John Howard’s government considered extinguishing native title over a South Australian site earmarked for a nuclear waste dump “by agreement or by compulsory acquisition”, the 2002 cabinet papers reveal.
The records, released on Sunday by the National Archives of Australia, shed light on the Howard government’s part in the decades-long battle to create a national storage site for Australia’s low- and medium-level nuclear waste.
The Keating government began searching for a site to store the nation’s nuclear waste as early as 1992.
In 2012 the Gillard government passed a controversial bill to create the nation’s first nuclear waste dump – saying it hadn’t yet decided on a location, although many believed it was destined for remote Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
Now preliminary works have started on a site at Napandee, near Kimba in South Australia, after the Morrison government resources minister Keith Pitt declared native title had been extinguished there.
The legal and political obstacles were apparent in 2002 when the finance minister, Nick Minchin, and science minister, Peter McGauran, brought their submission to cabinet.
They proposed that federal laws should be used to override SA laws that would ban the establishment of a dump, and that Indigenous land use agreements could be used to override native title.
If native title parties had not “agreed to the surrender of their native title through an ILUA”, the government should consider compulsory acquisition, they said.
Cabinet noted that “the extinguishing of native title, whether by agreement or by compulsory acquisition, is likely to raise difficult issues”.
The cabinet submission noted there were “strong imperatives” for “the safe keeping of hazardous radioactive waste materials” that arise from medicine, industry and research. The waste is now stored at Lucas Heights outside Sydney, and more than 100 institutions across the country.
“Given the sensitivity of the project and the need for certainty of tenure that provides exclusive use of the site for the duration of the project, there appears to be no practical alternative to the extinguishment of native title,” the submission said.
But the government would need to provide “benefits” in return, and be prepared for legal challenges. The submission also suggested a media strategy, saying that ruling out having intermediate waste (leaving just low-level waste) would “deprive the SA government of the argument the national repository was the thin end of the wedge, and that the government has a hidden agenda to site the national intermediate waste store in the state”.
The current government plan is to use the Napandee site as permanent storage for low-level waste, and temporary storage for intermediate-level waste (the long-term plan for the intermediate waste is not clear).
The prime minister’s department agreed with the 2002 plan, while the Attorney General’s Department supported it, but said there was not enough information to work out whether “security measures will be sufficient to prevent access to the repository for the purpose of terrorist or other criminal activity”.
The Department of Foreign Affairs warned of the “distinct” possibility of “dirty bombs”, in the wake of the September 11 attacks. A dirty bomb is where an explosive is used to scatter radioactive dust.
The Department of Defence had “serious concerns” about the initial proposal to use Woomera for storage.
“A principal concern is the risk of a weapon impact on the national repository as well as the negative publicity that would result,” the department said.
The traditional owners of the Napandee site, the Barngarla people, are still fighting the federal government in court. The SA premier, Peter Malinauskas, has said he supports their cause.
The federal resources minister, Madeleine King, has said the waste “cannot continue to build up”, and has committed to working with the Barngarla people to protect the site’s cultural heritage.