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Fight Continues Over Australia’s First National Nuclear Dump

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Protesters demonstrate against the Muckaty Station radioactive waste dump in Melbourne in 2010. (Photograph by Takver/Flickr)

Plans for a radioactive waste dump in Australia, the first such facility of its kind in the country, are encountering trouble because of divisions within the indigenous community where it would be located.

Last month, the Australian Senate approved the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill, which proposes the construction of a nuclear waste dump in Muckaty Station. Australia does not have any nuclear power plants, but needs a repository for its medical and uranium mining waste, which is currently being held at temporary sites around the country.

The Muckaty site, situated about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of the Tennant Creek township on Aboriginal land, has been under consideration as a potential dump site for the past six years, and a group of traditional land owners formally nominated the site in exchange for a promised $12 million payment.

But other clans have disputed the right of that group to make such a nomination. “None of the Ministers have ever come to talk to us about the waste dump,” some of Muckaty’s traditional land owners wrote in a petition last year. “We have invited [Resources Minister] Martin Ferguson to meet with us but he has never said yes. We have travelled a long way to see him, but when we go to his office in Melbourne they lock the door and won’t let us in to deliver our letters.

“We have never been properly told or asked about this dump, either by the Northern Land Council or the federal government.”

The Northern Land Council is a local governing body that facilitated the deal for the waste site. Aside from the radioactive waste generated within Australia, there is also a need to store research reactor waste that was sent to Europe for processing and will be returned in 2015-2016.

“Australia has a responsibility to store its radioactive waste in a safe place and the current situation with it being housed in Sydney at Lucas Heights, universities and hospitals is simply not acceptable or sustainable,” Northern Land Council Chief Executive Officer Kim Hill said.

But environmental groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation say the government has acted improperly in its process for creating the dump.  “[The] federal government is committed neglecting international best practice by burdening a disadvantaged community and a delicate environment with hazardous toxic waste,” ACF says on its website opposing the Muckaty site.

A group of traditional land owners opposing the dump are fighting the case in court; arguments in the case last week centered on whether the plaintiffs qualified as traditional land owners who could challenge the Northern Land Council’s determination.

The government has promised not to begin any construction until that court case is resolved.