Australian government paves way for nuclear waste dump in Northern Territory

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Australian Senate has passed legislation to force a national nuclear waste dump on the Northern Territory (NT). Despite opposition from Aboriginal land owners, the NT government, environment groups and Labor the Federal Government can now officially build a nuclear waste repository in the NT after the legislation for the waste dump passed the Senate today. The Radioactive Waste Management Bill was passed with 34 in favour and 29 against.

The two bills override the Northern Territory's objection to the radioactive waste dump after the South Australian government opposed a previous preferred site near Woomera. According to Federal Labor opposition MP, Warren Snowdon, it is the first time since 1978 that Territory law has been overridden. "It's an absolute disaster and it shows contempt for the Northern Territory community, it shows absolute contempt for land use planning in the Northern Territory," he said.

The Territory Labor Government has been a resolute opponent of the plan, saying a nuclear dump will expose residents to a new security threat.

The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Clare Martin, says transporting nuclear waste to the Territory would make it vulnerable to terrorists looking to make a dirty bomb. Ms Martin says experts on the issue have raised concerns about security at a national nuclear waste facility.

She says scientific debate played no part in the Federal Government's decision to build a dump in the Territory and nuclear waste could be a target while it is being moved to the Territory. "You'd have to look at how far around a country you're going to be transporting things like intermediate nuclear level waste," she said.

"And if you're going to put such a nuclear facility in the middle of central Australia you've got to get the waste there by road and that's thousands of kilometres." She says the Commonwealth should not expect any cooperation from her Government.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's (ANSTO) Craig Pierce says there would be no point trying to use low level waste to make a dirty bomb because the waste is mostly gloves and labcoats. "It simply would make no sense to get this material and want to blow it up," he said.

Alice Springs on a large scale map

"It would have no impact at all. On the intermediate level, that will have a high level of security when it is transported. It won't be transported for very far on road, on land, and it will have an appropriate level of security."

The Australian Conservation Foundation said it expected community anger would escalate, now the bills had passed. "Last year the federal government gave the people of the NT an absolute categorical assurance there would be no dump in the NT," ACF nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney said. "Today they have broken this promise and bulldozed through bad law in an attempt to gag community concern."

"Under the government's proposal, 130 truckloads of radioactive waste would be driven from Sydney's Lucas Heights reactor, through NSW, to an as-yet unnamed site in the NT in the first year alone, with dumping to continue for decades," he said.

The Australian Greens say the legislation could be manipulated to allow waste from other countries to be stored in the Northern Territory. The party is angry that amendments they proposed were not considered when the bill was passed. Greens Senator Rachel Siewert says the legislation is not strong enough.

"In the bill, there were some provisions to supposedly keep out international waste," she said. "We don't think they go far enough and that they are open to manipulation and interpretation. So what we were trying to do is absolutely positively ensure that international waste will not be brought into this facility."

The NT Environment Centre's Gary Scott has hinted at civil disobedience similar to that seen during the anti-uranium mining protests at Jabiluka. "I don't think Territorians are going to take this lying down unless that is in front of bulldozers," Mr Scott said.

The Centre’s Peter Robertson has emphasised the importance of the waste dump for the federal government to realise its plans for a second nuclear reactor. "If we get the dump, Sydney gets the reactor". Establishing a national waste dump is a precondition for the operating license for the proposed OPAL nuclear reactor which will replace Lucas Heights in Sydney.

Robertson pointed out that the issue of waste is creating an international crisis for the nuclear industry, with no storage plans for the more than 250,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste currently in existence.

A detailed study of three Defence sites - Fishers Ridge, 43 km south-east of Katherine, Harts Range, 100 km north-east of Alice Springs, and Mount Everard, 27 km north-west of Alice Springs - will be conducted next year, with the facility to be operational by 2011.

Traditional owners of Athenge Alhere - an estate group of the Arrernte Nation - have voiced their dissent to the nuclear dump and say they don’t want waste from Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear reactor brought to their land. "Because the land we take care of, because all our ancestors lived in this land and hunted on this land as well, so it's mainly because of the animals and the next generation of our kids and their children, so we still say no," traditional owner Benedict Stevens said.

Coalition MPs, including Northern Territory Country Liberal senator Nigel Scullion, secured a number of amendments to the bill. They included the ability of the NT government and indigenous land councils to decide on other site options, a prohibition on the storage of high level and overseas waste and the free storage of the NT's own waste.

The South Australian Government says tenacity staved off a nuclear dump on its land. SA Environment Minister, John Hill, says there could be a federal election before the facility's finally built. "It will take them some time to construct this facility and that gives you some opportunities," he said.

Mr Hill says waste should be stored closer to Lucas Heights in Sydney where it is generated. Radioactive waste is currently stored at over 100 locations across the country, including in hospital basements in major capital cities and at universities.

Update: NT farmers have threatened to take action if a site near their farms is selected for the dump. Fishers Ridge, south of Katherine, is one of three Commonwealth sites earmarked for the facility. Sharon Shaw's farm 12 kilometres from the Fishers Ridge site. "The thing that worries us the most, it's on top of a Tindal Aquifer which really concerns us in the fact that there's many sink holes that turn up every wet as the ground is always shifting," she said. "Any normal person without an environmental degree or anything would realise that this ground is unstable."