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Dumping nuclear waste on indigenous land is wrong (The Punch)

Radioactive waste lasts a lot longer than any politician and we need to get its management right.

If a week is a long time in politics then 106 of them must be close to an eternity.

That’s how long it has taken Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson to steer his controversial nuclear waste legislation though both Houses of Parliament.

Introduced as an urgent matter with Coalition support in February 2010, the law passed the Senate this week. While the delay might cause frustration to an impatient Minister, in the timeframe over which radioactive waste remains a serious human and environmental risk it is but a blip.

Radioactive waste lasts a lot longer than any politician and we need to get its management right. Sadly the National Radioactive Waste Management legislation is profoundly wrong.

The legislation attempts to manage Australia’s highest level radioactive waste by dumping it on some of the country’s most disadvantaged people in the Muckaty region, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek in central Australia.

Tennant is an unassuming town that hugs the Stuart Highway around 500 kilometres north of Alice Springs. It is the principal service town of the Barkly, a region the size of the UK that is home to a smattering of gold, manganese and other mines, some of the world’s biggest cattle stations and – if Minister Ferguson gets his way – Australia’s radioactive waste.

The law signed off on by the two major parties is a cynical re-packaging of the discredited and unsuccessful approach taken by the former Howard government. In Opposition, Labor called the heavy handed law “sordid”, “arrogant” and “draconian”. It was then and remains so today.

The legislation overrides any current or future federal, state and territory laws that could affect the siting and operation of any national radioactive waste facility, suspends key environmental and Aboriginal heritage protections during the site selection phase and fails to reflect international industry best practice in radioactive waste management.

Predictably the result of this approach mimics that of the Howard years: a plan that lacks scientific rigour or procedural credibility, a growing chorus of critics, a continuing failure to responsibly or effectively engage with an important public policy debate and a deeply divided and sceptical indigenous community.

There is a world of difference between the lore and sands of central Australia and the law and streets of Melbourne’s legal precinct but the two cross-over in a Federal Court move by Traditional Owners opposed to the waste dump.

Community members, with the support of law firm Maurice Blackburn and others, are contesting the validity of the Muckaty site nomination. They maintain that both the Northern Land Council and the Commonwealth have failed to accurately identify, consult with and receive consent from Traditional Owners and are seeking to end the plan.

Internationally, community engagement and consent is widely regarded as an essential pre-condition to any effective waste management regime. In the Muckaty case the Minister uses procedural fiction and a secret, commercial-in-confidence deal to cover up the clear lack of broad community support or consent.

It is both revealing and sobering that in the week of the first anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear crisis the federal government has comprehensively failed its own nuclear test, jettisoning international standards and responsibility in a cheap and nasty approach to a long-term and dangerous issue

A growing number of Indigenous, public health, environment and faith groups, trade unions and the NT Government all oppose Minister Ferguson’s waste dump plan.

Radioactive waste management is not an easy policy area. It involves a range of stakeholders and a material that generates heat, headlines and hazards. But this is all the more reason to get the policy architecture right and to avoid the trap of favouring short term political expedience over long term responsible management.

The current approach has alienated local communities, Indigenous land owners, civil society groups and State and Territory governments. Public confidence and procedural and scientific credibility could be restored by facilitating a responsible, informed and transparent approach to radioactive waste management in Australia.

A Commission of Inquiry, similar to the model used by the independent and expert UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management or the recent US Blue Ribbon Commission, should properly consider the extent, nature and properties of Australia’s radioactive waste and explore options for responsible management based on the foundation principles of non-imposition of radioactive waste transport and dumping and respect for Traditional Owners’ rights and interests.

It’s not rocket science, it’s respect.

Dumping nuclear waste on contested Aboriginal land is not responsible, credible or acceptable in the 21st Century.

The fight to stop a radioactive waste dump at Muckaty - or on any remote and marginalised community - is an important test of our national maturity.

The science of radioactive waste management might be complex but the ethical dimension is simple. It is neither proper nor acceptable for Australia’s worst radioactive wastes to be dumped on the lands of Australia’s first people’s and we must ensure that fundamental citizenship entitlements are in no way linked to a poor community’s acceptance of a very poor plan.

Until this happens the radioactive resistance will continue to grow, as Muckaty Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes made crystal clear when she said “We have been asking for someone to come and sit with us so that we can talk to them face to face. We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to. The big capital NO.”

The Muckaty plan is most definitely a bad deal, but it is certainly not a done deal.

The fight, like the waste, will remain hot for a long time yet.