Australia's Nuclear Waste Still in Limbo

CANBERRA, Australia, August 12, 2004 (ENS) - The Australian government is searching the country for a nuclear waste dump site on Commonwealth land, either onshore or offshore, because none of the states or territories wants national radioactive waste on their land. Seven Aboriginal women from South Australia say it was their campaign that turned back the nuclear dump planned for the desert outback, although they have little money, do not speak English, and cannot read or write.

In July the government decided to abandon its plan to establish a national low level waste repository at site 40a near Woomera in South Australia after the state won a Federal Court case in June blocking federal "compulsory urgent acquisition" of the site.

There are no nuclear power generating stations in Australia, but the Lucas Heights research reactor near Sydney generates waste.

Prime Minister John Howard said the Commonwealth government is seeking commitment from all states and territories that they will adopt world's best practice in the management and disposal of their own radioactive waste materials in their own jurisdictions.

South Australia Premier Mike Rann expressed the joy of South Australians at the Commonwealth government's retreat, saying “It’s a great day for our state. It’s a victory for common sense."

But no one is happier than Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, seven senior Aboriginal women from South Australia who spent their lives campaigning against the Woomera dump from 1998 when the government's plan to site it on their territory was first announced. They had little money, and they cannot read or write, but they achieved their objective - the waste will not be coming to Woomera.


Eileen Unkari Crombie is one of the seven women who successfully fought the nuclear waste dump planned for their country. (Photo courtesy Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta)
"People said that you can't win against the Government. Just a few women," they wrote in an open letter released today from their hometown of Coober Pedy. "We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up."

"We told Howard you should look after us, not try and kill us. Straight out. We always talk straight out. In the end he didn't have the power, we did. He only had money, but money doesn't win."

Emily Munyungka Austin, Eileen Kampakuta Brown, Eileen Unkari Crombie, Ivy Makinti Stewart, Tjunmutja Myra Watson, Eileen Wani Wingfield, and Angelina Wonga campaigned the only way they could - they put their lives on the line to keep nuclear waste out of their territory.

"We been everywhere talking about the poison," they wrote. "Canberra, Sydney, Lucas Heights, Melbourne, Adelaide, Silverton, Port Augusta, Roxby Downs, Lake Eyre. We did it the hard way. Always camping out in the cold. Travelling all over with no money. Just enough for cool drink along the way. We went through it. Survivors."


Angelina Wonga on the road campaigning against the Woomera nuclear waste dump (Photo courtesy Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta)
"We even went to Lucas Heights Reactor. It's a dangerous place, but we went in boldly to see where they were making the poison - the radiation," they wrote.

The women objected to the waste dump for many reasons. First, they had all lived through the above ground testing of nine British atomic bombs in their homeland. Angelina Wonga said of one test day in the 1950s, "We seen a bomb went out from the South. And said, ‘eh, what's that?’ And when we see the wind blowing it to where we were sitting down. Nobody got a warning, nobody. That was the finish of mother and father. They all passed away through that. I was only there. Buried the grandmother. I was the only one left."

The proposed design of the Woomera nuclear dump, the details of which were never made public, was to bury the waste in shallow trenches that the Bureau of Science acknowledged would not prevent leakage of water, nor human, animal or plant intrusion.

The women feared that the radioactivity would contaminate the large reserves of groundwater in the Great Artesian Basin. "The desert lands are not as dry as you think! said Eileen Wani Wingfield. "There’s a big underground river here. We know the poison from the radioactive waste dump will go under the ground and leak into the water."

They believe the waste dump would "seed the industry’s expansion by allowing continued and increased production of nuclear waste" and would have allowed an "out of sight, out of mind" response to the waste problem.

The transportation of waste across Australia is a major concern, they said. "It's too dangerous, the trucks bringing it all the way here," wrote Austin on the group's website. Communities across Australia on the proposed transport route declared their shires to be nuclear free zones.

The Australian Greens worked to defeat the South Australia waste dump, forging a close bond with the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta in the process.


Eileen Wani Wingfield says sacred sites exist in the area that was planned for the nuclear dump. (Photo courtesy Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta)
"We showed that Greenies and Anangu can work together," wrote the Aboriginal women. "Greenies could come and live here in Coober Pedy and work together to stop the dump. Kungkas showed the Greenies about the country and the culture. Our Greenie girls are the best in Australia. We give them all the love from our hearts. Family you know. Working together – that's family. Big thank you to them especially. We can't write. They help us with the letters, the writing, the computers, helped tell the world."

But the problem itself - the waste - remains.

Prime Minister Howard said in a recent radio broadcast, "I’ve got to find a solution. We’ve got to find somewhere for the waste. I mean the people who are saying it shouldn’t be in South Australia, they presumably say it should be somewhere else in Australia. I’m sure they will accept that people living somewhere else in Australia will adopt the same attitude. Now if that goes on, we will never have a solution."

The federal government wanted low-level and intermediate level nuclear waste from throughout Australia to be deposited at a single dump. Now that will not happen.

The operating licence for the new reactor at Lucas Heights to replace the aging research reactor is conditional on solving the waste issue.

"We won’t be able to go ahead with rebuilding the reactor," Howard said, who is about to call an election.

Although the polling date has not been set, candidates are already on the campaign trail. The Greens candidate for Macarthur, Jennifer Hanson, has called for the construction of Sydney’s new nuclear reactor to be halted following the Howard Government’s decision to abandon plans for the waste dump in South Australia.

“The reactor cannot go ahead without a nuclear waste dump. No community in Australia wants one, so construction of the new reactor must be halted,” said Hanson. “The government should admit defeat, cancel the project and shut down the existing reactor."

Australia is a major producer of uranium that fuels nuclear reactors around the world. Australian uranium provides about 25 percent of world uranium supply from mines.

There are three operating uranium mines in Australia - Ranger in the Northern Territory, Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia and a fourth that is cleared to start construction in South Australia. They all manage their waste on-site.

The problem remains, but for the women of Coober Pedy it is time to relax.

"We are happy. We can have a break now," they wrote. "We want to have a rest and go on with other things now. Sit around the campfire and have a yarn. We don't have to talk about the dump anymore, and get up and go all the time. Now we can go out together and camp out and pick bush medicine and bush tucker. And take the grandchildren out."