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How should Labor handle nuclear waste storage in SA?


In the long ago past when I was at school, we learned about the classifications of sin: broadly speaking, there were things that you did or said that were wrong, and then there were things that you didn’t do or didn’t say but should havesins of omission.

The former Minister for Resources Keith Pitt proved to be particularly proficient in the latter. In the long-running attempt to gain support for the previous government’s proposed federal radioactive dump project for the Kimba farming region in Barngarla country, South Australia, omission seemed to be common practice. There was no reference to the long-lived intermediate radioactive waste which, measured by radioactivity, would form over 90 per cent of the nuclear waste proposed to be transported across country and ‘temporarily’ stored above ground. Instead, low-level nuclear waste took centre-stage, along with grossly exaggerated claims of the necessity of the facility for the future of nuclear medicine.

The last seven years of the Coalition government’s attempts to establish a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF) can be summarised thus: a desktop survey led to 26 sites throughout the country (with the exception of Tasmania and WA) being proposed, with three in South Australia. The shortlist announced in 2015 only listed the three South Australian sites (despite the ‘rolled gold assurance in 2004 from the same Coalition government that the federal government would never again attempt to build a radioactive waste dump in South Australia). The first declared site in the Kimba area was ruled out by Minister Josh Frydenberg due to ‘insufficient community support. Attention then shifted to the Wallaberdina site in the iconic Flinders Ranges, but with fierce opposition from the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association and the Flinders Ranges Action Group (FLAG), that site was eventually abandoned as physically unsuitable

With attention now on the second Kimba site of ‘Napandee, a restricted vote of just 824 people ensured the exclusion of Barngarla’s traditional owners and some other opponents. With a narrow community majority, Minister Matt Canavan announced Napandee as the chosen site in 2020. However, opposition from certain Labor and cross-bench members ensured that the Barngarla were able to exercise their right to judicial review.


'How is the new Labor Government likely to respond, particularly in facing the unprecedented debt of $1 trillion bequeathed by the Coalition?'


On 15 June this year, the first stage of the Barngarla court case against the government was initiated in the Federal Court in Adelaide. The Barngarla also invited the media to quote from their recent letters to the newly-elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Labor Minister for Resources Madeleine King.

In these letters the Barngarla focussed on another incident of omission: the carefully orchestrated exclusion of the Barngarla from the voting process on the proposed NRWMF, which would have such a profound impact on the lands and cultural heritage of which they are native titleholders. 

Several media outlets gave rare exposure to this crucial issue, reporting the determination of the traditional owners in proceeding to court. But these reports also repeated the former government’s misleading claims regarding the radioactivity of the waste and overplaying the nuclear medicine emphasis (with the notable exception of the local ABC North and West report).

There was no mention of the main purpose of the project: processing and storing the long-lived intermediate radioactive waste, including material returned from overseas, which includes reprocessed nuclear fuel rods from the present Opal reactor and the previous Hifar reactor.

The Barngarla have emphasised their collegiality with the Kimba farmers opposed to the proposed NRWMF. The Barngarla value their grain production and the importance of a suitable environment for their essential product. A recent ABC report put the number of people worldwide in danger of starvation at 800 million. The stark reality is that prolonged food shortages and warfare are linked in a cycle of cause and effect consider the way current worldwide food shortages have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, with supply chains for grain from both Ukraine and Russia (who together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies) severely disrupted.

In Australia a surprisingly low 6.5 per cent is arable farming land the figure is just 4.5 per cent in South Australia. With the world food supply in such a desperate state, this is the perfect time for the new federal government to revoke the former government’s plan to unload and store the nation’s radioactive waste on prime farming country such as the proposed site of Kimba.

In the Barngala’s letter to Prime Minister Albanese, they refer to his early commitment to the Uluru Statement of the Heart in their plea for the revocation of the proposed NRWMF that they assert is not only unnecessary but would be damaging and dangerous for their country. There are recent precedents showing how it is possible to set aside the policies and procedures of the past Coalition machinations. On 7 July, for example, the Attorney General Mark Dreyfus dropped the costly prosecution of Witness K’s lawyer, Bernard Collaery, four years after he was charged with leaking classified information about Australia’s alleged spying operation in Timor-Leste.

In recent letters to various Members and Senators, FLAG member Greg Bannon noted the money that could be saved in rejecting the NRWMF project: ‘The Treasurer has said there needs to be a "focus on the quality of spending" and that savings have to be made to claw back the deficit. We believe the current NRWMF proposal is an area for such savings and that, so far, the money is not being wisely spent … Site works have not yet been started at Napandee. The savings are considerable: $300 to $350 million is the range we’ve been told this facility will cost.’   

Providentially, the federal government’s 2021/22 budget allocation of $59.8 million to ANSTO for expansion means that there is enough room to store long-lived intermediate radioactive waste for the next decade or so. This adds to the reasons the new Labor federal government should respond to the Uluru Statement’s call to establish a Voice for First Australians, by heeding that of the Barngarla; ensure the safety of the nation’s grain production at this time of world food crisis by avoiding the potential contamination of arable farming land; saving the Australian people millions of dollars by revoking the proposed NRWMF; and delaying construction of such a facility until it can be done according to world’s best practice. As Bannon says, ‘Build it once and build it properly.’

How is the new Labor Government likely to respond, particularly in facing the unprecedented debt of $1 trillion bequeathed by the Coalition? Surely, at the least, it is less likely to omit mention of the risk in transporting and storing the extraordinarily toxic intermediate-level waste, and will be motivated to leave higher level waste at ANSTO where it is manufactured. The most promising scenario is abandonment of the project in sincere commitment to the Uluru Statement. In the words of the Barngarla to Prime Minister Albanese: ‘At its core, as much as we were proud to see you speak so strongly about the Uluru Statement from the Heart, we cannot see how a Labor Government can implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the long overdue reform on Government accountability, whilst maintaining Court proceedings against us as the First Peoples for this area, where all we ever tried to do was have a vote and a say on our Country.





Michele 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: Proposed site of NRWMF Napandee, Kimba region, South Australia (Kim Mavromatis, used with permission)

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



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Existing comments

thanks Michele for your good work.

At first I thought your headline was about the SA state ALP.

Back in May, Tammy Franks MLC asked questions in the state upper house about the Kimba situation.

These questions remain (to my knowledge) without an answer from the Deputy Premier Susan Close MP.

The state ALP played a vital role in our earlier victory most of twenty years ago, when Mike Rann took the lead and defended our state successfully against nuclear waste plotters.

Will Premier Malinauskas and Deputy Premier Close follow on and make a stand like Premier Rann ?????

Brett Stokes | 04 August 2022  

An excellent article. Prime Minister Albanese should be ashamed of himself for deciding to continue to fight the Barngarla people in court over the dump while promoting an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament. Albo needs to start listening more to current Aboriginal voices.

Robyn Wood | 04 August 2022  

Brilliant Michele! So many sensible reasons to stop the dump. Labor now needs to listen to the voices of the Barngarla people.

Joan Boylan | 04 August 2022  

Food security is a current necessity in the face of climate change and wars. The nuclear industry should be diminishing for the same reasons and the major reason of the dangerous material it is in itself. Having large dumps and deposits has been resisted by citizens of every ilk for decades. We know so much more. Here we go again so we are not giving up.

Kay McPadden | 04 August 2022  

Thankyou for this opportunity. I constantly ponder why government over this past 50 years has failed to permanently dispose of nuclear waste - particularly the more dangerous Intermediate Level Waste - which I believe is 10% of the waste volume & 90% of the radiation .
The answer turns out to be quite simple. Those responsible at all levels of government have never looked for a permanent disposal ILW site solution.
It is incredible and frankly beyond belief . There is no evidence that government has fulfilled their basic responsibility. I only wish that I did not have to make this comment. As an Australian I am embarrassed to make the comment that government has not sought with all the expertise and science at their command have failed to look and failed our nation to meet their key responsibility of effectively managing our ILW Nuclear Waste.
I would be pleased to help and support them and devote all it takes to resolve this matter. BW

Barry Wakelin, Kimba | 05 August 2022  

Bitter memories continue for South Australians.
The region is already impacted by the fallout of the British government exploding twelve atomic bomds on their soil from 1953-1963.
Media reports detail horrific family tragedies - numerous cancers, neurological diseases and brain tumours of local residents.
British nuclear scientist, Dr Chris Busby told '60 Minutes' that people at test sites received more exposure to radiation fallout than someone at Nagasaki in Japan.
Dr Busby noted, 'We found a ninefold excess of congenital heritable disease in the offspring of test veterans compared with controls.'
Horrific congenital heritable diseases appeared in the local population including the Aboriginal community. Yet many persons who suffered ill health from the nuclear fallout such as the late Yankunytjatjarra elder, Yami Lester were undermined for talking about the sickness that followed, and his own blindness.
In 2009, Maralinga's Tjarutja traditional owners were handed back what they were assured was radiation and toxic-free land.
It wasn't and they no longer can venture into this land.
Signs erected at Maralinga in the local Aboriginal language warn not to camp anywhere in the area.

Again it seems Australian regional and remote populations are being treated as lab rats by politicians.

Patricia Boylan | 06 August 2022  

Thank you Michele for your excellent summary of considerations for the Government to think about. Let's hope this project will be abandoned.

Ann Henry | 06 August 2022  

Thank you Michele for this article and your ongoing commitment and work as well as your enduring activism that supports First Nations, voice, and the security of their lands and waters. With greetings and solidarity from Mpartnwe/Alice Springs.

Vicki Crowley | 06 August 2022  

I have long favoured hiving off the south east of SA (Robe, Kingston SE, Mount Gambier etc) and merging them into Victoria combined with making the rest of the state a territory under Federal Control and called the Australian Nuclear Territory. Use the ANT to store the world's nuclear waste. It would be a massive competitive advantage and using an area of no other value or importance to anyone.

Bob | 09 August 2022