Senate debates

Monday, 2 May 2016


Radioactive Waste

10:08 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to thank Senator Ludwig for his many years of service to his party and his community.

I rise this evening to speak on the long history of failed plans to locate national radioactive waste dumps here in Australia at multiple sites across South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia and to point out the disturbing consistency with which it is disproportionately Aboriginal land that is targeted, Aboriginal communities who are expected to host the most dangerous categories of industrial waste that this society is capable of producing.

It seems that so little has been learnt since when long ago, in 1991 or 1992, the federal government embarked on a national site selection process to try and work out where the waste from the HIFAR reactor at Sydney's Lucas Heights should go—more than 30 years after the reactor first went online. It probably came as something of a surprise to the community then that, 30 years after this industrial facility had started operating, there was still no coherent plan for the disposal of its waste products.

And here we are now, in 2016, and you have to ask: what on earth have we learnt in the intervening time? One thing I think we have learnt is that coercive attempts to dump radioactive waste on unwilling communities are doomed to fail. That is not just the experience here in Australia; international experience bears this out as well. And so little has been learnt from a process which, in my view and in the view of some of my colleagues, actually held some promise.

I want to pay some tribute to former industry minister Ian Macfarlane—probably not words that I would have expected to say in this place. The proposal to dump this waste at Muckaty, in the Northern Territory, was supported by the Liberal, National and Labor parties. When the disastrously failed proposal finally fell apart in the Federal Court—as a result of grassroots action led by strong Aboriginal families from the Barkly region, Federal Court intervention and a national and international campaign of opposition—Minister Ian Macfarlane actually took an opportunity and said, 'We're going to try something a bit different.' To his credit, he did not simply nail another postcode on the map and say, 'It's going over there.' I think a historic opportunity has potentially been lost and missed. That opening that we could actually have put a proper process into is now at greater risk of being squandered because, in my view, that process started by asking the wrong question and that is why it has come to the wrong answer at this point in time.

Whether it be spent fuel, whether it be radioactive waste from the isotope plant at the Lucas Heights complex, whether it be other categories of medical waste—trash, gloves and other items—or whether it be radioactive waste of various categories from mining operations, the question 'Which outstation should this stuff be dumped on, which Aboriginal community should host this material, at which outback site can we dump this stuff out of sight out of mind?' is simply wrong. If we start with the wrong question, we inevitably come to the wrong answer.

The answer that Minister Frydenberg has inherited—and again I want to acknowledge that this is a process he inherited midway through; this is not something of his own design—still comes from the wrong question being asked. It funnelled the selection of a few dozen sites down to six—and now, apparently, down to one. Tonight we are going to have to take the minister and the previous minister at their word when they say that this will not be forced on an unwilling community, that this is a consent based proposal. As of tonight, we have to take that commitment on trust—because it does not appear to be the way this is going.

From the six sites that were selected for short listing we now have a short list of one place—Adnyamathanha country in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Senator Rob Sims, South Australian MLC Mark Parnell and I had the privilege of visiting that country, at the invitation of the Adnyamathanha traditional owners, not that long ago—only a matter of four or five weeks ago. I again want to thank them for the generosity of spirit with which they showed us their country. This site is known as Barndioota and it is also known as Walerberdina. That area, we were told by senior women, is Arngurla Yarta—spiritual land—and there are culturally significant sites throughout the nominated area. Maybe this looked fine from Google Earth. Maybe this looked remote to those people in the reference groups or the various bureaucrats who have been tasked with finding somewhere for this material to go. Maybe it looked like the middle of nowhere. Maybe it looked like a long way from anywhere significant. Maybe it looked as though it had been submitted—and that cattle station had been nominated—by a former LNP senator. In fact, this is tremendously important country for the Adnyamathanha, and these are people who have already suffered greatly at the hands of dispossession. Anybody who thinks that the dispossession of Aboriginal land or questions of sovereignty or self-determination are from the colonial era two centuries ago had best be paying attention to what is now unfolding in the Flinders Ranges.

What the Adnyamathanha traditional owners said in the statement of the other day is that they do not want it, that this will be a no-consent arrangement and that they are planning on fighting it. Here is what they said in their statement of 27 November 2015, when they were still on the short list:

It is flood land. The water comes from the hills and floods the plains, including the proposed dump site. Sometimes there are massive floods, the last one on 20 January 2006. The massive floods uproot huge trees, you can come out here now and see all the trees uprooted by the 2006 flood. In 1956, 50 years earlier, to the day, a massive flood destroyed Cotabena homestead and all the houses in Hookina township. The pub was destroyed by the 1956 flood and is now a pile of rocks.

Senator Simms, Mr Parnell and I, at the invitation of those traditional owners, visited the site not that long ago. You can see these enormous tree trunks that look as though they have been thrown there by giants, and they were carried there by flood waters that occasionally reconfigure the landscape. You would not even call this traditional wisdom as such; the wisdom of that place runs deeper—thousands of years deeper. But these are the memories of people who can tell us, 'This is flood country; do not put an industrial waste facility in these valleys.' How it emerged that this place, of all of those that the government contemplated, ended up on a short list of one is absolutely beyond me.

Of the six sites, now narrowed to one, there were statements of solidarity from the five sites who have been let off the hook over the weekend. I want to thank and acknowledge all those communities who spoke up and those families who, through no fault of their own, discovered that a neighbour decided that their land was going to be host to a radioactive waste site. It does not have to be like this. What the Greens think should happen next, instead of a gruesome and futile repeat of what was done to the Muckaty mob, and those old women and men, who did not need that additional stress placed on their shoulders, is to ask the right question before we simply move to siting decisions about where this shed or this hole in the ground should go.

What we believe is needed now is an independent and deliberative inquiry into long-term isolation and stewardship options for this material, and learning from countries overseas who are dealing with much larger inventories of this material than we are. What have they learned, long term? Isolation and stewardship of this material, rather than simply which outstation we should build the shed on. The second thing that we believe should happen while that inquiry is underway is to properly containerise, in these 60-year licence caskets, the existing spent fuel and reprocessed material that at the moment is lying at the Lucas Heights facility. We believe that should be properly hardened and containerised, and there should be an audit of the existing collections of dispersed waste, non-reactor isotope investigations so that we are not producing this waste, and a commitment to not take international waste. We need to respect the voices of the communities who are standing up and saying no.