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Farmers and Traditional Owners decry SA nuclear vote



On 12 November, Senator Canavan, federal Minister for Resources, took a question from the rather more junior Senator Alex Antic. The questioner wondered whether there was any recent progress on the federal nuclear facility proposed for Antic's own state of South Australia

Nuclear waste transport map (Credit: Kim Mavromatis, compiled from information in documents released by the federal government.)The Minister was delighted to have the chance to announce that in the district area of Kimba the long awaited vote to host both a permanent facility for national low level radiactive waste and storage for intermediate level radioactive waste had concluded. The result: 61.17 per cent voted in favour.

Unsurprisingly, Canavan failed to mention that voting rights in the poll were severely restricted. The Barngarla Traditional Owners, native title holders of the area, were given no voice. Farmers whose land is actually closer to the site were also excluded as their properties are outside the allocated narrow boundary.

Surprising however, even to four year battle-weary opponents of the scheme, was the fact that even on the second and third questions offered him by the willing SA Senator, the Minister failed to mention the main component of the project — long lived intermediate level waste from the Lucas Heights reactor

With the total vote consisting of only 734 ballot papers, the yes vote represented just 452 people. My letter to the Advertiser of 11 November 2019 pointed out that on these figures we have .027 per cent of South Australians speaking for us all. In her response on 15 November, task force manager of the project, Sam Chard, wrote to the Advertiser that 'the transport of waste will be conducted safely' — a careful phrase. Unfortunately not even a federal government can prevent accidents from happening as they surely will — and already have.

South Australian filmmaker Kim Mavromatis' just released video of an historic 1980 road accident involving nuclear waste from Lucas Heights graphically demonstrates the severe effects on former NSW police officers Bob Deards and Terry Clifford, who were tasked with cleanup. While there is no doubt that modern transport containers will be of better quality than in the past, the men's warning is obvious: 'The more they transport, the more accidents will happen.'

A later South Australian example was highlighted by the Advertiser's front-page headline of 9 December 1994: 'Radioactive drum spills on SA road'. 'A drum carrying low grade radioactive waste from New South Wales to Woomera has leaked contaminated material on to South Australian outback roads ... Port Augusta police confirmed last night they were conducting an emergency clean-up of the site about 2km north of Port Augusta ...'


"Union spokespeople are under no illusion that accidents are inevitable and about who will be automatically called for the cleanup."


Coober Pedy Aboriginal women Emily Austin and Lois Brown's alarmed response was published a few days later: 'When they were washing the truck after the leakage, they even took the water away. Why? if it was low-grade toxic waste. It must have been dangerous.' Their warning: 'Also that accident might have been low grade but what about the next time?'

Long-term Friends of the Earth environmentalist Dr Jim Green reiterates that nuclear transport accidents are commonplace. 'Indeed the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) acknowledges that a small number of nuclear transport accidents occur each year. If the industry is expanded, there will inevitably be more transport accidents. A British government database documents an average of 19 nuclear transport incidents each year. Countless thousands of Australians who live along potential nuclear waste transport corridors are being ignored and disenfranchised by the Morrison Government ... '

Union spokespeople are under no illusion that accidents are inevitable and about who will be automatically called for the cleanup. As Jamie Newlyn, South Australian Branch Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, warns: 'MUA members work in critical points of the logistics cycle and therefore the safe handling and above ground storage for decades is of great concern to the MUA ... '

A day of high temperatures and strong winds last month did nothing to deter opponents of the federal government's nuclear plans from the latest Port Augusta Rally. Terry Schmucker, who owns a farm in nearby Poochera, had no vote in the recent poll. He was scathing about the inability of the nuclear industry to guarantee project safety when ANSTO has been unable to prevent radioactive leaks even on site. 

After the rally, Aboriginal Co-Chairs of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA), Dwayne Coulthard and Vicki Abdulla, led a strong contingent to present ANFA's petition to the office of South Australia's Minister for Energy and Mining, Dan van Holst Pellekaan: 'South Australia has legislation that makes such waste facilities illegal: The Nuclear Waste Storage (Prohibition) Act 2000 ... We ask you to act now and protect South Australia and its people from Minister Canavan's site selection process that has caused so much distress to South Australian communities ... '

No, Senator Canavan, South Australians don't believe that 452 people in one small town have the right to agree to burden us with all the nation's nuclear waste — and forever.

In fact the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation has just set another challenge. With the results of their own Australian Electoral Company internal members vote showing 83 No and zero Yes votes, the Barngala have issued a statement which reads in part: 'BDAC has written to Minister Canavan advising him of the result. BDAC has requested that given the first people for the area unanimously have voted against the proposed facility that the Minister should immediately determine that there is not broad community support for the project. '

With the arrival of the voting papers for the proposed alternative Flinders Ranges site on 14 November, the intensity of the division between potential yes and no voters in the small towns and hinterlands of Hawker and Quorn seems to have hit fever pitch. The potential yes voters welcoming of a new 'industry' to the area seem to disregard the effect a nuclear facility will have on the major tourism industry and Adnyamathanha heritage; not to mention the threats to groundwaters in an area subject to seismic activity and floods.

This is a decision which will affect all South Australians, not just a tiny percentage of people who have experienced four years of federal government promises and pressure to acquiesce.



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 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 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: Nuclear waste transport map (Credit: Kim Mavromatis, compiled from information in documents released by the federal government.)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, South Australia, nuclear waste, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

The only “safe” way to dispose of nuclear waste is to put it in a rocket and shoot it into the sun - however, that would make the industry economically unviable.

Anna | 22 November 2019  

Thank you for this excellent article Michele - for the research, the detail, and the evidence that systems and structures of government are increasingly weakened by politicians and others who manipulate them to fit the decisions they have already made.

Susan Connelly | 22 November 2019  

Lucas Heights Provides a life saving service- their nuclear program provides Australia's and much of the world's supply of nuclear medicine. If this program is to continue the waste has to be stored somewhere.

Janet | 22 November 2019  

Janet raises a very important question Sr Madigan. Nuclear Medicine, with both a critical diagnostic function for many diseases and perhaps an even more important function in the treatment of various immediately life-threatening diseases, is not going to be abandoned and will thus continue to generate low level nuclear waste. Such waste has to be disposed of. I do not have the answer and don't have the advantage of your long time diligent research in this area. What does your experience indicate would be the appropriate waste disposal system and where should it be located if it involves isolation from human habitation? Is the risk of threat to human health associated with low level waste disposal defined?

john frawley | 22 November 2019  

A good question of course. We need nuclear medicine- where are we going to put the waste? In several previous articles I have explained quite often what the expert medical practitioners like Dr Margie Beavis know: with very few exceptions medical nuclear waste can stay where it is in the facilities like hospitals. Every such place obviously is obliged to have such an area. Most medical nuclear decays quite quickly and is then able to be placed in landfill. Unfortunately as the article's opening paragraphs describe- politicians don't want to talk about the real reason for the facility - so nuclear medical waste is the mask used. The storage of the fuel rods and such which comes from the ANSTO facility are the intermediate level nuclear waste toxic for 10,000 years is what is needed. Surely it makes sense that the process to ensure a safe and scientific solution is not, as in this process to ask anyone to simply offer up their land, regardless of genuine suitability. ANSTO has the experts and security right there and the space to safely store it. This is highly dangerous material. Why risk moving it simply to store it again? The nuclear experts won't be moving to Kimba or Hawker. What is needed is an independent, evidence based process to arrive at a scientific truly best practice solution. Not years of harassment and short term money offers.

Michele Madigan | 22 November 2019  

Thanks for this clear and informative article. Two points I might add. First - the nonsense argument that nuclear medicine needs this waste dump Not so, medical wastes are predominantly have very short-lived radioactivity - no need to transport them. Second - global heating is now exacerbating bushfires - so making transport of Lucas Heights radioactive trash ever more dangerous.

Noel Wauchope | 23 November 2019  

Thanks to Dr Susi Andersson, Hawker Flinders Ranges GP for permission today to use her expert research knowledge in further answer to the concerns of John Frawley and Janet. 'Misinformation and misunderstanding about the most dangerous intermediate level nuclear waste (ILW) destined for the proposed NRWMF (National Radioactive Waste Management Facility) continues. The use of nuclear medicine in hospitals does not produce any nuclear waste that will go to a NRWMF.The ‘Australian Radioactive Waste Management Framework’ shows that at January 2018 the volumes of ILW to be stored at a NRWMF to be1771 m3. Of this just 13m3 (less than 1%) comes from ‘Industry, hospitals, universities’, in all states and territories. Little if any ILW is stored in hospitals. I understand that some hospitals have a very small amount of radium sitting around that is no longer used but is only a few hundred grams. The use of nuclear medicine produces only low level waste which sits a while then goes to the usual (non radioactive) waste streams. The manufacture of nuclear medicine produces ILW and LLW (Low level waste ) but that happens and stays at Lucas Heights. X-rays and CTs produce no radioactive waste. The 'heads' of radiotherapy devices will be radioactive waste but the modern ones need to be returned to the manufacturer when obsolete and all manufacturers are overseas. There may the occasional old 'head' sitting around from before the current regulations.'

Michele Madigan | 23 November 2019  

Thanks Michele for alerting us to this unannounced decision- no doubt made on a day when other "more important news" is saturating the media. What concerns me is not the low level nuclear waste disposal site, but the lack of any democratic say in its location. I have little doubt that no one wants it located in their backyard, NIMBY is alive and well . The powers at be were well aware that there would be local opposition , so they rigged the so called vote!

Gavin | 24 November 2019  

More questions! If only 1% of the intermediate level waste comes from nuclear medicine and is not a problem, how much of the other 99% is not returned overseas and has to be dumped in Australia? And what facilities does it come from in Australia?

john frawley | 25 November 2019  

Thank you Michele for a well argued and researched article on a very serious issue. Sadly, it is not the first time that a flawed process has been used by manipulating politicians to get the outcomes they want. To have such a facility in a food growing area which is also of great significance to Aboriginal people indicates that many of our political leaders are prepared to gamble with our health and are contemptuous of our first nation peoples. I notice from watching news about this issue that some Kimba residents are hopeful that a nuclear waste dump will provide for greater employment opportunities., The fact is that this project will only provide a handful of jobs at the most. Your follow up answer to the issue of nuclear medicine is very important because it helps to allay many fears while exposing the attempt by dishonest politicians from revealing what they really want dumps for, The issue of the disposal of high level radioactive wastes has very serious consequences if things go wrong and needs much more careful planning than we have seen so far. All Australians of goodwill would want pay tribute to Michele Madigan for her years of dedicated work on this issue and for her solidarity with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. She is a champion.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 25 November 2019  

Reply to yesterday's question. The Intermediate long lived waste ( known as high level in France) carefully not mentioned by the Minister for Resources in the Senate question time comprises 'well over 93% ' (Dr Jim Green) measured by toxicity - the important relevant measurement which needs eventual safe disposal. this will not happen at either Kimba or Flinders Ranges as it is simply again being stored there. This ILW includes the spent fuel rods and material from the previous reactor at Lucas Heights - the ANSTO facility where there is plenty of room to keep storing them till a scientific independent assessment of the situation is achieved. All questions scientifically answered at nuclear.foe.org.au/waste

Michele Madigan | 26 November 2019  

Both nominated sites near Kimba are closer to the council boundary than the Kimba township or the centre of the district. I live at Cootra which shares councils. our farm is 8 km from the waste site and I did get a vote but my immediate neighbors don't. If the 50 km radius was applied at Kimba like it is at Hawker the vote would fail at these waste sites. Our neighborhood is split in half by the vote here. Volunteers from our neighbourhood that are members of the local fire service attend incidents around the waste dump site area and yet most didn't get a vote. We have already been through this once already where everyone was on equal terms. The minister at the time has already ruled there was not broad community support. However the landholder that nominated his land the first time then renominated a different part of his farm and his friends and family within the Kimba council moved for a vote of only the council area. The community funding has now been restricted to the Kimba council area only. because of this people are looking at the large inducement not the radioactive waste issues.

Terry Schmucker | 05 December 2019  

Many current or former residents of the west coast of South Australia have the first-hand experience of the impact of nuclear radiation on their health or the health of family members. Numerous and significant assortments of cancers, neurological conditions, stillbirths and deformities have ongoing impacts on its farming, fishing and Aboriginal communities. Even the native wildlife have deformities from the Maralinga nuclear tests. Recent studies for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association found 30 per cent of the nuclear test veterans had died, mostly in their 50s, from cancers or cancer-related illnesses and another study of New Zealand sailors who had been exposed to the nuclear testing had three times the level of genetic abnormality and notably higher rates of cancer than the general population. Intergenerational impact of radiation fallout continues to impact on the unborn. With this knowledge, a decision to accept a nuclear waste dump on farming land (in proximity to the Great Artesian Basin) should be discussed by the whole region and with communities all on the transit sites from Lucas Heights. If it is safe and will make billions for the community, why has the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator Matthew Canavan not requested the waste dump be located in Rockhampton, Queensland?

P Boylan | 06 December 2019  

This article might be one of the first shots fired in the ongoing debate about safe, or, if you like, 'safe' nuclear power in Australia. As Nigel Molesworth said 'as any fule kno...' it's not about a bit of 'harmless' rubbish from Lucas Heights. The big question, to me, at any rate, is 'Can renewables come onstream early enough for us to leapfrog nuclear power? ' I was pleasantly surprised by the sober opinion of an energy expert on today's 'Morning Breakfast' that power bills are going to go down nationwide soon due to the increasing availability of cheap renewable energy.

Edward Fido | 09 December 2019  

Thank you Michelle for an interesting article. The Lucas Heights facility has a history of embarrassing blunders whereby personnel have been exposed to excessive doses of ionizing radiation. https://tinyurl.com/ygh8xkhv The faulty administration of nuclear medicine, therapy and radiology to hapless patients is also of concern. Following are the number of accidents listed in annual reports: 2013-14 = 41. 2014-15 = 39, 2015-2016 =70, 2016-2017= 60, 2017-2018 = 105. Therefore a total of 315 accidents have occurred between 2013 and 2018. Wow. Interred at WA’s Mt Walton LLRW facility are two items of long-lived ILRW plutonium. The compelling evidence suggests that Australia cannot control the atom, neither in the past nor the present. I would say: En garde, fellow Australians.

Shirley Birney | 06 January 2020  

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