Last Friday the government announced its preferred site for a national radioactive waste dump, near Hawker in South Australia's Flinders Ranges. The site was nominated by former Liberal Senator Grant Chapman, who holds a long-term lease over the Barndioota station, and his nomination has been endorsed by the Liberal government in Canberra.
The latest process to find a dump site follows 20 years of failed attempts trying to force a dump on Aboriginal communities in SA and later the Northern Territory. The other five sites short-listed last November are now off the hook: the local communities in Hale (NT), Oman Ama (Queensland), Hill End (NSW) and Kimba (SA) can take a deep breath for the first time in months. All sites were highly contested. The communities have been extremely active in mobilising and bringing media attention to the proposals in recent months.
Although the other communities are relieved to be dropped off the list, everyone is aware that the Flinders Ranges site is under extreme pressure now as it is the government's only remaining option. If the federal government fails in its efforts to impose a dump in the Flinders Ranges, it will be back to square one as it was when the Howard government abandoned its efforts to establish a dump in SA in 2004 and the Abbott government gave up on a NT dump site in 2014.
The Flinders Ranges site was nominated by Grant Chapman but he has precious little connection to the land. Conversely, the land has been precious to Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners for millennia. The fact that the government is once again targeting a 'remote' Aboriginal site is beyond comprehension and creates a lot of frustration and hurt. Regina McKenzie, an Adnyamathanha elder living at Yappala station, just kilometres away from the proposed site, says that the proposal is "an attack on our cultural beliefs, history and heritage."
McKenzie explains: "Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners weren't consulted about the nomination. Even Traditional Owners who live next to the proposed dump site at Yappala Station weren't consulted. The proposed dump site is adjacent to the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area. On the land with the proposed dump site, we have been working for many years to register heritage sites with the SA government. The area is Adnyamathanha land. It is Arngurla Yarta (spiritual land). The proposed dump site has countless thousands of Aboriginal artefacts. Our ancestors are buried there. The nominated site is a significant women's site. Throughout the area are registered cultural heritage sites and places of huge importance to our people."
Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Enice Marsh said: "An Indigenous Protected Area is a Federal Government initiative, but it seems that in the case of Yappala this means nothing to the government. We ask you to honour this commitment to protect, not pollute and damage our land."
The site is subject to earthquakes and tremors, at least half a dozen times each year. And although it seems like desert to the unknowing eye, it is flood land. The water comes from the hills and floods the plains, including the proposed dump site. The last flood in 2006 uprooted massive trees in the area, while an earlier flood destroyed an entire township.
So what should be done with Australia's radioactive waste? Around 95 percent is securely stored at two Commonwealth sites – Defence Department land in SA, and the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor site south of Sydney. It is by no means clear that any waste needs to be moved, and there certainly isn't any urgency. A number of organisations calls for an independent investigation into all possible options since years; being rigorously ignored by the government which keeps pursuing its central remote dump preferred option.
Both previous siting attempts were so vigorously fought that the government, in the end, could do nothing but withdraw the proposals. The win for Muckaty Traditional Owners in the NT is only two years old yet and here we are again, the same struggle but at a different site. Responding to Friday's announcement, Muckaty Traditional Owner Kylie Sambo wrote to Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners in the Flinders Ranges: "Today my heart and mind are with the Adnyamathanha people. I know your land is being targeted for a nuclear waste dump, just like our Warlmanpa lands were targeted for 8 years. You are not alone. We will be there speaking up alongside you. Even though the fight was so hard for us, we found friendships that gave us strength and will live for years to come. I know you will never give up – we won against the waste dump and you will win too."
Regina McKenzie, in the name of the Adnyamathanya people, calls on "all South Australians − all Australians − to support us in our struggle" and she states that "Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners will fight the proposal for a nuclear waste dump on our land for as long as it takes to stop it."
Communities from all six originally short-listed sites have supported each other since the beginning and have shared the concerns over how communities are treated in the process, the lack of transparency and consultation. They hoped Minister Josh Frydenberg would acknowledge the shortfalls of the process and seek alternative solutions. All other sites have announced that they will support the fight in the Flinders Ranges. Once again, everyone is bracing for a hard fight – and are determined to win it.
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