Radioactive racism and Australia's 'ecomodernists'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The plan to turn South Australia (SA) into the world's nuclear waste dump has lost momentum since 2016 though it continues to be promoted by some politicians, the Business SA lobby group, and an assortment of individuals and lobbyists including self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists or 'ecomodernists'.

In its 2016 report, the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission established by the state government strongly promoted a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (about one-third of the world's total) and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste.1 The state Labor government then spent millions on a state-wide promotional campaign under the guide of consultation. The government also initiated a Citizens' Jury process. However two-thirds of the 350-member Citizens' Jury rejected the waste import proposal "under any circumstances" in their November 2016 report.2

The Jury's verdict was non-binding but it took the wind out of the dumpsters' sails. Shortly after the Jury reported, the SA Liberal Party ‒ then in opposition and now in government ‒ announced that it would campaign against the waste import plan. Despite the relentless, dishonest promotion of the plan by the state government and the Murdoch press, public opinion in SA was clearly against it.3

A key factor in the Jury's rejection of the waste import plan was that Aboriginal people had spoken clearly in opposition.4 The Jury's report said: "There is a lack of aboriginal consent. We believe that the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions. The aboriginal people of South Australia (and Australia) continue to be neglected and ignored by all levels of government instead of respected and treated as equals."2

The respect shown by the Citizens' Jury to Aboriginal Traditional Owners had been conspicuously in the debate until then. SA Premier Jay Weatherill (ousted in the March 2018 state election) said in 2015: "We have a specific mandate to consult with Aboriginal communities and there are great sensitivities here. I mean we've had the use and abuse of the lands of the Maralinga Tjarutja people by the British when they tested their atomic weapons."5

However, the SA government's handling of the Royal Commission process systematically disenfranchised Aboriginal people from the start. The truncated timeline for providing feedback on draft Terms of Reference disadvantaged people in remote regions, people with little or no access to email and the internet, and people for whom English is a second language. There was no translation of the draft Terms of Reference, and a regional communications and engagement strategy was not developed or implemented by the SA government.

The Royal Commission

Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce ‒ a retired Navy officer ‒ didn't appoint a single Aboriginal person to the staff of the Royal Commission or to the Expert Advisory Committee.

Aboriginal people repeatedly expressed frustration with the Royal Commission process. One example was the submission of the Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob (Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners):6

"Why we are not satisfied with the way this Royal Commission has been conducted:

Yaiinidlha Udnyu ngawarla wanggaanggu, wanhanga Yura Ngawarla wanggaanggu? – always in English, where's the Yura Ngawarla (our first language)?

"The issues of engagement are many. To date we have found the process of engagement used by the Royal Commission to be very off putting as it's been run in a real Udnyu (whitefella) way. Timelines are short, information is hard to access, there is no interpreter service available, and the meetings have been very poorly advertised. ... A closed and secretive approach makes engagement difficult for the average person on the street, and near impossible for Aboriginal people to participate."

In mid-2016 Tauto Sansbury, Chairperson of the SA Aboriginal Congress, said: "In our second meeting with Commissioner Scarce we had 27 Native Title groups from all around South Australia. We had a vote on it. And it was unanimous that the vote said 'no we don't want it'. It was absolutely unanimous. Commissioner Scarce said 'well maybe I'm talking to the wrong people' and we said 'well what other people are you going to talk to? We're Native Title claimants, we're Native Title Traditional Owners from all over this country ... so who else are you going to pluck out of the air to talk to ... we've stuck to our guns and we still totally oppose it. That's every Native Title group in South Australia'."7

The Royal Commission acknowledged Aboriginal opposition to its nuclear waste import plan – but it treated that opposition not as a red light but as an obstacle to be circumvented. The Commission opted out of the debate regarding land rights and heritage protections for Aboriginal people, stating in its report: "Although a systematic analysis was beyond the scope of the Commission, it has heard criticisms of the heritage protection framework, particularly the consultative provisions."1

Such an analysis wasn't "beyond the scope of the Commission" ‒ it ought to have been core business. The terms of reference specifically directed the Commission to consider potential impacts on "regional, remote and Aboriginal communities" and to consider "lessons learned from past … practices".

Despite its acknowledgement that it had not systematically analysed the matter, the Royal Commission nevertheless arrived at unequivocal, favourable conclusions, asserting that there "are frameworks for securing long-term agreements with rights holders in South Australia, including Aboriginal communities" and these "provide a sophisticated foundation for securing agreements with rights holders and host communities regarding the siting and establishment of facilities for the management of used fuel."1

Such statements were conspicuously absent in submissions from Aboriginal people and organisations. There is in fact an abundance of evidence that land rights and heritage protection frameworks are anything but "sophisticated."8 For example, the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 provides feeble rights and protections at the best of times, but it does not apply to the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine.8 The mine must partially comply with an old (1979) version of the Act. Or at least, the mine might have to comply with the 1979 version of the Act but that it is doubt since the 1979 Act was never proclaimed and has dubious legal standing. The legislation governing the Olympic Dam mine ‒ the Roxby Downs Indenture Act ‒ was amended in 2011. A perfect opportunity to do away with the mine's exemptions from the Aboriginal Heritage Act. But the state Labor government failed to consult Traditional Owners and enshrined the exemptions in the amended legislation. Asked to justify that decision, a government MP said in state Parliament: "BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the Government did not consult further than that."9

Enter the ecomodernists

No-one was surprised by the racism of the Royal Commission, given its origins and constitution. Australians are not surprised by the racism of the major political parties ‒ the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal/National Coalition.8

And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the behaviour and attitudes of Australia's self-styled pro-nuclear 'ecomodernists'.

Ben Heard ‒ whose so-called environment group 'Bright New World' accepts secret corporate donations ‒ said the Royal Commission's findings were "robust".10 Seriously? Failing to conduct a systematic analysis, or any analysis whatsoever, but nevertheless concluding that a "sophisticated foundation" exists for securing agreements with Aboriginal rights-holders ... that's robust? Likewise, academic Barry Brook ‒ best-known for promoting a bogus Outstanding Scientist award and insisting that there was no credible risk of a serious accident at Fukushima even as nuclear meltdowns were in full swing11 ‒ said he was "impressed with the systematic and ruthlessly evidence-based approach the [Royal Commission] team took to evaluating all issues."12

In a November 2016 article about the nuclear waste import plan, Ben Heard and Oscar Archer wrote: "We also note and respect the clear message from nearly all traditional owner groups in South Australia that there is no consent to proceed on their lands. We have been active from the beginning to shine a light on pathways that make no such imposition on remote lands."13

In Heard's imagination, the imported spent nuclear fuel (calling it waste is an "appalling misnomer"14) would not be dumped on the land of unwilling Aboriginal communities, it would be processed for use as fuel in non-existent Generation IV 'integral fast reactors'.

Heard claims his imaginary Generation IV reactor scenario "circumvents the substantial challenge of social consent for deep geological repositories, facilities that are likely to be best located, on a technical basis, on lands of importance to Aboriginal Australians".14

But even in Heard's scenario, only a tiny fraction of the imported spent fuel would be converted to fuel for imaginary reactors (in one of his configurations, 60,000 tonnes would be imported but only 4,000 tonnes converted to fuel). Most of it would be stored indefinitely, or dumped on the land of unwilling Aboriginal communities. Some might be converted to fuel for export to countries that, like Australia, don't have any of these imaginary 'integral fast reactors'!

Heard acknowledges that even with his imaginary reactors, "some form of disposal is necessary" for relatively short-lived radionuclides.10 He fails to note that his proposal would also generate long-lived intermediate-level waste destined for deep underground disposal. UC Berkeley nuclear engineer Prof. Per Peterson notes: "Even integral fast reactors (IFRs), which recycle most of their waste, leave behind materials that have been contaminated by transuranic elements and so cannot avoid the need to develop deep geologic disposal."15

Heard says he "respects" the opposition of Traditional Owners to the waste import plan, but that respect appears to be superficial at best. Indeed one of his responses to the overwhelming opposition of Traditional Owners was to organise an 'open letter' promoting the waste import plan which was endorsed by 'prominent' South Australians, i.e. rich, non-Aboriginal people.16

One of the reasons to pursue the waste import plan cited in Heard's open letter is that it would provide an "opportunity to engage meaningfully and partner with Aboriginal communities in project planning and delivery". Evidently Heard believes that Aboriginal people's opposition to the waste import plan ought to be overridden but they might be given a say in project planning and delivery.

A second version of the open letter cited the "successful community consultation program" with Aboriginal communities.17 But the report arising from the SA government's community consultation program (successful or otherwise) stated: "Many [Aboriginal] participants expressed concern about the potential negative impacts on their culture and the long-term, generational consequences of increasing the state's participation in the nuclear fuel cycle. There was a significant lack of support for the government to continue pursuing any form of nuclear storage and disposal facilities. Some Aboriginal people indicated that they are interested in learning more and continuing the conversation, but these were few in number."3

Geoff Russell18, another self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalist, wrote in a November 2016 article:19

"Have Aboriginals given any reasons for opposing a waste repository that are other than religious? If so, then they belong with other objections. If not, then they deserve the same treatment as any other religious objections. Listen politely and move on.

"Calling them spiritual rather than religious makes no difference. To give such objections standing in the debate over a repository is a fundamental violation of the separation of church and state, or as I prefer to put it, the separation of mumbo-jumbo and evidence based reasoning.

"Aboriginals have native title over various parts of Australia and their right to determine what happens on that land is and should be quite different from rights with regard to other land. This isn't about their rights on that land.

"Suppose somebody wants to build a large intensive piggery. Should we consult Aboriginals in some other part of the country? Should those in the Kimberley perhaps be consulted? No.

"They may object to it in the same way I would, but they have no special rights in the matter. They have no right to spiritual veto."

Where to begin? Why should Russell's beliefs be privileged over the beliefs of Aboriginal people? His description of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs as "mumbo-jumbo" is beyond offensive. Federal native title legislation provides limited rights and protections for some Traditional Owners ‒ and no rights and protections for many others (when the federal Coalition government was trying to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in SA in 2003, it abolished all native title rights and interests over the site). Russell's claim that Traditional Owners are speaking for other people's country is a fabrication.

National nuclear waste dump

The attitudes of the ecomodernists also extend to the debate over the siting of a proposed national nuclear waste dump. Silence from the ecomodernists when the federal government was passing laws allowing the imposition of a national nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory without consent from Traditional Owners. Worse still, echoing comments from the right-wing Liberal Party20, Brook and Heard said the site in the Northern Territory was in the "middle of nowhere".21 From their perspective, perhaps, but for Traditional Owners the site is in the middle of their homelands.

Heard claims that one of the current proposed dump sites, in SA's Flinders Ranges, is "excellent" in many respects and it "was volunteered by the landowner".22 In fact, it was volunteered by absentee landlord and former Liberal Party politician Grant Chapman, who didn't bother to consult Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners living on the neighbouring Indigenous Protected Area.23 The site is opposed by most Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners and by their representative body, the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA). The April 2018 ATLA Annual General Meeting passed this resolution: "The Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association remains totally opposed to the nuclear waste dump at Wallerberdina. This is our land, our culture and we must have veto over this toxic waste being dumped in our country. Udnyus come and go but we will be here forever. We say NO to the waste dump, for our grandchildren and their grandchildren and many generations to come."24

Heard claims there are "no known cultural heritage issues" affecting the Flinders Ranges site.22 Try telling that to the Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners who live on Yappala Station, in the Indigenous Protected Area25 adjacent to the proposed dump site. The area has many archaeological and culturally-significant sites that Traditional Owners have registered with the SA government over the past decade.26 Two Adnyamathanha associations ‒ Viliwarinha Aboriginal Corporation and the Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob ‒ wrote in a November 2015 statement: "The whole area is Adnyamathanha land. It is Arngurla Yarta (spiritual land). The proposed dump site has springs. It also has ancient mound springs. It has countless thousands of Aboriginal artefects. Our ancestors are buried there. Hookina Creek that runs along the nominated site is a significant women's site. It is a registered heritage site and must be preserved and protected."27

So where did Heard get this idea that there are "no known cultural heritage issues on the site"? Not from visiting the site, or speaking to Traditional Owners. He's just parroting the federal government's racist lies.

Silence from the ecomodernists about the crudely racist National Radioactive Waste Management Act (NRWMA) which dispossesses and disempowers Traditional Owners in every way imaginable.28 The nomination of a site for a radioactive waste dump is valid even if Aboriginal owners were not consulted and did not give consent. The NRWMA has sections which nullify State or Territory laws that protect archaeological or heritage values, including those which relate to Indigenous traditions. The NRWMA curtails the application of Commonwealth laws including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Native Title Act 1993 in the important site-selection stage. The Native Title Act 1993 is expressly overridden in relation to land acquisition for a radioactive waste dump.

Uranium mining

Silence from the ecomodernists about the Olympic Dam mine's exemptions from provisions of the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act.8

Silence from the ecomodernists about sub-section 40(6) of the Commonwealth's Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which exempts the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory from the Act and thus removed the right of veto that Mirarr Traditional Owners would otherwise have enjoyed.29

Silence from the ecomodernists about the divide-and-rule tactics used by General Atomics' subsidiary Heathgate Resources against Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners in relation to the Beverley and Four Mile uranium mines in SA.8,30

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Dr Jillian Marsh, who in 2010 completed a PhD thesis30 on the strongly contested approval of the Beverley mine, puts the nuclear debates in a broader context: "The First Nations people of Australia have been bullied and pushed around, forcibly removed from their families and their country, denied access and the right to care for their own land for over 200 years. Our health and wellbeing compares with third world countries, our people crowd the jails. Nobody wants toxic waste in their back yard, this is true the world over. We stand in solidarity with people across this country and across the globe who want sustainable futures for communities, we will not be moved."31

Now, Traditional Owners have to fight industry, government, and the ecomodernists as well.


1. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report, May 2016,

2. South Australia's Citizens' Jury on Nuclear Waste Final Report, Nov 2016,

3. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Consultation and Response Agency, Nov 2016, 'Community Views Report', p.9,

4. See the many statements of opposition posted at

5. ABC, "Australia Must Have a Rational Discussion about Nuclear Industry, Says SA Premier Jay Weatherill," The World Today 19 Mar. 2015,

6. Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob, "Submission to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission," 4 Sept. 2015,

7. Adelaide Congress Ministry, 18 Aug 2016,

8. Jim Green, Sept 2017, 'Radioactive Waste and Australia's Aboriginal People', Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp.33-50,

9. Parliament of South Australia, 24 Nov 2011, Hansard: "Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) (Amendment of Indenture) Amendment Bill,

10. Ben Heard, 2 Nov 2016, "We must be a full-service provider to the nuclear back-end",


12. Barry Brook, 7 June 2016, 'On the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission',

13. Ben Heard and Oscar Archer, 4 Nov 2016, 'False revelations, manufactured outrage: the timing tells the story',

14. Ben Heard, 1 Feb 2017, 'Close the cycle: an alternative approach for used nuclear fuel',

15. Breakthrough Institute, 5 May 2014, 'Cheap Nuclear',

16. Paul Starick, 13 Dec 2016, 'Prominent South Australians demand that the state push ahead with study on nuclear waste repository',

17. Ben Heard, 2 March 2017, 'An open letter to South Australia's elected members and political parties 2 March 2017: Opportunity for Government to transform the State',


19. Geoff Russell, 10 Nov 2016, 'The Nuclear Waste Dump: South Australia Does A Brexit',

20. Erin Stewart, 31 May 2012, 'A community maintains its spirit in confronting ignorance',

21. Ben Heard and Barry Brook, 25 June 2014, 'Nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush ',

22. Ben Heard, 12 May 2016, 'Location, location, location: why South Australia could take the world's nuclear waste',



25. Australian Government, 22 Jan 2014, 'New Indigenous Protected Area Creates Opportunities for Yappala Community',

26. Scribe Archeology, Aug 2015, 'VYAC Yura Malka. Cultural Landscape Mapping of the VYAC Yappala Group of Properties, Draft Report',

27. Viliwarinha Aboriginal Corporation and the Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob, 27 Nov 2015, 'Help us stop the nuclear waste dump in the Flinders Ranges!',

28. Amanda Ngo, 2017, 'National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012',

29. Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, 'A History of Duress – A GAC Research Project',

30. Jillian K. Marsh, 2010, 'A Critical Analysis of the Decision-Making Protocols used in Approving a Commercial Mining License for Beverley Uranium Mine in Adnyamathanha Country: Toward Effective Indigenous Participation in Caring for Cultural Resources', Ph.D. thesis, Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies, University of Adelaide,

31. Media Release, 29 April 2016, 'Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners will fight nuclear waste dump plan',