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Thursday, 28 July 2016 09:23

Protecting Our Common Home in a nuclear age: proposed radioactive waste dump in South Australia

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Adnymathanha Elders150Remote and indigenous communities are disproportionately targeted by the nuclear industry, particularly in the deserts of Australia where radioactive waste facilities are proposed, impacting unjustly upon Aboriginal communities, says Natalie Wasley in a talk delivered at the 2016 CRA National Assembly.

My name is Natalie Wasley and I convene a national project called the Beyond Nuclear Initiative.

I start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Country we meet on today and respect that sovereignty over this land was never ceded. This is especially important to acknowledge for this session today, as it is Aboriginal people in Australia and Indigenous people around the world who are on the frontline of opposing nuclear projects.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about a very significant and disturbing proposal that would affect people across the country- the proposal for Australia to build the first facility for storage of international high level nuclear waste.

Travelling around the world I have met many grassroots communities struggling to preserve their culture and communities in the face of the onslaught of nuclear projects. It became evident that in all countries I visited it was the remote and indigenous communities disproportionately targeted by the nuclear industry.

However, it is in the deserts of Australia however that I was truly captured by the level of injustice that goes along with this industry- epitomized by what many call radioactive racism or atomic discrimination- and here is where I became determined to stand beside impacted communities in their fight for justice.  

Australia’s involvement in the nuclear industry began with the nuclear bomb tests conducted by the British government in the 1950 and 1960s. There have been uranium mines open and some close or finish production since then- but none have ever been rehabilitated and all continue to leak into surrounding land and waterways.

What I am going to focus on today however is the end point of this toxic industry – nuclear waste.

There are currently two proposals in Australia for construction of nuclear waste facilities –one for national and one for international radioactive waste operating under separate but parallel processes.

The national facility is proposed for the management of domestically produced low and intermediate level waste. The most dangerous of this waste arises from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods that were used in the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor just south of Sydney. For twenty years there has been a search for a site for this waste- the shortlisted areas have always been remote and have always been contested.

SA was in the spotlight from 1998 until 2004. This proposal was challenged and defeated by the Irati Wanti campaign, a phrase in local language meaning ‘The Poison, Leave It’. The Northern Territory was then targeted- three Department of Defense sites and one that was nominated by an Aboriginal Land Council against the express wishes of Traditional Owners. This was a site called Manuwangku, or Muckaty and it was also defeated in June 2014 after an eight-year campaign by the local community.

The only site currently under assessment in on Adnyamathanha Land in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. It is on a station named Wallerberdina and is located next to an Indigenous Protected Area, one of only 72 around the country. The nominated site has important freshwater springs and many thousands of artefacts on the site and the community is deeply disturbed by the nuclear waste proposal. The Traditional Owners have spent years documenting the cultural storylines that run right through the nominated site.

Clearly we need to address management of existing waste. But this important issue cannot be resolved if the federal government continues trying to impose it on an unwilling community.

With small amounts of money being offered in exchange for hosting domestic nuclear waste, we cannot allow this to become the 20th century version of flour, sugar, tea and blankets.

SA Royal Commission

An even more ominous cloud is currently overhead South Australia; the plan for an international nuclear waste importation and storage industry.

Though this idea has been proposed previously by nuclear industry advocates citing Australia’s relatively stable geology and political situation, to say it today is not jumping at shadows –it is a plan that is being actively being rolled out through a Royal Commission process and is advancing rapidly. In November the SA Premier is going to announce how he intends to respond to Royal Commission recommendations that this leap of faith be made. This is not a proposal for a small or trial facility- it is a plan to host up to 1/3 of the world’s high-level radioactive waste.

This is a forever decision that impacts the whole country now and many generations into the future. This may have profound impact on Our Common Home.


There is a clear social dimension to radioactive waste management and decisions about storage, most notably because the location of facilities mostly impacts politically marginalised communities. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, one of the major driving factors behind the establishment of the Royal Commission was the crisis in the South Australian economy and the loss of jobs through the manufacturing downturn.  

There is however, no established market for trade in international nuclear waste.

This means that costs and possible income are based purely on assumptions and modelling. The Royal Commission’s economic modelling contains some extraordinarily optimistic assumptions about profit levels & interest rates. It assumes that countries with waste stockpiles will pay an inflated price and that no other country will choose to compete and offer a cheaper option. It assumes that Australia, a country with very little nuclear experience, will be able to do something that no other country has ever managed, at a much lower cost than experienced countries estimate.

The modelling also doesn’t include billions of dollars of extra costs like transport, shipping and insurance… and the list goes on and on...

In fact the consultants who did the modelling acknowledge there is a 100% error margin in their calculations. That means that project costs could easily double.

At the end of the day, it’s simply impossible to fairly weigh up up-front benefits and long term (thousands of years) costs.

Economics aside, I want to touch quickly on some of the other arguments being put forward by proponents of the facility.

One of the emotive arguments often used is that we have a ‘moral obligation’ to take back radioactive waste given that we have mined and exported uranium.

But uranium mining is only the first of many stages in the nuclear fuel chain. Mined uranium is converted, then enriched, then made into fuel and then used in nuclear power plants. All through this process, there are companies and other countries generating income and profits. These companies are very happy to take the profits from their activities, but always try to push the costs (financial, environmental and social) back on to the public.

And if we accept the logic that we are ultimately responsible for the waste products associated with our exports, shouldn’t we apply it to all our export products, like copper or steel? And shouldn’t other countries be held similarly accountable for the waste produced from their exports?
From a social justice point of view, this proposal is an unacceptable double whammy for Traditional Owners, who have consistently opposed uranium being mined from their land and now also face prospects of the waste products being returned.

Another argument is that Australia should host waste because we are more geologically and politically stable than other places. High-level nuclear waste stays dangerous to humans for tens of thousands of years. To put that into context, the pyramids in Egypt were built around 4,500 years ago. To claim that SA will be politically stable based on just the last 200 years of parliamentary democracy is ridiculous.

Equally outback Australia, or specifically South Australia is not the only region in the world with these geological characteristics  According to experts like Dr Mike Sandiford from the University of Melbourne, Australia is actually less tectonically stable than a number of other continental regions. The melting of ice sheets as a result of global warming is predicted to increase earthquakes and other seismic activity. The US has regions that are just as stable as SA, and, unlike us, they produce high-level nuclear waste. So, using this logic, don’t they have a greater moral obligation to create a solution?

Really, if we want this decision to include moral considerations, we might ask ourselves about the ethics of burdening thousands of generations of people with the cost and risk of managing highly radioactive waste.

Can it be done safely?

The honest answer to this question is: we don’t know. No-one knows, because in all the years since the Hiroshima bomb, not one country in the world has worked out how to store high level nuclear waste safely for the length of time it remains dangerous to humans. The US spent over $10 billion and invested 20 years planning to store high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, only to abandon the plan due to community opposition.

The Royal Commission often mentions Finland, which is building a final disposal waste facility. But the Finnish site is not even complete − it will only start receiving used fuel next decade. And it will only take domestic waste. Before we know whether the Finnish technology will even work, the Royal Commission proposes that South Australia import 20 times their planned volume.

The only real-life experience with a deep underground nuclear waste facility anywhere in the world is the intermediate-level Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico.

This was supposed to be the most advanced, efficient and safest facility ever developed by any country.

In 2014 there was a fire at the WIPP closely followed by an unrelated rupture of one of the underground barrels, followed by failure of the filtration system designed to keep radiation from the outside environment. Workers were exposed to radiation and the WIPP will now be closed down for at least four years and the repair bill will be over $500 million.

Investigations into these incidents highlight substandard hazard identification and management, and WIPP operators themselves acknowledge that complacency and cost-cutting set in within just 10−15 years of the facility opening. Even repositories for low and short-lived intermediate-level waste around the world have run into trouble.

Three repositories in the USA have been closed because of environmental problems. Farmers in the Champagne region of France have taken legal action in relation to a leaking radioactive waste dump. In Asse, Germany, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over a period of two decades.

And then there’s the issue of safe transport across oceans, through ports and along SA roads for 70 years. The Royal Commission recommends we import high-level nuclear waste and temporarily place it in above ground storage for at least 17 years while a deep underground repository is built.

So what happens if the underground repository doesn’t eventuate? By then we will already have the toxic waste being stockpiled above ground in Australia and we can’t give it back. What then?


Just to pause on the details of this proposal, I think its worth reflecting that for many people across Australia this process is unknown, that perhaps for many of you, it's the first time you've heard of it. It certainly hasn't featured in national media. SA is a one- paper town owned by Rupert Murdoch and it has hardly featured there except in the positive.

Yet this is a decision and discussion with profound applications- it is as deep a concern as you can imagine to many of the Aboriginal groups we work with  – groups for whom the reality of past nuclear events like Maralinga are real and cause continuing trauma and hurt.

I am compelled to point out Sister Michele Madigan and the amazing work she has done in this space and in these outback regions of SA for so many years. Sister Michele and many others have my deepest respect and thanks for their efforts to support remote communities who have been impacted by this industry over decades from nuclear bomb tests to uranium mines and previous nuclear waste proposals. She has worked with and supported generations of what the Japanese call Hibakusha- bomb people, or atomic survivors.

Which brings us to the important questions of what we collectively can do to support communities and ensure the safe intergenerational stewardship of the most dangerous and long lived materials produced by humans.

What do we want or need?

An obvious answer is to turn off the tap- to slow down production of these intractable materials. To use the technology and brain power and human capacity for ingenuity that exists to generate the power we need- ‘we’ being people across the planet, not just in wealthy countries- without producing these hazardous materials for our great, great, great grandchildren to be caretakers of.

With low-level and intermediate-level waste already stockpiled in Australia and high level waste accumulating around the world, processes nationally or internationally looking for locations for radioactive waste repositories must begin to prioritise social considerations as much as desktop scientific studies to pinpoint suitable areas for facilities.

The Royal Commission final report acknowledged clearly that there is opposition from Traditional Owners across the state of SA to expansion of the nuclear industry. Government campaigns to ‘recognise’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution of Australia are hollow until they recognize the injustices already suffered at the hands of this industry and recognize the staunch resistance to future nuclear projects.

So what can you do to assist and support the campaign?

1. In response to the Royal Commission a group of Traditional Owners, medical professionals, trade unions and other civil society groups formed the No Dump Alliance and they are inviting individuals and organisations to sign on.

Yami Lester the Ambassador of the Alliance has said:

“In 1953, I was just ten years old when the bombs went off at Emu and Maralinga, I didn’t know anything about nuclear issues back then, none of us knew what was happening. I got sick, and went blind from the Totem 1 fallout from those tests, and lots of our people got sick and died also.

Now I’m 74 years old and I know about nuclear issues. Members from the APY, Maralinga-Tjarutja and Arabunna, Kokatha lands say we don’t want nuclear waste on our land. There are big concerns. And I worry because I know it is not safe for South Australia land and the people. Why does the Government keep bringing back nuclear issues when we know the problems last forever?”

It means a lot to me to be in this Alliance. I would like others to listen and join, become a member and fight together.”

The statement of concern from the No Dump Alliance is at www.nodumpalliance.org.au, along with a range of fact sheets and other resources. The more informed we can all be, the better our community conversations on this very important topic.

2. We ask you to consider taking time to write from your congregation to SA Premier Jay Weatherill and SA Cabinet Ministers – stating you are aware of deep concerns in the community and urging that there are no steps taken to commit SA or Australia to further pursue this plan for an international nuclear waste facility. There is no rush to move to an intergenerational commitment for a short-term and unproven business rationale.

3. Visit or write to your local members of parliament.

4. People from the No Dump Alliance are available to travel and speak at different events, so hosting a local conversation in your community could be a powerful way to progress this important national discussion.

5. Send a message of support to communities on the frontline via the No Dump Alliance.


Should Australia pursue an international high -level radioactive waste importation industry? In real terms what does this mean? As explained, the technology just does not exist yet to isolate this waste for the time period it is active. There is still not a single facility for high level nuclear waste operating anywhere in the world. This, coupled with the enormous amount of money required to construct a final disposal facility means that the waste is likely to be left stored above ground for decades. If the money is not raised or the plans abandoned for any other number of reasons, then the waste would be there indefinitely, it cannot simply be returned to sender.

For many people this is no longer an academic exercise over a complex policy issue. It's a direct threat and heavy weight. It's a burden that literally lasts generations so we have to get it right.

If we can lift that weight and strengthen the shoulders of the people most affected now, it is truly for the benefit of all of us.

We really welcome all efforts and voices to participate and support the No Dump Alliance. Your participation - and your prayers – are important for the people waking up everyday with this nuclear cloud overhead.

I would like to give the final word today to Emily Munyungka Austin, one of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta who stopped the waste dump proposed in SA from 1998-2004.

“We know the stories from the bomb. We know the history. We know the country, and it is crying for us. We will talk over and over and we won't stop. For the kids and the land and for all the Kungka Tjuta that aren't here. Everyone has to say no. Irati Wanti - the poison, leave it.”

This talk was given by Natalie Wasley of Beyond Nuclear Initiative during the CRA National Assembly in Leura on 22 June 2016.

Read more about the issues, watch videos and take action for a nuclear-free Australia from Beyond Nuclear Initiative.

Read the related article from Josephite Sister Michele Madigan, "Dumped on elders down but not despairing".