Comment: Australia’s radioactive waste management on trial

A young boy holds a sign during a protest in Darwin, Thursday, July 12, 2012, against a planned nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station, north of Tennant Creek. (AAP)

Australia has never had an independent examination of the best way to manage our nation's radioactive waste. It's time for that to change.

It is a long way from the lore of the world’s oldest continuing culture to the law courts of Melbourne but a story that started years ago in Central Australia will soon be the focus of a month long Federal Court trial seen by many as a test of both Australia’s social contract with its first nation people’s and commitment to responsible environmental stewardship.

In May 2007 the Northern Land Council nominated an area of land on a pastoral station called Muckaty around 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory as a site for a national radioactive waste dump.

The proposal was advanced through a commercial in confidence agreement between the NLC, an Aboriginal clan group and the then Howard government that saw the group "volunteer" an area of the shared Muckaty Land Trust for the burial and above ground storage of radioactive waste in return for federal payments, promises and a "package of benefits" worth around $12 million.

The dump plans lack of transparency, inclusion and scientific or procedural rigour left the majority of Aboriginal land-owners without any awareness of or ability to input into the process or the plan.

Like all things nuclear, this is an issue with shelf life and now after years of sustained community opposition a Federal Court trial is set to explore the unresolved issues of ownership, consultation and consent at hearings in Melbourne, Tennant Creek and Darwin throughout June.

Critics maintain that the dump plan fails two fundamental tests: it has explicitly excluded and marginalised Aboriginal landowners from decision making processes and power and it is based on an approach to radioactive waste management that is increasing at odds with international industry best practise and sound thinking.

The Federal Court’s focus will be the question of consent and control, and these concerns are of pivotal importance. Shared title for the Muckaty lands was only formally granted to Aboriginal people fifteen years ago and now many are saddened and angry that access to this area could be lost for centuries to come through a secretive process and without their knowledge or consent. Further, it is unreasonable and unconscionable for any government to play the politics of carrot and stick with some of the nation’s poorest people in order to find a remote place to dump some of the nation’s nastiest industrial waste.

The need to responsibly manage the serious and long term environmental and human risks posed from any industrial waste is a clear test of a mature society. When that risk involves the unique properties of radioactive waste then the need is magnified and multiplied.

Radioactive waste is a serious environmental management challenge. The material is often hot, always hazardous and extremely long-lived. Current problems at waste facilities in the US and elsewhere highlight the complexity of the issue and no nation on earth currently has a safe, final disposal facility for high level radioactive waste. This issue demands and deserves genuine attention but for too long been mismanaged by successive politicians seeking a short term ‘fix’ to a long term threat.

Internationally the industry thinking has been evolving to a series of approaches that seek to achieve both the isolation of the waste and inclusion of the community.

In a 2006 report, an expert UK committee on radioactive waste management stated:

“It is generally considered that a voluntary process is essential to ensure equity, efficiency and the likelihood of successfully completing the process. There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community.”

The current Muckaty plan and process is at sharp odds with this common sense and common decency approach.

It is also in conflict with Australia’s international obligations under the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples which explicitly requires that “states shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of Indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.”

It is the end result of over two decades of non-transparent and non-inclusive policy making that has been determined by unaccountable departmental representatives and driven with various degrees of enthusiasm by a chain reaction of successive politicians.

Unlike most comparable nations, Australia has never had an independent examination of the best way to manage our nation's radioactive waste. A dedicated, open and expert National Commission into responsible radioactive waste management would help address a long standing federal policy failure.

The process behind the Muckaty plan will soon be examined by the Federal Court but what is missing and needed is to put Australia’s radioactive waste management on trial.

It is time for a new approach — one that reflects and is informed by best practise, sound science and respect — a public National Commission into responsible radioactive waste management.

As a nation we need to move from the flawed and failed push to find a vulnerable postcode for a dumpsite to a credible process that actively explores the range of management options and which one ticks the most boxes.

Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation's nuclear free campaigner.