As nuclear waste storage Bill passes, the fight continues


For several decades, successive federal governments have tried but failed to establish a national nuclear waste repository, primarily to take waste from the nuclear research reactor site operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, 30 km south of Sydney. Currently, a site near Kimba on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula is being targeted.

Banner on the South Australian parliament steps (Image courtesy of Michele Madigan)

The Federal Government is trying to advance the project with two contested claims: that storage space at Lucas Heights is reaching capacity and that a repository is needed to facilitate the practice of nuclear medicine. However, the claim that the nuclear waste is mostly or entirely a byproduct of nuclear medicine is false, given Australia’s use of medical isotopes generates little in the way of waste.

Federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt has always had the power to make a ministerial declaration of a particular site for the new national radioactive waste storage facility. But instead of making a selection, for over twelve months he chose to take his NRWMF (National Radioactive Waste Management Facility) Amendment Bill legislation to Parliament. Under his proposed legislation, any group that opposed the site he selected — including the Barngarla Traditional Owners — would not have the power of judicial review.

Last month, the Senate came to a decision approving an amended Bill that would allow Traditional Owners judicial review if the location was disputed. Minister Pitt was forced to admit defeat.

Over the course of the Bill’s passage, the Coalition had the numbers in the House of course, with the legislation passing in 2020 only after informed and strong opposing speeches by Labor, the Greens and Independents. The Senate, however, was a different matter. Labor, the Greens and the majority of the other five Crossbenchers continued for months standing firmly against legislation that denied judicial review to opposition groups.

Minister Pitt, having listed the legislation a number of times, was then forced every time to withdraw his Bill. In regular media statements, Pitt harangued opposing Senators, especially Labor, with increasingly extravagant claims for the necessity of the dump for the future of nuclear medicine.

Government arguments to the contrary, the present nuclear waste storage site at Lucas Heights is in no danger of running out of room. ARPANSA (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) is the nation’s nuclear regulator. In 2020 in parliamentary testimony, Dr Carl-Magnus Larsson clearly stated, ‘Waste can be safely stored at Lucas Heights for decades to come.’ In fact, the recent federal Budget provided $60 million for further decades of extended storage capacity for Intermediate Long-lived Waste at ANSTO Lucas Heights, building onto the operation of existing stores to 2026. There is no emergency.


‘With the intermediate level waste simply being moved from one part of the nation to be again stored above ground for a cited 100 years, the can is being kicked down the road for future generations to deal with.’


During last month’s Senate debate many salient points were made by the Greens and other Crossbench Senators. During the debate, the previous Minister for Resources Matthew Canavan gave assurances that the invited submissions would be taken into consideration, but 95 per cent of the submissions made were against the proposed new site.

Further, it was pointed out that in the Kimba district, 36 non-residents with property were permitted to vote while the Traditional Owners, and also farmers whose properties were closer to the Napandee site but outside the Kimba Council region, were not.

So where are we up to in this long-running saga?

With the intermediate level waste simply being moved from one part of the nation to be again stored above ground for a cited 100 years, the can is being kicked down the road for future generations to deal with. What is needed is an independent expert inquiry.

And with judicial review allowed in the amended legislation, Labor were able to say they were supporting the Traditional Owners and then voted with the government to ensure the amended Bill became law.

The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) is finally free to proceed to court. The resources Minister within the coming weeks will formally declare the site, almost certain to be Napandee in the Kimba region in SA. From there, the project will require EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) procedure and the regulator ARPANSA licensing, both offering significant public opportunities.

Finally: there are two elections looming: South Australia’s State elections on 19 March, 2022, as well as Federal. Both SA Liberal and Labor past Premiers have initiated successful state legislation ‘prohibiting the establishment of certain nuclear waste facilities’ in this state. Environmentalists are now calling on South Australians to make the federal government’s radioactive waste plan that counters this legislation, an election issue.

At times, in such a long campaign one can ask, is opposition really worth the struggle? 

I received an answer to that question on 18 June, on State Parliament House steps, when a colleague and I conducted a rehearsal for a larger sit-in. In the cold I was in a long dress, gloves, scarf, woollen cap, hoodie jacket. After our shift, my companion went to get the car leaving at my feet our magnificent banner hidden by its worn tarpaulin cover. As a group of high school children rushed past me towards the railway station, a lively-looking student, maybe 15 years old, said something to her teacher. Then she approached and stood in front of me offering an almost-full packet of chips. ‘Do you want them?’ I stared back at her, not understanding. Again: ‘Do you want them?’ Looking down at the old tarpaulin, I realised she was feeding the homeless!

This girl is an example of the beautiful future generations whose well-being we are responsible for. They deserve far better than radioactive waste, toxic for 10,00 years, being stored above ground in their state. The fight continues.

Donate to the Barngarla crowdfunder to fund a legal challenge.



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: Banner on the South Australian parliament steps (Image courtesy of Michele Madigan)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, South Australia, nuclear waste, Kimba, ANSTO, South Australia



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Existing comments

Stick to your guns Sr Michelle. Where there's a will there's a way. The whole concept of storing other countries medical radioactive waste is contrary to common sense. Then of course if in the past the Government can permit the Maralinga fiasco, all they are interested in is the economic profit from the international contract they have signed when Frydenberg was minister. If it can be proved that the waste they propose to store there is not medical radioactive waste, that might be genuine grounds for a judicial review. Would France and India tell the truth on that issue? On a parallel note, China now dumps most of its nuclear waste in Tibet and has also deforested 80 percent of Tibet's forests.

Francis Armstrong | 27 July 2021  

lets hope that there is NO NUCLEAR WASTE dumps approved anywhere we cannot kill our planet at all we must care for our common home

Maryellen Flynn | 27 July 2021  

Well done on another good article, Michele. Minister Pitt's decision not to make a decision seems another strategic and tactical manoeuvre to coerce some small, remote community into accepting a nuclear waste dump on its doorstep. It has been unsuccessful so far. The public has every right to wonder why every attempt to establish a dump, since the search started 40 years ago, has failed. Is opposing it really worth the struggle? The answer is emphatically "Yes" - the "squeaky hinge gets the oil", and to give up simply leaves the field to the undeserving. We all know that what is being proposed is manipulative, divisive and quite simply wrong. If what has been tried for 40 years without success has failed, where is the logic in continuing to do the same thing? Stop now and go back to the drawing board. Come up with a solution that permanently and safely disposes of all Australian nuclear waste in one acceptable and manageable location. It seems that ANTSO is preparing the ground to extend interim storage of intermediate level waste at Lucas Heights. This weakens the case for a "stand alone" low level dump at Kimba. There is no economic benefit to any community from a LLW dump on its own.

Gregory Bannon | 27 July 2021  

OK Michelle, to some you look like a female tramp. ROFL. St Francis would approve. With all due respect to you and our federal politicians, both on opposing sides of the fence here, I think the nuclear power issue is much bigger than this particular episode. My own personal feeling is that safe nuclear power, and I'm not talking of antiquated facilities like Lucas Heights, which I think should be mothballed. There are smaller, safe nuclear reactors which are much less polluting and need far less storage. Lucas Heights is not safe. Years ago some waste got into the water system and parts of Hunters Hill are 'mildly' polluted. Both you and the politicians need to be brought up to speed. Meanwhile you're fighting an antiquated war. It's like Northern Ireland. Useless, quite useless. The main, relevant issue is unaddressed.

Edward Fido | 28 July 2021  

Thanks for keeping this in the public view Michele, in the face of so much concealment in the mass media.

Susan Connelly | 28 July 2021  

You are right- Nuclear medicine use creates very little waste. But production is another story. The massive, heavily subsidised export industry at Lucas Heights (steadily increasing to be 25-30 times what is needed in Australia) is producing a lot of waste. This waste is radioactive for 10,000 years- it needs to be properly disposed of, not "temporarily stored". ANSTO is the safest place for this waste. ANSTO needs to take responsibility for what it is doing, not ship waste off to regional South Australia to be out of sight and out of mind.

Margaret | 28 July 2021  

Please add my full name to the comment I just wrote- thanks!

Margaret Beavis | 28 July 2021  

Yes, Australia does need a nuclear waste dump, a PERMANENT one, to dispose of the radioactive trash generated at Lucas Heights, Globally recognised - best practice is to have that dump as close as possible to the point of production. So, as Michelle Madigan says, the logical step now is for an INDEPENDENT Inquiry into the waste management, NOT Mr Pitt's half-baked plan for a temporarty dumpn 1700 km away on prime agricultural land. Of course, nobody seems to say the bleeding obvious - which is that the world must stop producing this toxic trash. In a genuinely caring about the futures scenario, this unnecessary Lucas Heights nuclear reactor would be permanently closed. The future of medical isotope production is here now - non-nuclear sources, cyclotrons, now do the job, and the nuclear lobby's excuse for the existence of the reactor is wearing very thin.

Noel Wauchope | 29 July 2021  

Michele, it is inevitable that this subject of a nuclear waste management facility should encourage some debate. One of your commenters seems to be pushing the barrow for Small Modular Reactors. I believe this is wide of the mark and would like to respectfully reply. SMR’s, like “clean coal”, have been talked about for years but it seems they are still being developed. This particular debate has nothing to do with nuclear power generation. For over six years opposition has been against yet another attempt by the Federal Government to dump 60 years’ worth of nuclear waste on some remote Australian community. Previous attempts have run aground on community resistance, legal challenges and State prohibition legislation. So far, all have failed. With each new attempt the strategy appears to be to offer increased inducements to communities and individuals. With each new dump attempt comes a renewed call for nuclear power. General acceptance of nuclear power has increasing hurdles to overcome and the economics don’t stack up. Meanwhile wind, solar and battery technology has gone from strength to strength. Nuclear power production in this current dump debate is a red herring.

Gregory Bannon | 29 July 2021  

A comment here suggests: 'The main, relevant issue is unaddressed.' Not correct. The main and very relevant issue is nuclear waste. It has been building up all over the world for the last 70 years and is proving to be an intractable problem. It is an inter-generational issue and an ethical issue. It is also an issue which is deeply affecting the community in Kimba, as it has in other communities. Hence the need for articles like this.

Andrew Williams | 30 July 2021  

Australia clearly needs nuclear technology . So much misinformation is distributed by people who do not realise the massive benefits nuclear technology and particularly the generation of electricity for a clean environment can be achieved through nuclear. It is time to accept that advances in technology have overcome some problems from the past.

bernard treston | 31 July 2021  

The main source of misinformation is the nuclear industry and the Australian federal government. The generation of electricity from nuclear energy produces nuclear waste which is the exact opposite of a 'clean environment'. The 'problems from the past' are being transferred to future generations who have not created 'the problems'.

Andrew Williams | 02 August 2021  

You're a myopic Luddite, Andrew Williams. You speak without knowledge. The technology to deal with nuclear waste, remembering modern nuclear reactors are not like, (God help us!) Lucas Heights, exists. Michelle, and I say this with the greatest respect for her, which I do genuinely possess, reminds me of a very dear friend of mine, who sadly passed away some time ago. This lady was English born, but her surname was Sinclair and she had very much the fighting spirit of her clan, as Michelle has that Irish spirit to rebel against injustice. Lavinia stuck to her guns. She was a lovely lady, as I regard Michelle. Like Michelle she was single and had no children, but gave that motherly love to all. I just sometimes disagreed with her. Ditto Michelle. Bernard Treston is on the money IMHO.

Edward Fido | 03 August 2021  

The Japanese bishops’ statement on nuclear power is clear on the so-called benefits of nuclear power.
The English version can be downloaded here:
If you skip the technical bits it is very readable.

Paul McCartin | 04 August 2021  


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