Land owners out of mind, out of site
Lindsay Murdoch and Tom ArupFebruary 27, 2010
Nuclear waste dump plans are dividing an Aboriginal clan, write Lindsay Murdoch and Tom Arup.
DIANNE STOKES says the Rudd government's decision to push ahead with plans to dump nuclear waste on land north of Tennant Creek has caused trouble in her Warlmanpa tribe.
"People have given away land that doesn't belong to them … now there is big trouble among us," she says.
For centuries, Aboriginal clans followed their dreaming across the gently sloping, low scrub land that became known last century by white people as Muckaty cattle station.
Now some members of one of those clans have agreed to allow Australia's first national waste dump to be established on 1.5 square kilometres of land they claim is theirs in return for $12 million, most of it in cash.
The terms of the agreement remain secret - even some members of the Ngapa clan who might get the money have not been given a copy.
The Federal Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, revealed this week the government planned to pursue Muckaty as its nuclear dump site, saying it is the only place that had been "volunteered".
He introduced legislation in Parliament that gives his government the power to override a threat by the Northern Territory to block the dump being built at Muckaty, an earthquake-prone area 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek.
If the dump - or radioactive waste repository as bureaucrats call it - is built, about 4000 cubic metres of waste that has been accumulating in small stores in southern states over the past 50 years would be transported there, by rail or road.
Trucks would move 2000 cubic metres of radioactive contaminated soil from the Woomera defence area in South Australia.
Stockpiles of waste from the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney in southern Sydney would be transported through dozens of cities and towns to reach the dump site 10 kilometres from the busy Stuart Highway.
In 2015 and 2016 about 32 cubic metres of highly radioactive waste from the reprocessing of spent research reactor fuel that Australia has sent to Scotland and France over decades is planned to be transported to Muckaty, probably via ships docking at Darwin harbour.
Mr Ferguson has signalled he is determined to push ahead with Muckaty despite strong objections from environmental and indigenous groups, the NT government and Labor federal MPs from the Territory who have railed against a dump being imposed on the Territory.
The story of how some members of a small Aboriginal clan agreed to allow nuclear waste to be dumped on their land began in late 2005 when Norman Fry, then chief executive of the Northern Land Council, met Canberra bureaucrats who were assessing three possible Defence Department-owned sites in the Territory.
Questions were being asked at the time about the relevance and conduct of the land council, which represents indigenous groups across the Top End.
Mr Fry invited the bureaucrats to address the land council's full council meeting at a beach resort near Darwin.
After a half-day presentation, several elders of one of three Ngapa clans told the lands council they were interested in offering their land for the site.
One of them, Amy Lauder, who sits on the council, said in 2007 her people's acceptance of the deal was right, despite protests from other clans owning Muckaty, which was handed back to traditional owners in 1995 after a long court battle.
"Other clans can speak for their country, not our Ngapa country," she said.
Ron Levy, the land council's senior legal counsel, insisted there was "overwhelming" support for the dump from Ngapa people with the authority to make decisions regarding the land, based on the still secret findings of three land council-employed anthropologists.
But Marlene Bennett, a Muckaty traditional owner, said that two, possibly three, people "took it upon themselves to speak for the rest of the tribe and clans".
She said some clan members were asked to sign a piece of paper at a meeting but did not know what it was for.
David Ross, the director of the Central Land Council, which represents some clans whose land straddles Muckaty, this week warned that building the dump there would cause "ongoing disputation and social problems" among indigenous groups in the area.
After an inquiry in 2008, a Labor-dominated Senate committee acknowledged the controversy surrounding the Muckaty nomination, including the process of gathering and providing anthropological information. It described the Howard government-era nuclear waste management legislation as flawed.
But the legislation Mr Ferguson introduced into Parliament this week failed to restore procedural fairness and administrative law rights to those traditional owners opposed to the Muckaty nomination.
The legislation also overrides the NT's nuclear waste transport legislation and bypasses key federal environmental and heritage laws.
Paul Henderson, the Territory Chief Minister, made clear he felt betrayed by his federal Labor colleagues and said he would express his strong view to Canberra that the process should be based on science and the search should be Australia wide.
Successive governments in Canberra have being trying to find a site to dump nuclear waste since 1985.
The federal government bought what scientists argued was the most suitable site in South Australia in 2003 but, following a sustained public campaign, the South Australian Government mounted and won a legal challenge in 2004.
Natalie Wasley, a spokeswoman for the Beyond Nuclear Initiative in the Northern Territory, said: "Labor promised an open and transparent process for dealing with nuclear waste - but has only recycled previous flawed legislation."
Dave Sweeney, a nuclear expert with the Australian Conservation Foundation, said no comparable country has a national radioactive waste policy based on secret documents and agreements.
The government has not made public any detail about the dump, such as whether it would be in bunkers or sheds, how it would be transported and protected and what effect it would have on the environment.
A spokesman for Mr Ferguson said a study by the firm Parson Brinckerhoff, which found Muckaty was a suitable potential site, would be made public at some stage.
Mr Sweeney said: "International experience has shown that if you are going to have an effective radioactive management scheme - and that is what we all want to see - it requires a high level of community confidence and a high level of community consent. This currently does not exist in Australia."
"You don't solve long-term environmental and human health threats with short-term political bulldoze tactics."
Ms Stokes says she and other Warlmanpa tribe elders who own Muckaty land are worried because they want to say no to the dump. "We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to."