Feuds and infighting as nuclear waste dump plan tears communities apart

Representatives from six sites flagged by the Australian government as possible locations for the nation’s radioactive waste have taken their fight to Canberra. But back home, the proposal is turning friends and neighbours against each other

Peter and Sue Woolford were born and bred in the small rural community of Kimba in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. The 1,000-strong town rallied behind the couple when their teenage son, Matthew, died in a farming accident 12 years ago.

The comfort provided by the practical and emotional support offered by friends and neighbours during this time of grief was immeasurable, Sue tells Guardian Australia, which makes it all the more difficult to see the community turning against each other now.

Kimba district council contains two of the six sites flagged by the federal government as a possible repository for domestically produced nuclear waste.

Three of the sites are in South Australia, and one each in the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales.

Locations of proposed sites to dump domestically produced nuclear waste

Community sentiment on the proposed site near Kimba is split, causing neighbour to turn on neighbour.

“Friends that have been friends for a long time not talking, that sort of thing. If you walk down the street you’d probably be frightened to mention the issue, to discuss the issue, because you don’t want to upset anybody,” says Peter, a livestock farmer. “That’s a terrible thing, because communities are close-knit. And community spirit gets you through all the hard times, the tough times, the tragic times, not the money.”

The commonwealth has offered $10m for infrastructure and community grants for the site that is eventually chosen, plus attractive settlements for the purchasing of land.

The federal government says a repository is needed for the permanent and safe disposal of radioactive waste, including that resulting from medical procedures.

The proposal has prompted strong reaction from both sides of the debate.

“This is real bloody stuff for me. I’m fighting for my family, for my community and I want to stay there. All I’m asking the government is to listen to what we’ve got to say,” says Peter. “We want our lives back and we want our communities back. It’s as simple as that.”

Adnyamathanha woman Regina MacKenzie says the government’s proposed waste site on the Flinders Ranges, where her people are from, is an attack on the Aboriginal owners’ belief system.

The Flinders Ranges site has the highest concentration of Aboriginal artefacts, including ancestral bones, in South Australia, MacKenzie says, and using it for nuclear waste will strip Indigenous people of their culture.

“They [the government] has got to stop doing this assimilation. And that’s what it is for us. They’re trying to assimilate us, they’re trying to take us away from our culture,” she says. “What little we have left, let us preserve it.”

“We’re fighting for our survival,” MacKenzie says. “Our spiritual survival as well, as Aboriginal people ... The erosion of it [our culture] is really distressing.”

Indigenous elders and Adelaide students gather at Flinders University to protest against the dumping of nuclear waste in Australia.
Indigenous elders and Adelaide students gather at Flinders University to protest against the dumping of nuclear waste in Australia in July 2015. Photograph: Warwick Goodman/AAP

MacKenzie and the Woolfords are part of a group of around 20 representatives from the six proposed sites who travelled at their own expense to Parliament House in Canberra to speak to MPs and senators about their concerns. All of the members of this group are against dump sites being constructed near their homes.

The resources and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, turned down an invitation to meet the group. He prefers instead to let the consultation process to play out before meeting any representatives.

“I haven’t met with people who are for and I haven’t met with people who are against. So for me to meet with people who are against would send the wrong message to people who are for,” the minister told ABC Radio in South Australia on Tuesday morning. “I don’t want to take this community consultation process for granted. We’re taking it very seriously; I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome.”

Community members have the opportunity to meet Frydenberg’s advisors while in Canberra, and have met departmental officials in their hometowns in the past.

“Officials from my department have held many meetings with the shortlisted communities and have visited each community at least twice, and in most cases three or more times. The opportunity to provide feedback in this 120-day consultation period will continue until 11 March,” Frydenberg tells Guardian Australia.

The minister announced the six shortlisted sites for storing low- to intermediate-level radioactive waste in November, after landowners voluntarily nominated their properties as potential sites. The 28 initial nominations were whittled down to six sites, which will eventually be reduced to one single site.

A community consultation process will take place before the government settles on the site, which will not house high-level radioactive waste.

“The outcomes and feedback of this initial consultation process will help inform the government’s consideration of the next phase of detailed assessment, which will involve further community consultation, technical assessment, and a shortlist of two to three sites,” Frydenberg said.

But community members say there was no discussion of the proposal before the shortlist was announced.

“There was no consultation whatsoever. We all found out when it was on the news,” MacKenzie says.

“Minister Frydenberg and his team have kicked the door in and occupied people’s lounge room without their permission,” Mark Russell from Oman Ama in Queensland, another proposed location, says.

“There has been no environmental impact study, there’s been no geological surveys, there’s been no appreciation of Indigenous cultural heritage. All of that has been put aside.”

Finding a site to dispose of domestically produced nuclear waste has been a thorny issue for successive governments over several decades.

In June 2014, the commonwealth and Northern Land Council pulled out of plans to host a dump site in Muckaty Station near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, following a long-running dispute with traditional owners.

In November 2014, the federal government handed back parts of Maralinga that had been previously held by the Department of Defence. The area had been used by Britain in the 1950s and 1960s to test atomic bombs, leading to a contamination of the area and the deaths of many Aboriginal inhabitants.

MacKenzie notes that the memory of Maralinga is “still raw” for her people, as the government looks to use their lands for new nuclear waste sites.

Despite the historical difficulties in finding appropriate repositories, Frydenberg is optimistic the current shortlist will yield a suitable location.

“The 120-day consultation period currently under way provides an important opportunity to engage with all members of the communities of the six shortlisted sites. To date, this process has been very constructive,” he said. “In selecting the final site, we will consider a range of views within the community, including from residents, stakeholders and local organisations. Ultimately we are looking for a site which has broad-based community support.

“We will not create a site where there is extensive community opposition,” Frydenberg said.

But in the interim there may be months of community feuds and infighting as neighbours express passionately held views.

Peter Woolford does not think Kimba will make it through the vitriol.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to last the distance. I think our community would be wrecked,” he says. “I can not emphasise how much stress the community has been under.

“I’d ask you to walk in my shoes for a couple of days or a week, then you’d know exactly what we’re talking about.”


Shalailah Medhora

The GuardianTramp

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