• Protesters against the placement of a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station (AAP)
Video journalist Bill Code on the controversial proposal to store nuclear waste on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.
Bill Code

Living Black
8 Sep 2011 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2015 - 1:05 PM

Federal governments have been searching for a sight for Australia’s nuclear waste for almost two decades.

Now, they think they might have found it. 

The problem for Resources Minister Martin Ferguson is that many of the people who live around Muckaty Station, 120km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, don’t want it.

Since the site was first suggested under the Howard Government, many reports on the site have characterized the issue as one of traditional owners struggling against Canberra for the right to protect their land from the low to mid-level waste which the government says a long-term site must be found for.

But as with many issues in Aboriginal land rights, there are many parties clouding the picture. 

The Northern Land Council (NLC), based almost two days' drive to the north in Darwin, is at the centre of this story. The NLC took the nomination of the land to Canberra on behalf of the traditional owners of the land. 

But here’s the catch – while it says the site for the dump is exclusively land belonging to a branch of the Ngapa clan, several other groups say it’s theirs also, and it holds cultural significance. Previous reports have backed claims that it is a shared area with mixed dreamings, but the NLC says the exact site belongs to the one branch of the Ngapa clan, and them alone. All along the NLC has said it has confidence in its own team of anthropologists, who say it’s only Ngapa land. 

But on the ground, in communities near the site, many people are angry at the NLC. They say they haven’t been consulted, and can’t understand why. The NLC says it carried out the correct procedures – but is now fighting to defend its conclusions on the site in a federal court. 

I asked dozens of people on the streets of Tennant Creek what they thought of the plans. None wanted it, although it is of course possible that none were prepared to admit they wanted it to the whitefella from the city, with the big camera in tow. Money has already exchanged hands for the plot, and if the site is officially nominated in the months to come, there’ll be more to come. 

To complicate matters, the woman who made the nomination has passed away since my visit to the area. It’s unclear where this puts the court case at the moment as both parties are understandably not keen on speaking at length on the matter.

What’s interesting is that Tennant Creek itself, where much opposition is focused, is just inside the jurisdiction of the Central Land Council, not the NLC: Muckaty, bang in the middle of Australia, lies just on the NLC side. So people in Tennant Creek can complain about the site all they like, but the NLC is not compelled to listen to them. 

The government in Canberra, of course, should be listening. The Resources Minister told me he’ll consult widely when the court case is over. But for the meantime, the Commonwealth is happy to leave the legwork to the NLC, all the way up the Stuart Highway in Darwin.