same dump, different minister

The Rudd Government needs to take a careful look at Martin Ferguson’s handling of the latest tragic chapter of Australia’s 50-year nuclear waste story.  A cursory review of the history of Government attempts to force nuclear waste dumps on unwilling communities shows an unbroken record of Government failure. It’s time for new thinking.
Former Science Minister Brendan Nelson summed up prevailing attitudes at a press conference in 2005: “why on earth can’t people in the middle of nowhere have low level and intermediate level waste?” The ghost of Terra Nullius still haunts the question of what to do with the nation’s radioactive mess.

Mitch is an Arrernte and Luritja woman who speaks for one of the proposed dump sites in the ‘middle of nowhere’ at Harts Range. She said it best: “We didn’t offer up our land…We’re still fighting for food, about education, health and poverty issues, how can we be fighting against uranium mining and waste dumps of top of all that?”

Like the Kungkas (senior women) who led an earlier campaign to stop a waste dump in South Australia, and Western Australians who defeated the Pangea proposal, Territorians banded together and stuck up for themselves. In 2007 they extracted a promise from the Rudd opposition that Howard’s punitive Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 would be repealed, closing the door on the disgraceful land grab.

Now that’s all up in the air.

Martin Ferguson says “Let the Greens and the fringe groups play their little games, it’s the responsibility of this parliament once and for all to resolve it.” Peter Garrett and other Labor MPs are falling over themselves to muddy the waters and re-frame commitments made before the election. It looks like history is about to repeat itself all over again (along has a harshly ironic edge, given Mr Rudd’s current diplomatic engagement in Hiroshima).

Before proceeding any further with this spectacular betrayal of the Territorians who believed they had beaten the waste dump, the Prime Minister needs to step in, sideline Mr Ferguson and grab the once-in-a-generation opportunity that has arrived.

For fifty years we’ve had the Lucas Heights research reactor operating in Sydney with no real plan for the treatment of the high level radioactive waste, much of it parked in Western Europe awaiting reprocessing and reclassification as ‘Long-Lived Intermediate Level Waste’. The core of the old reactor building is also highly radioactive and will need to be dealt with somehow. The dozens of de-facto low-level waste stores at hospitals and research centres around the country are a side issue compared to the unanswered questions of this high and intermediate level waste.

What is urgently needed is a properly deliberative process about what to do with this material, because in reality the fuel rods may well be much safer where they are at Lucas Heights, than transported halfway across the country and dumped in a hole. There is a strong argument for monitored, dry, above ground or near-surface storage, minimising transport risks and keeping the wastes close to centres of nuclear expertise.

This option needs to be discussed openly, with input from all stakeholders – particularly people living in the vicinity of Lucas Heights – rather than rushing down the same well-worn, failed path of attempting to dump the waste on politically vulnerable communities in central Australia.

Perhaps in the light of reasoned debate we will find that the best option is long-distance shipping to a remote site. But Australia needs to have that conversation.

Because, with a whole world of high level nuclear waste with nowhere to go, there is every reason to believe an national waste dump in the NT could rapidly mutate into something vastly larger.