Australian nuclear dump decision trashes indigenous peoples' rights

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green and Michele Madigan

Nuclear Monitor #883 noted that the Saugeen Ojibway Nation voted against plans for a deep geological repository near Lake Huron. The Canadian government will respect the decision and will no longer target the site. Sadly, the situation in Australia is the exact opposite: Traditional Owners were denied a right to vote in a 'community ballot' concerning a national nuclear waste dump, and the federal government is proceeding with the dump despite their unanimous opposition.

The federal government recently announced that it plans to establish a national nuclear waste 'facility' near Kimba on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula. It will comprise a permanent dump for low-level nuclear waste, and an 'interim' store for long-lived intermediate-level waste.

Shamefully, the federal government has decided to move ahead despite the unanimous opposition of the Barngarla Traditional Owners, native title holders over the area.

The federal government refused a request from the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) to include traditional owners in a 'community ballot' held last year. So BDAC engaged the Australian Election Company to conduct a confidential postal ballot open to all Barngarla Traditional Owners. None of the respondents voted in favour of the dump.

BDAC then wrote to the government calling for the dump proposal to be abandoned in light of their unanimous opposition, and stating that BDAC will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it being imposed on Barngarla Country against their will.

The government's 'community ballot' registered 55% support among eligible voters ‒ thanks to a promised A$30 million bribe and the implausible claim that 45 jobs will be created. But if the 'community ballot' is combined with the Barngarla ballot, the overall level of support falls to just 43.8% of eligible voters (452/824 for the Kimba ballot, and 0/209 for the Barngarla ballot). That is a long way short of the government's own benchmark for 'broad community support' of 65%

"The only reason why there was a yes vote was because Barngarla were excluded, and this has then been used as the justification to allow the facility to be built, entirely ignoring Barngarla's views," a BDAC statement said. "The Barngarla stand with most of the farming industry against this proposal. However, the more important issue now is the fact that voting manipulation has allowed for the decision to occur."

Racist legislation

The National Radioactive Waste Management Act systematically discriminates against Australia's First Nations. For example, the nomination of a site for a nuclear dump is valid even if Aboriginal traditional owners were not consulted and did not give consent. And the Act has sections which nullify or curtail the application of laws such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, and the Native Title Act 1993.

The federal government recently announced that it plans to amend the Waste Management Act. While the Act is sorely in need of an overhaul, the planned amendments aren't those that are needed. Clauses in the Act that dispossess and disempower traditional owners will remain untouched.

Indeed, the planned amendments will, if passed, further disempower traditional owners. Barngarla Traditional Owners are lobbying opposition and cross-bench federal parliamentarians regarding the flawed amendments.

Traditional owners are also taking legal action, claiming their exclusion from the government's 'community ballot' breached racial discrimination laws. The court case is ongoing and an outcome is expected sometime this year. Traditional owners may also launch a separate legal challenge against the proposed nuclear dump.

Appalling process

The South Australian Labor Party argues that traditional owners ought to have a right of veto over nuclear projects given the sad and sorry history of the nuclear industry in South Australia, stretching back to the British atomic bomb tests at Maralinga and Emu Field. Deputy Leader of the Opposition Susan Close says that South Australian Labor is "utterly opposed" to the "appalling" process which led to the announcement regarding the Kimba site.

Compare that to the federal government, whose mind-set seems not to have advanced from the 'Aboriginal natives shall not be counted' clause in the Constitution Act 1900. As Barngarla Traditional Owner Jeanne Miller says, Aboriginal people with no voting power are put back 50 years, "again classed as flora and fauna."

The current debate follows a history of similar proposals ‒ all of them defeated, with traditional owners repeatedly leading successful campaigns.

In 2004, after a six-year battle, the Howard government abandoned plans for a national nuclear waste dump in SA. The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta ‒ a senior Aboriginal women's council ‒ congratulated the government for belatedly getting their 'ears out of their pockets'.

In 2016, the plan to import high-level nuclear waste from around the world was abandoned after a Citizens' Jury noted the lack of Aboriginal consent and concluded that "the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions."

And last year, the federal government abandoned plans for a national nuclear dump in South Australia's Flinders Ranges, a plan that was fiercely contested by Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall is rightly proud of his record promoting the growth of renewable energy in the state. And he's proud of his significant role in putting an end to the plan to import high-level nuclear waste from around the world.

So where will the Premier ‒ whose portfolio includes Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation ‒ stand on this latest nuclear controversy? He needs, as the Kungkas put it, to get his ears out of his pockets and to respect the unanimous opposition of the Barngarla Traditional Owners.

Sadly, all current indications suggest that the South Australian Premier will fall in line behind his federal conservative counterparts.

The fight goes on.

More information:

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia, and editor of Nuclear Monitor. Michele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 40 years working with Aboriginal people across South Australia.