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Kimba: A town torn apart by nuclear waste proposal

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Kimba in South Australia might well be a dumping ground for nuclear waste (image by D5481026 via Wikimedia Commons

Bogged down in the Senate is a Bill that selects a farming area, Napandee, near Kimba in South Australia, as Australia's national radioactive waste dump.

If that Bill becomes law, that matter will be settled and may not be able to be judicially reviewed.

Kimba, a small close-knit community in a top Australian wheat-growing area, has become a place of tension. In 2016, farmer Jeff Baldock offered part of his land, Napandee, for the radioactive waste facility. The offer was accepted by the Federal Government.

From then on, the debate has raged in the area and beyond it. Now, years later, there's no sign of resolution. Residents try to get on with their lives, in this uneasy situation. Some people have left town, some are not speaking to former acquaintances.

Opinions are black and white, or the subject is avoided completely. There's no middle ground.

The Federal Government's plan for a nuclear waste facility at Kimba hit the Aboriginal community of the Eyre Peninsula hardest. The Barngarla people, Native Title holders, were excluded from the Government's ''community ballot'' held in 2019. Voting was restricted to those living within the Kimba local council area. The Barngarla held their own ballot, resulting in a unanimous ''No'' to the dump.

Nevertheless, some Aboriginal people supported the plan and this dispute has divided families.

In a submission to the relevant Senate Committee, Felicity Wright wrote:

'As an ally and advocate for Indigenous peoples for more than 30 years, I was appalled at the terrible toll fighting the nuclear waste facility took upon my friends.  I watched one of my closest friends visibly age as she surrendered her art practice and her enjoyment of life to dedicate herself to challenging it.'

The non-indigenous community has also been affected. There were two community ballots held in 2017 and 2019. While in both cases the result favoured the nuclear waste facility, it was far from overwhelming support. At the final ballot, 824 people were eligible to vote. Of 735 votes accepted, 452 said “Yes”.

The plan for the facility was pitched to the community as a necessity for Australia. It was an attractive idea. On the one hand, Kimba could proudly provide a service to the nation. On the other hand, it was bringing a new industry and new jobs, to a sometimes drought-stricken agricultural area.

The farmer who volunteered land would be paid at four times the market value. A Community Benefits Scheme brings millions to the town.

The plan was greeted with enthusiasm from some residents. They relied on the information provided by the Department of Industry Innovation and Science and by the former Resources Minister, Matt Canavan.

When it was pointed out to Mr Canavan that some residents close to the selected site were ineligible to vote, he promised that their views would be included. 

This Department has controlled the information reaching the community and has provided the visiting experts. There has not been any debate provided, with opposing views being aired.

Still, there is strong opposition, led by farmers. The group No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land in Kimba or SA is optimistic that Kimba, despite the prevailing mood of anxiety, can survive without the waste facility.

The group, of five years' standing, has researched the issue and sent submissions to Parliament. Radioactive waste is not recommended for agricultural land. There are concerns about possible environmental pollution and damage to groundwater. The presence of a radioactive waste dump could be very damaging to its clean, green image.

Community understanding is at the heart of this problem.

The current Resources Minister, Keith Pitt, is enthused about the facility, describing it to the Nationals Federal Conference on 27 March 2021 as:

“... a low-level nuclear waste facility to house the by-products from cancer treatment.”

That's a misleading statement. The waste proposed to be taken to the nuclear dump is waste generated from the industrial production of these isotopes. 

There is uncertainty about the toxicity of the nuclear wastes to be placed in “interim storage” at Napandee, with the classification of these wastes as “intermediate level”. But the same wastes classified in France as “high level”.

The Kimba community remains troubled, as this nuclear waste problem remains paralysed in the Senate. Freedom of Information documents revealed that the Government is well aware of mental health problems likely to be caused by the issue.

Minister Pitt has the option of clearly designating Napandee as the site for the nuclear waste dump. That could solve the problem and certainly bring clarity to the Kimba community.

But, the issue for the Government is that if he does this, it will be possible for opponents of the plan to take legal action against it.

Read more by Noel Wauchope at antinuclear.net and nuclear-news.net and follow her on Twitter @ChristinaMac1.

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