'The most divisive thing': two small towns brace for a vote on nuclear waste

Whatever the result, the communities on South Australia’s Eyre peninsula are split over the issue – and will be for some time

After four years of speculation and three years of consultation, the small towns of Kimba and Hawker in South Australia have begun the final stage of a process that has divided neighbours and placed these otherwise forgotten communities on the national map.

On 7 November, the Kimba district council will announce the result of a month-long vote on whether its residents support the construction of a nuclear waste facility at one of two proposed sites. On 11 November a similar vote will open for the Flinders Ranges council over a third proposed site at Wallerberdina.

The search for a suitable site has taken more than 30 years. If one or both of the communities vote yes, the resources minister, senator Matt Canavan, could name the final site by the end of the year.

“The government has always said a facility will only be built in a community that broadly supports it,” Canavan said in a statement to Guardian Australia. “If a community returns a majority no vote, the government will not proceed with the construction of a facility in that community.”

Kimba and Hawker are only 200km apart, falling on either side of Port Augusta at the top of the Eyre peninsula. They are both in the federal electorate of Grey. The former federal member, Barry Wakelin, has drawn criticism from his ex-Liberal party colleagues for publicly criticising the proposal, citing as his chief concern the impact of community division.

“Once you divide the community, where there are really clear views one way or the other, it’s quite difficult to settle that down again,” he says.

What is proposed?

The proposed Wallerberdina site is on rangelands (used for grazing), occupying a 100 hectare slice of the 23,580ha station owned by former Liberal senator Grant Chapman, who sat on nuclear waste committees in his 28 years in parliament.

Both of the proposed sites at Kimba are on farming country, prompting a grassroots campaign against the use of agricultural land to dump nuclear waste.

All three sites were volunteered by the property owners, as part of a process that saw 28 sites nominated across Australia. The government says it is a coincidence that the three finalists are in one narrow patch of SA.

The proposed facility would provide for the disposal of low-level nuclear waste and the temporary storage — for how long it’s not clear — of intermediate-level nuclear waste.

“The facility will be able to hold Australia’s current and future intermediate-level waste until [the] establishment of a permanent facility for this material,” the taskforce says in a statement to Guardian Australia. “The permanent facility will be in a different location and of a different type.”

It says there’s about 1,771 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste and 4,975 cubic metres of low-level waste at 100 sites across Australia, including the Lucas Heights reactor, and those volumes are expected to rise incrementally over time.

There are 45 jobs promised as part of the facility and the host community will also receive $31m in federal funding, including $20m for community projects and $3m designated for Indigenous groups.

Both the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, covering Kimba, and the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (Atla), covering Hawker and Wallerberdina, oppose the facility.

Regina McKenzie, an Adnyamathanha traditional owner who lives on a station adjoining Wallerberdina, says federal contractors damaged a cultural women’s site while conducting their cultural heritage survey. Atla was working with the station owner to catalogue the archeological and intangible heritage before the site was volunteered for a nuclear facility, but say they have since been left out.

“The government has been talking at us, they have not been talking with us,” she says.

The Barngarla lost a federal court challenge arguing that all registered native title holders should be eligible to vote in the community ballot, whether they are local residents or not, and are appealing that decision to the full court. An attempted injunction to stop the community ballot going ahead until that appeal was heard was unsuccessful.

Towns divided

Peter Slattery, the mayor of Flinders Ranges council, runs the post office in Quorn, a town of 1,200 people about 40km north-east of Port Augusta and 60km from the proposed site at Wallerberdina. There is, he says, “a certain battle weariness” whenever the issue of nuclear waste is raised.

“People just want this vote done and dusted and out of the way so there is some understanding of what the broad community sentiment is, because at the moment we’re only hearing one group,” Slattery says. “No one is sticking their head above the parapet to speak if they are in favour of this, because it’s a very emotive and divisive issue. There’s a large group in the community who just reacted the day nuclear was mentioned and nothing that’s said or done has changed that position.”

Matt Canavan
If one or both of the communities vote yes, the resources minister, senator Matt Canavan, could name the final site by the end of the year. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

He says the taskforce has been “pretty above board” but the council is seeking further clarity on how community support will be calculated and how the community benefits fund will be calculated. He says the importance of the community poll has “softened” to the point that council is not clear what factors will be considered when Canavan makes his final decision.

In Kimba, mayor Dean Johnson, who runs the local IGA, says the prospect of $20m in funding is “obviously pretty exciting.”

“The benefits that could come from this facility are for the entire community and I would like to think that 99% of our town have thought of this from a whole of community point of view,” Johnson says.

Wakelin says the decision ought to have been made without money on the table. Affected communities have already received $5.76m in funding for community projects and a further $4m was announced this month.

He says politicians are “petrified” of discussing nuclear waste, and he believes the federal government will try to get the issue resolved quickly – even if both communities vote no.

“As the minister tells us now: ‘Yeah, you can vote, but I’ll still make the decision’,” he says.

Greg Bannon, a spokesman for the Flinders Local Action Group, has been opposed to the project since Wallerberdina was named as one of six shortlisted sites in November 2015 (the site was named Barndioota at the time). He knows the area well from working as a jackeroo. It’s typically very dry but has been known to flood, and abuts the Flinders Ranges, the most seismically active area of SA.

“I thought: this cannot be the right place, it must be a mistake,” Bannon said.

The risks posed by floods, groundwater and possible seismic activity at the Wallerberdina site are disputed by the department, which says they are either negligible or manageable.

Bannon and his wife retired to Quorn 16 years ago and bought “a little block” of 100 acres, but since the debate began he has been frozen out of some circles.

“It has been the most divisive thing that I have seen in a small community,” he said. “Both of our communities, Kimba and here, have been fractured ... we are told in Kimba people who were lifelong friends, played sport together, went to school together, now won’t talk to each other. People won’t shop at certain shops, they go to the next town.”

No matter the result of the vote, Bannon says, the government will be held responsible for healing those divisions.

“We have asked the department: how are they going to put our communities back together?” he says.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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