SA Royal Commission: Nuke waste dump on Aboriginal land? Really?

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If SA's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission results in Australia becoming the world's nuclear waste dump, it's a certain bet it will be on Aboriginal land. Noel Wauchope investigates how our Indigenous people feel about this.

THIS IS clearly a terribly important question that needs discussion. When and if the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (RC) ultimately results in establishing a nuclear waste import business in South Australia, it is a certain bet that it will be on Aboriginal land.

There are relatively few published submissions from Aboriginal people and organisations. However, these cannot be easily lumped into pro or anti nuclear boxes. There are some passionately anti nuclear ones. There are no passionately pro nuclear ones, but there's more than a hint of support in the two submissions that take an apparently neutral stance. The RC has allowed Aboriginal people to choose whether or not their submissions are published.  

There might be several unpublished submissions from Aboriginal people and/or organisations.  What would the writers stand to lose if these were published? 

A pro nuclear submission might evoke condemnation from environmentalists and other Aboriginal groups. This fact is recognised in the submission by Maralinga Tjarutja and Yalata Community Incorporated:      

‘Any Aboriginal community that indicates a willingness to entertain a radioactive waste repository is likely to be subject to criticism and pressure from vested environmental interests and possibly other Aboriginal communities. The community will need to be assisted to deal with such criticism, which may be long lasting.’

On the pro nuclear side, I have spoken with some very sincere Aboriginal women who viewed the uranium mining industry as beneficial. They saw it as bringing modern facilities to their region, and future opportunities for their children. It's alright for whiteys like me to claim that these remote Aboriginal communities "should" have those facilities and opportunities without getting nuclear industry in exchange. But that is not how they saw it.

Public forum held in April 2015 on the proposed nuclear waste dump discusses proposed siting on Aboriginal land

Of the six Aboriginal organisations that sent published submissions, only two take a neutral stance that could be interpreted as (vaguely) pro nuclear. These are Maralinga Tjarutja and Yalata Community Incorporated and the Alinytjara Wilurara Natural Resources Management Board. The Maralinga group has a special brief to work "towards the support of the community by developing economic projects and enterprises". Already they have turned their atomic history to some advantage, by setting up a flourishing tourism industry around the nuclear test site.

All the same, their submission is by no means a ringing endorsement of the plans to expand the nuclear industry in South Australia. Their very lengthy submission describes in detail the history of Maralinga Traditional Owners and the Yalata people, the atomic bomb tests, their dislocation and eventual return to ownership of their land and, critically, what they have learned in years of negotiation with government. They emphasise the need for clear communication, and list their concerns on health, social impact and employment of establishing a nuclear waste repository:

‘Confidence will not be built in the community unless these concerns are met and sound guarantees are made in a way and to the extent necessary, to satisfy the Aboriginal community.’ 

The Alinytjara Wilurara Natural Resources Management Board is a South Australian Government body. Its submission does talk about

‘works programs that can deliver broader environmental, social and economic benefits for local communities and also provide important local outcomes for resource companies.’

Even within their determinedly neutral stance, their submission clearly criticises the RC:

‘we suggest that if any matters were to be considered in any more detail, there needs to be a much deeper and extensive level of consultation and engagement to fully inform community about the nature of risk and opportunity related to the nuclear fuel cycle.’ 

The remaining four submissions from Aboriginal people and/or organisations are clearly anti nuclear. 

To me the most impressive of these comes from West Mallee Protection.
It's impressive because, while it does go for the jugular in criticising the Royal Commission's processes, it does so with style and grace and with clear and forceful logic. It contains excellent references and recommendations.  Its conclusion is clear:

‘West Mallee Protection strongly urge the Royal Commission to take an investigative approach in regards to alternatives to underground repository or disposal sites and instead of discounting the well-founded concerns of people in remote areas, look at ways that confidence could be built in the broader Australian public for the far less risky option of managing nuclear waste at the site of production or in well monitored above ground facilities.’

But it's not a competition. The lengthy submission by the Kokatah People goes into detailed discussion of nuclear waste storage and geological considerations. It also comes up with a strong message from the group's own cultural background and history:

‘The Royal Commission is exploring a range of issues which have been debated and considered by Kokatha People for many generations. It causes distress and hurt to the Kokatha People that there is a continuation of the discussion in terms of the nuclear fuel cycle notwithstanding that resolution has already been reached on the topic. It seems that each generation of Kokatha People is required to oppose the use, transport or storage of nuclear materials and their opposition is not heard. Kokatha consider the raising of this issue again, when it was resolved only a short period of time ago, is disrespectful.’

The Ngoppon Together Inc group sent in a powerful and comprehensive submission on all aspects of the RC's Issues Papers, opposing all stages of the nuclear fuel chain.

The Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob sent in a ripper. They are a highly independent group, with no ties to government.

‘We operate out of necessity as an independent group to the Adnyamathanha Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) known as ATLA.’

Theirs is a scathing criticism of the RC's processes. They go on to oppose nuclear activities on several counts, including the advisability of renewable energy development instead, and roundly condemn the waste dump proposal:

‘The push for a waste dump in SA keeps coming up repeatedly; we didn’t want it then and we don’t want it now…….Pressuring poverty stricken and isolated communities is unethical, and the public of SA have faced this issue several times in the last decade or more. Enough is enough.’

There were also submissions that dealt with Aboriginal issues, but were not from Aboriginal organisations. The eloquent one from Josephite SA Reconciliation Circle stands out. 

Those four anti nuclear submissions are more powerful and passionate than the two rather constrained ones that “sat on the fence”.

Beyond the Royal Commission there are other developments at present the anti nuclear stand of South Australia's kupa piti kungka tjuta women and the resistance of the Northern Territory's Mirrar people to uranium mining. 

Report in Antinuclear 15 October 2015 about the kupa piti kungka tjuta women who campaigned successfully against the 1998 proposed nuclear waste dump.

Then we have the pro nuclear claims about Aboriginal benefit, such as expressed by Bob Hawke and the clear support for the nuclear industry by some prominent Aboriginal people, e:g: Warren Mundine.

Even though the Royal Commission has made efforts to communicate with Aboriginal people, the vast majority of those who would be affected by a nuclear waste dump are not well informed and not involved in the decision-making. It remains a confusing issue for the Australian community at large, but even more so, for the Aboriginal people of South Australia. 

Read more by Noel Wauchope at and

You can follow Noel on Twitter @ChristinaMac1.

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