01 March 2016
by Anica Niepraschk

Nuclear Waste - 'Community consent' without community?

The federal government - once again - is looking for a place to dump its nuclear waste. All attempts over the last twenty years have failed – and so might this one, at least if the government is sticking to the promises it made in its new approach.

The process is to be voluntary and no dump is to be located anywhere without community consent. These are the words at least. 28 sites across Australia had been nominated by landowners last year and were reduced to a shortlist of six by the Department for Resources.

The six sites are in Hale (NT), not far from Alice Springs, Hill End in NSW, Oman Ama in Queensland and three sites in South Australia: two in the Kimba region (Cortlinye and Pinkawillinie) and Wallerbidina/ Barndioota, outside Hawker. The South Australian shortlisted sites also get increasingly entangled in a debate as to whether the state might offer itself up as the world's nuclear waste dump, accepting high-level nuclear waste from power reactors around the world. This was the key prospect outlined in the tentative findings of the Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, released last week.

All six sites are so far highly contested by the local communities, while also not meeting key geographical, cultural and economic factors which a suitable site should fulfil. The fact alone that they are contested should disqualify the sites. A motion by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam this week, proposing to acknowledge the contested situation and drop the sites for that reason, reinstating the will to proceed with a voluntary process, was strongly opposed.

The targeted communities, in the meantime, are highly concerned their land might be turned into a nuclear dump site. Most of them were alerted through the media about their shortlisting, not even being directly informed by the government. Visiting the proposed site at Wallerbidina/ Barndioota this week, the Viliwarinha Yura Aboriginal Corporation explained the cultural significance of the proposed site to us. Cultural sites run through and around the nominated property and the Adnyamathanha community remains actively connected to the maintenance and preservation of the land. The proposed site also includes a beautiful waterhole, an oasis in the desert and a sacred women's site for the Adnyamathanha.

The community is very actively involved in documenting and preserving their culture and history through recording Aboriginal traditional heritage sites and artefacts and mapping storylines in the area, both unique projects portraying the love and responsibility the community has and takes on for the land. Regina McKenzie, an Adnyamathanha elder living at Yappala station, just kilometres away from the proposed site, says that the proposal is 'an attack on our cultural beliefs, history and heritage. We do not want this waste dump on our ancestors' yata (land).'

Despite saying that community consultations would take place for each of the proposed sites the government has so far only visited Hawker and the proposed site, without ever contacting the Traditional Owners or asking them if they could lead them to the site. This brings up concerns about how community consent is supposed to be established if the community does not even get consulted or heard in the process.

The Adnyamathanha people have invited Resource Minister Josh Frydenberg to come and personally visit the site under their guidance to gain an understanding of its significance. They are committed to fight the proposal to the very end and protect their country.

The government's commitment to community consultation and consent is being seriously tested – not just at this but all six shortlisted sites.

This might very well lead to a failing process. Options are to reconsider other sites of the 28 nominated originally, call for a new round of nominations or revisit the approach completely. This is what civil society groups have called for for a long time. Beyond Nuclear Initiative, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth are questioning the necessity of a centralized dump site as such and request an independent inquiry into possible management options for Australia's nuclear waste, including an inventory of how much waste we are actually talking about and of what kind. This has indeed never been established and it is far from clear that a centralized facility is the best option to handle the waste. Other options should be considered. This is a hot topic, with consequences for hundreds or thousands of years. Informed decision-making is central, a decision should not be rushed.

We will soon see how much in a rush the government is with the issue. Will it try to find a site by any means, even if this implies imposing it on a community or will it take its commitment not to do so seriously and maybe take the steps necessary to find a long-lived solution to a long-lived problem?