the legal challenge will continue regardless of the legislation’s passing.
“This law does not dilute the resolve of Traditional Owners who are opposed to the Muckaty nuclear dump,” Ms O’Shea said in a statement.
“They did not give consent and were not sufficiently consulted over the nomination of their land for Australia’s first radioactive waste dump. They want to keep the land safe for their communities, their children and future generations.”
Ms Wasley says the community remains resilient and will fight the nomination.
“People are confused. They are very angry. They’ve been standing up and speaking out for seven years now and have very actively been trying to engage with government.
“There have been numerous invitations for ministers to come and meet them… but they’ve been locked out of the process.”
“… There is a lot of strength in the community campaign. There’s very broad support for an isolated group of people. There’s national understanding and awareness of this injustice.”
Ms Wasley compares it to South Australia’s successful campaign to refuse a nuclear waste dump on their land.
“It took 10 years for communities in South Australia – for Aboriginal women in places like Coober Pedy.
“This campaign is still growing and people are going to be there until the very end. The outcome will be an example to the rest of the world on how to manage radioactive waste in a way that is inclusive and socially just.”
Mr Sweeney says if the community is successful and the Muckaty waste dump plan falls over, there are still concerns about other remote Aboriginal communities being targeted.
“It’s specifically looking at remote areas and no doubt the logic that some group of people, somewhere in Australia, who have pressing needs such as little resources, will have scant option but to sign up as a way to bring some money and capacity into communities.
“That’s the real concern. There’s never been a discussion about the best way to handle radioactive waste. It’s always been an assumption that the best way is a centralized store in a remote place and once that assumption is made, it invariably weights it towards Indigenous people and Indigenous land.
“What you’ve got is the worst radioactive waste in the nation and it’s being hosted on the lands of some of the poorest people in the nation.”
Ms Wasley agreed.
“It’s quite clearly targeting nominations on Aboriginal land in the NT so it’s pursuing disenfranchised and marginalised communities in what they call a volunteer process,” Ms Wasley said.
“But obviously (Aboriginal people won’t) start on a level playing field, as it will be in exchange for money desperately needed for essential services.”
For now, the fight for Muckaty goes on.
Ms Stokes said the land is very significant to Traditional Owners.
“We’ve told the government before, we don’t want this waste dump on our land. We want them to come and talk to us as Traditional Owners.
“We are the ones that know about the country, who can respect the land without selling the land.
“It’s going to be scarring for us to go there (if the dump is there). It will be like a big scar sitting there. We’re not going to go near it.”