Can Scotland help stop nuclear waste being dumped on Aboriginal land?

Ben Wray

Linda Pearson, anti-nukes activist and Common Weal policy officer, explains how nuclear waste due to be transferred from the UK to Australia could be dumped on Aboriginal land, and what role the Scottish Government could play in preventing another act of racist disregard of Australia’s indigenous population in what is a long and brutal history of discrimination

APPROXIMATELY 10,000 miles from Scotland in South Australia, Aboriginal traditional owners are fighting against plans to build a nuclear waste dump on their land. It is the latest phase in a struggle to protect land and culture which has lasted over 20 years.

The Australian federal government claims that it needs to build a national radioactive waste management facility to store low level radioactive waste, which is currently held at several locations within Australia. The facility would also serve as an interim storage site for intermediate level waste which is being returned to Australia from the UK and France, as well as intermediate level waste from Australia’s research reactor at Lucas Heights, near Sydney. As a permanent site for the intermediate level waste has not been established, “interim” really means “indefinite”.

Earlier proposals to establish the dump, first at Woomera in South Australia, then at Muckaty in the Northern Territory, were defeated by sustained campaigns led by the traditional owners. The government has now shortlisted three other potential sites, all of which are in South Australia: one at Wallerberdina, near the Flinders Ranges, and two near Kimba.

READ MORE – James McEnaney: Australia’s dark history and why it matters today

The federal government has so far ignored opposition from Aboriginal groups at the proposed sites and there is a risk that the dump will be built without their consent.  A group of Adnyamathanha people, who live on land adjacent to the proposed site at Wallerberdina, have appealed to the Scottish Government to help prevent what they say would amount to “cultural genocide”.

What’s it got to do with us?

Nuclear waste substitution

In the 1990s, spent nuclear fuel was sent to Dounreay, Caithness, for reprocessing by a number of countries, including Australia. The contracts entered into at the time stated that the radioactive waste created during reprocessing would be sent back to its country of origin within 25 years. The waste is therefore now due to be returned.

To complicate the issue, Australia wants its waste returned in vitrified (glass) form, instead of in the cement form which is produced at Dounreay. Sellafield is the only location in the UK where the vitrification process can be undertaken. Therefore, in order to fulfil the original contract, the UK and Scottish governments agreed to a joint “Dounreay waste substitution policy” in 2012.  Under this policy, the waste generated during the reprocessing of Australian nuclear fuel will stay at Dounreay and a “radiologically equivalent” amount of vitrified waste will be shipped from Sellafield to Australia.

Human rights and “cultural genocide”

The Adnyamathanha want the Scottish Government to help stop the transfer of waste which may end up dumped at Wallerberdina, as they fear that radioactive contamination could poison the water and destroy sacred sites, such as the Yungapunganah waterhole. Adnyamathanha women, Regina Mackenzie, has appealed to the Scottish Government to “help us stop this racist act of impacting First Nation people who are a minority of this country we now call Australia”.

Scottish-Australian campaigner, Gary Cushway, has visited the Wallerberdina site, where he talked with the Adnyamathanha about the cultural significance of the land. He has since met with the Scottish Government on the group’s behalf. To its credit, the Scottish Government has acknowledged the Adnyamathanha’s concerns and gave assurances that they have been passed on to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the UK Government.

READ MORE: Plans to dump nuclear waste in Scotland opposed in Dumfries

However, Cushway believes that the Scottish and UK governments are content for the waste to be returned to Australia and for its final destination to be decided by the Australian Government. This is problematic, as Australian state and federal governments have a long history of ignoring the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, violating their human rights and prioritising private profit over Aboriginal culture and heritage, especially where nuclear matters are concerned.

Aboriginal people in South Australia have already suffered the effects of radioactive contamination caused by the British atomic tests carried out at Maralinga and Emu Fields in the 1950s. The British Government had considered, but decided against, conducting the tests in Wick, Scotland, and the Australian Government was willing to let the tests go ahead near Aboriginal communities. Evidently, the British Government considered Aboriginal lives to be worth even less than Scottish lives and the Australian Government agreed.

Aboriginal people who lived in the area were not informed of the tests, nor were they warned about the dangers of radiation. A “black mist” of radioactive dust enveloped the land, bringing serious immediate and long-term health consequences and rendering much of the affected area uninhabitable.

Uranium mining has been imposed on Aboriginal communities since the 1950s, bringing further health problems and wreaking environmental devastation. A 1997 federal government report stated that the “history of uranium mining in Australia and its impact on Aboriginal people is deplorable. Past mining in places like Rum Jungle [in the Northern Territory] have left areas so degraded that traditional owners are unable to use them, while mines such as Ranger have been forced on traditional owners against their will”.

Other industries have been allowed to ravage sites of great cultural significance, such as Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula), on the coast of Western Australia. Murujuga has been dubbed the “largest open-air museum in the world”, as it is thought to contain around one million ancient rock engravings. Yet successive state governments have promoted the establishment of huge industrial projects in the area, including the largest natural gas and ammonia fertiliser production facilities in the world. The National Trust of Australia says that thousands of pieces of rock art have been destroyed in the process and there are concerns that that emissions from industry in the area could damage many more.

This racist disregard for Aboriginal lives and culture is intrinsic to the system of oppression which began in 1788, when Britain invaded and stole land that already belonged to more than 200 Aboriginal nations. Aboriginal Australians are the most incarcerated people on earth, while Aboriginal children are removed from their families at 10 times the rate of other children, and Aboriginal life expectancy is on average 10 years shorter than that of other Australians.

“No one is listening to us”

An Australian Senate inquiry is currently underway into the selection process for the site of the nuclear waste dump. Only the three sites in South Australia have been formally nominated at this stage, however, it is possible that other communities will be considered in future. Brewarrina in New South Wales was recently put forward by its shire council and Leonora Shire Council in Western Australia has backed a proposal for the dump to be located there.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Australia adopted in 2009, states that “no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent”. However, traditional owners at each of the current proposed sites have expressed strong opposition to the dump proposal and have criticised the federal government’s lack of consultation.

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A majority of Adnyamathanha traditional owners strongly object to the dump being built at Wallerberdina. In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, which represents 2,500 Adnyamathanha people, states that its concerns about the dump have been ignored and it “has no confidence in or support for the current federal process”.

“No one is listening to us”, the submission says.

The Barngarla people are the native title holders of both proposed sites at Kimba, where the federal government has asserted that there is no Aboriginal cultural heritage to be concerned about. In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation disagrees, citing an assessment of the area by a cultural heritage consultant which found a number of significant sites. The submission describes the community consultation on the site selection process as “patently inadequate, bordering on non-existent” and states that “the need for Indigenous support has so far not played a part in the Department’s site selection process at all in respect of the sites near Kimba”.

Brewarrina in New South Wales is the site of what are believed to be the oldest manmade structures in the world, the Ngunnhu fish traps on the Barwon river. Local traditional owners are concerned about the damage that the dump could cause to the environment and the health risks it could pose to Aboriginal people, who make up 64 per cent of the population of Brewarrina Shire. They have described Brewarrina council’s consultation process on its decision to nominate the area as a site for the dump as “grossly inadequate”. Trish Frail of Keep Bre Nuclear Free told ABC Radio that traditional owners in Brewarrina would help the other Aboriginal groups that are fighting against the dump proposal, because “it seems like governments are always seeking out small, isolated communities with a majority of First Nations People, and we want to be able to put a stop to that”.

What can the Scottish Government do?

A Friends of the Earth Australia submission to the Senate inquiry states that “the treatment of Aboriginal people by the federal government has been disgraceful and there is no indication that this will change”. Given the Australian Government’s apparent disregard for its UNDRIP obligations and its generally shameful record on Indigenous rights, the transfer of nuclear waste from the UK to Australia should be halted, at least until it’s clear that the waste will not be dumped on Aboriginal land against the wishes of traditional owners.

On top of these human rights concerns, the transfer would pose serious safety risks. Highlands Against Nuclear Transport (HANT), Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Scottish Green Party oppose the transport of nuclear waste between countries. Tor Justad of HANT believes that the transport of nuclear waste is never safe as “all the research into both military and civil nuclear accidents has demonstrated that as soon as you start moving nuclear weapons materials or civil nuclear waste, significant and unpredictable risks are created”.  In Australia, campaigners have raised safety concerns about the transfer of intermediate level waste from Lucas Heights in Sydney to an interim storage site, arguing that this would create unacceptable safety risks and the waste could instead be kept at Lucas Heights.

READ MORE: Scotland ‘woefully ill-prepared’ for a nuclear convoy disaster, argue Scottish Greens

As Gary Cushway points out, under current arrangements, the waste produced in the reprocessing of spent Australian nuclear fuel which was sent to Dounreay in the 1990s will stay at Dounreay; the vitrified waste produced at Sellafield is only being sent to Australia to fulfil a contractual agreement. If the transfer from Sellafield was halted, and the waste currently stored at different locations in Australia was kept where it is, the case for a national radioactive waste management facility in Australia would be drastically eroded.

Cushway believes that the Scottish Government could cancel the 2012 joint waste substitution policy and come to an arrangement with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) regarding management of the reprocessed Australian waste at Dounreay. Instead of a radiologically equivalent amount of vitrified waste being sent from Sellafield, the Australian Government could pay the Scottish Government to manage the waste at Dounreay. This would save the Australian Government the costs of transporting and managing the waste in Australia.

Cushway believes that this plan would “benefit both the Australian and Scottish Governments and send a clear message to Indigenous Australians that the international community won’t sit back and allow the Australian Government to continue to damage what’s left of the world’s valuable Aboriginal culture”.

At the very least, more pressure should be put on the UK Government to stop the transfer of waste until its final destination is known. Scots are yet to fully reckon with the role that we played in the brutal colonisation of Aboriginal Australia, but the Scottish Government now has an opportunity to offer meaningful solidarity to Aboriginal communities who are still fighting to protect their land and culture.

Picture courtesy of Michael Donovan

Picture description: Adnyamathanha woman Regina McKenzie’s daughter Juanella Mckenzie and granddaughters, left to right Ngayan, Ngintaka and Ngarlaa, sitting by Pungka Pudinah waterhole, a sacred Adnyamathanha women’s site near where the Australian Government plans to build a nuclear waste facility.

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