Federal government plans to establish a nuclear waste dump in regional South Australia face a Senate roadblock, as Labor delays a decision on whether to support it and native title holders prepare to come to Canberra to lobby against the nominated site.
Legislation to establish the new site at Napandee near Kimba on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula was introduced into the House of Representatives earlier this month, just two weeks after the then resources minister Matt Canavan announced the community ballot had delivered a 62% yes vote for the new waste facility.
The government is pushing ahead with the legislation, despite the ballot being challenged in the federal court by the Barngarla native title holders, who were excluded from the vote because they are not ratepayers.
Jason Bilney, chairman of the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, said the 200 local native title holders were excluded from the Kimba community ballot despite repeated requests to both the council and the federal government to be included.
The corporation is challenging the ballot in the federal court, claiming their exclusion is a breach of the racial discrimination act. The full court of the federal court heard the matter last Friday.
“It is a simple truth that had we, as the first people for the area, been included in the Kimba community ballot rather than unfairly denied the right to vote, then the community ballot would never have returned a yes vote,” Bilney told Guardian Australia ahead of a visit to Canberra next month.
“Many of our people were born in Kimba, and we have significant native title land near the proposed facility. This native title land allows us to live on and use the land. However, because it is not rateable, we were excluded from the Kimba community ballot on a technicality,” he said.
The Barngarla claim the Coalition’s bill has been introduced to make it impossible to challenge the decision to locate a facility at Kimba, even if the court appeal is successful, effectively removing the protections of the Race Discrimination Act.
“These amendments would entirely remove any court oversight, right in the middle of existing federal court proceedings. This would entirely deprive any protections for our people,” Bilney said.
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The group is expected to meet with crossbench senators in Canberra in the current session of parliament, explaining their concerns about the ballot process and pushing for the legislation to be blocked.
Centre Alliance has already expressed reservations about supporting the legislation, saying Canavan had not been upfront about what constituted “broad community support” before the results of the ballot were known.
“No one goes into a vote without understanding what the pass criteria is,” SA senator Rex Patrick told Guardian Australia.
“I support the need for a national facility, but it should only be located where there is broad community support.”
Labor discussed the party’s position regarding the legislation in a caucus meeting on Tuesday, with MPs resolving to wait until the bill had been considered by the senate economics committee and until the federal court decision had been handed down.
A final decision will then be considered by the shadow cabinet and caucus and will also go through the First Nations caucus committee.
Labor’s shadow industry minister, Brendan O’Connor, is expected to outline the party’s concerns when debate gets under way in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, but told MPs that there was a need for Australia to establish a national radioactive waste management facility.
“We do not have a choice about whether or not we have these facilities, nuclear medicine is a part of modern health care,” O’Connor said.
When introducing the legislation, newly appointed resources minister Keith Pitt said the legislation concluded a search for an appropriate site that “has been ongoing for more than 40 years”.
“The successful operation of the national radioactive waste management facility will greatly improve the safety and security of radioactive waste management in Australia,” Pitt told parliament.
“Establishment of the facility in Napandee will provide for the safe and effective management of Australia’s radioactive waste, and support the long-term social and economic sustainability of the Kimba community.”
As part of the government proposal to establish the site, the Kimba community will also receive a $31m community development package.
About 80% of Australia’s radioactive waste comes from the production of nuclear medicine, which is currently stored at more than 100 locations across the country, including science facilities, universities and hospitals.
The purpose-built facility would be capable of permanently disposing of low level waste and temporarily storing intermediate level waste, while a separate intermediate level waste disposal facility is developed.