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Earlier this month after more than two years of debate and delay the federal government passed a law aimed at advancing a controversial radioactive waste dump on contested Aboriginal land in central Australia.
This week Maurice Blackburn lawyers, with special assistance from Ron Merkel QC and Julian Burnside QC, will be representing Northern Territory Indigenous elders in a Melbourne courtroom in a move aimed at stopping the Federal government's plan for Australia's first purpose-built national nuclear waste dump at Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek.
To take a step back, on 13 February 2008 Kevin Rudd made a welcome and long overdue apology to Indigenous Australians as the first order of business for the recently elected Labor government. In making the apology, then Prime Minister Rudd named Lorna Fejo as a personal example of the necessity for a national apology.
Lorna Fejo is a traditional owner of land that includes Muckaty Station. She is now part of the group that has launched legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site. She has made her feelings about the proposed waste dump crystal clear. "I'm very, very disappointed and downhearted about that [Muckaty legislation]. I'm really, really sad," she said.
The thing is — when are we going to have a fair go? Australia is supposed to be the land of the fair go. When are we going to have fair go? I've been stolen from my mother now they're stealing my land off me
At its most basic, advancing the Muckaty site is a case of politicians in Canberra dumping the most dangerous and poisonous radioactive waste we produce on one of Australia's poorest and least resourced Indigenous communities.
It has happened without transparent or democratic processes and in clear contravention of international obligations, including under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If Muckaty were to become home to Australia's radioactive waste it, would be a body-blow to the reconciliation process set in motion with the apology to the stolen generations.
It is crucial to realise that what is being proposed is Australia's new 'greenfield' approach to radioactive waste management. However, instead of developing a credible process the government has been obsessed with identifying a vulnerable postcode. To place Australia's worst radioactive waste on the lands of some of its poorest people - without broad community understanding or consent - is not cutting edge scientific thinking, robust policy or best practice.
It is a heavy-handed 1950s-style approach to Indigenous land and rights and a quick and dirty attempt to deal with a long lasting and dirty waste. Martin Ferguson, the Minister who has most actively pushed the dump plan, is using the emotive argument that it is necessary for Australia's nuclear medical waste.
However medical experts dispute this claim. Louise Emmett, a physician from St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney says, "in the vast majority of nuclear medicine practices the storage issue is not particularly current, in terms of what we keep is short half-life, up to sort of eight days half-life, so it would be difficult to take that long distances for storage."
Nuclear radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos uses even plainer language in response to Minister Ferguson's justification for a nuclear waste dump on medical grounds.
"That's a furphy that Minister Ferguson has been promulgating to get the public on side through an emotive campaign of disinformation."
What we know to be true is that most of the waste slated for Muckaty is currently located at two secured and dedicated federal facilities. One is on the Woomera defence lands in South Australia and the other at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisations (ANSTO) Lucas Heights reactor complex in southern Sydney. Assessments have shown both sites can continue to host this waste while we dump the Muckaty plan and get serious about a responsible approach to radioactive waste management.
We can't take the heat out of radioactive waste but we can take the heat out of the increasingly polarised debate about how best to manage this waste. We need to learn from countries like the UK and the USA who have far greater volumes of nuclear waste and have both accepted the need for transparency, accountability and community consent as an essential pre-condition to its responsible and effective management.
The Muckaty community might be under great pressure because of Minister Ferguson's plan but they are vigorously defending their country from the threat it poses.
Recently they invited the Governor-General to visit their lands and this week they are taking legal action aimed at getting the Muckaty nomination declared invalid in the federal court. With key issues of ownership, consultation and consent unresolved and legal action under way, it is clear that there is no certainty or social licence surrounding the Muckaty dump plan.
Instead of radioactive divide and rule we need an expert approach, removed from the politicians but engaged with the community, to examine and assess the most credible and responsible way to manage Australia's radioactive waste in the long term. We need to bring diverse stakeholders out of the trenches and to the table.
Minister Ferguson argues that the dump is needed for nuclear medicine - untrue. He argues that it is needed urgently - untrue. And he argues that it is supported by traditional owners - untrue. No matter what the code three strikes means you're out.
Muckaty constitutes a fundamental test of our technical capacity, but more importantly it is a test of our national responsibility and maturity. Australia can and must do better.
Originally published at ABC Environment online. Dave Sweeney is Nuclear Free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation