Radioactive racism

After a seven-year struggle, Traditional Owners of Muckaty in the Northern Territory have won a landmark victory by stopping a proposed national nuclear waste dump. A similar proposal was defeated ten years earlier in South Australia, again due to  community opposition. But rather than reconsider their racist ‘solution’ to Australia’s nuclear waste problem – that is, dumping it on Aboriginal land – the Abbott government is desperately trying to find another remote site. The NT government is actively assisting, with Chief Minister Adam Giles upping the ante and supporting the idea that an international nuclear dump could be the antidote to Aboriginal poverty.

The Commonwealth plan for an NT dump dates from the Howard years. Low-level waste, including medical waste, would be buried in shallow unlined trenches and would remain there permanently. Long-lived intermediate level waste, including reprocessed spent nuclear fuel rods and components of a decommissioned reactor, would be stored in an above ground shed. Though flagged as ‘temporary’, it would remain for at least 300 years, and there are no guarantees it would ever be removed.

In 2007, the Northern Land Council offered up a small area of Muckaty Aboriginal Land Trust, 120km north of Tennant Creek. As compensation, eleven million dollars would be held in a charitable trust for infrastructure, including roads and housing. An additional one million would be set aside for scholarships from the Department of Education.

A small family group was attracted by the offer. Family leader Ms A Lauder (deceased) told a Senate Inquiry in 2010 that Commonwealth policies to stop investment in small Aboriginal homelands meant some were considering other options to survive on their land.

But a clear majority of Muckaty Traditional Owners were opposed to the deal and felt their Land Rights had been violated.

When I found out about the nuclear waste dump they want to bring to Muckaty, my aunty told me that is my grandfather’s country, so I had a strong heart, thinking about my Elders who fought for the country. I stood up for my rights, for my people, for our future.

Dianne Stokes Nampin

Despite limited access to media and politicians, the Muckaty community built a dynamic campaign. They drew on organising experience gained from long struggles to establish community services and win Land Rights. They travelled tirelessly to build alliances across the country – including with major trade unions that pledged a ‘green ban’ on the waste dump.

Three weeks into the June 2014 Federal Court trial, which raised explosive allegations about NLC and Commonwealth conduct through the nomination process, the Muckaty proposal was abandoned.

Federal Resources Minister Ian MacFarlane quickly confirmed his intention to find another site on Aboriginal Land, giving NT Land Councils three months to make a new nomination.

The minister hasn’t even give up on the prospect of another site on Muckaty, chartering a plane to Tennant Creek last week to convene a meeting. He used the pretext of invitations from Muckaty Traditional Owners, dated well before the recent back down.

Many saw this as reopening very fresh wounds. The minister said a dump would be ‘totally safe’ and there would be ‘lots of jobs … for your generation, your kids generation and their kids.’

Muckaty Traditional Owner Isobel Phillips said, ‘The way he was talking he wanted another site straight away. We fought for a really long time and we don’t want to go through that again.  We are worried again that the same thing is going to happen with the families being divided. A lot of people here are on CDEP and working for the dole. They want jobs but they don’t want to work at a nuclear waste dump.’

Meanwhile, NT government bureaucrats are making efforts to convince other Aboriginal groups about the ‘benefits’ of a dump.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, whose government pioneered the push for a remote dump, made a pitch at the recent Garma Festival that an international nuclear waste facility was ‘the solution’ to Indigenous poverty. He revealed that NT Chief Minister Adam Giles was a ‘strong supporter’ of his idea.


To bargain with TOs for money that is to be used to pay for essential services, which should come from the same public revenues as they do for all other Australians, is a complete scam. This is a shameful, immoral manoeuvre by short-term, results-oriented political pragmatists.

– Uniting Church Nightcliff (Darwin, NT)


Giles knows the sheer desperation for resources that exists in communities. His government was elected on unfulfilled promises to invest in outstations and rebuild community councils decimated by the NT Intervention. Rumours are flying across the NT, aided by News Limited reports, about individual Aboriginal people working with Giles to try and get a nomination off the ground.

Opposition to the dump proposal, however, runs deep through NT Aboriginal communities. The Central Land Council full council carried unanimous resolutions to support the Muckaty fight throughout the seven-year struggle.

So what options are available for radioactive waste management?

In late 2015, waste reprocessed overseas will return to the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor complex south of Sydney. This is a secure facility where the majority of Australia’s nuclear expertise, as well as the most hazardous materials, are located. Fuel rods removed from the reactor actually remain on site for many years to ‘cool down’ before being shipped for reprocessing. All relevant agencies including the national nuclear regulatory body ARPANSA have acknowledged there is capacity for the waste to be stored at Lucas Heights.

The anti-nuclear movement’s position has been clear. The most surefire way to ameliorate the challenges created by nuclear waste is to stop producing it. For existing waste, the government should abandon its failed mission for a centralised remote facility and initiate a comprehensive national inquiry into potential options.

Storage of nuclear waste and hazardous materials needs inclusive processes that transcend the radioactive ransom of basic amenities in exchange for waste and the colonial understanding of deserts as dumping grounds because ‘no one lives there’.  The Aboriginal owners of Muckaty have proven – once again – that such racism will be defeated.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Natalie Wasley has convened the Beyond Nuclear Initiative project since 2006, working with Traditional Owners and communities on the frontline of nuclear proposals. She draws on extensive research in Australia and overseas to examine the social impacts of the nuclear industry.

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  1. Telling piece.

    I don’t know the term for negating a sublation which is a new dialectical twist for the worse, but to conduct nuclear testing at Maralinga without even warning the Maralinga Tjarutja people, and then sometime later to hand the land back to the Maralinga peoples under a Land Rights Act, while now looking to dump nuclear waste on traditional lands again is total bad faith. Interestingly (or not) the word ‘apology’ is a contranym – a statement of contrition for an action, or a defense of one.

  2. SA was a site they wanted too we stopped that 7 years ago.
    ALso we have sold off our womens site now to uranium mining here at 4 mile.
    Who cares anymore our ATLA who supposed too sold us off.
    I cried when I read this it just too much grief.
    Mirning people have probs due to the marilinga people moved onto their plce and now they TO,s telling Mirning what to do and blocking their traditional lands too much probs…
    I am in court cos I cared enough to raise awareness for the need for people to come together and was called a witch…by ATLA bullies.Original people who work for the govit no longer for the land and health of their own people.

  3. If these dumps had so many “benefits” and are so good for the locals, go ahead and build it at… How about Mosman? As this is obviously not a racist campaign to dump it on the Aborigines of the area, they should be no problem going to the whitest part of Sydney and building it there.

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