Wasting away in Autralia’s outback

Published by rudy Date posted on April 1, 2009

A six-hour drive north of Alice Springs, this is the proposed site of a radioactive waste dump – a project that has not only sparked the most rancorous of environmental debates, but divided the local Aboriginal community, the traditional owners of the land.

Supporters of the dump claim it would bring much-needed employment and money to an area with little prospects and few jobs.

For opponents, it would not only be an unwelcome blot on their beloved red centre landscape, but a toxic one at that.

Amy Lauder, an Aboriginal elder, is at the centre of the storm. Amy Lauder welcomes the nearly £6m in government subsidies

A small woman, with long, grey straggly hair, she’s the matriarch of her family and a passionate advocate of the waste dump.

“We’re satisfied that it’s safe,” she told me. “We’ve consulted enough to make our decision right.”

She’s prepared to welcome radioactive materials onto her family’s traditional land, along with the nearly Aus$12m (£6m) in government subsidies that would come with it.

For Amy and her Nagpa people, the economic imperative is essential.

She believes the waste dump would bring about the transformation of her community, bringing: “sealed airstrips, sealed roads – we’d like to have TV and power, street lights.”


If Amy gets her way, Muckaty Station would become the site of a new national repository for low and intermediate-level radioactive waste.

The low-level waste – gloves from hospitals, pipe work and the like – would be stored in drums and buried underground.

Building a waste dump would sever locals’ ancient bond with the land

The intermediate waste would be encapsulated more securely using glass and other technologies.

“Both of those will lock up the material for hundreds of thousands of years,” according to Dr Ron Cameron, the acting chief executive of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which is responsible for managing the government’s nuclear waste.

“You want stable geology, you want distance from a water table, so that there’s no chance of it ever reaching a water table.

“You want somewhere where its easy to transport it to,” he added.

Dr Cameron believes that parts of the outback offer both.

Yet Amy Lauder faces a barrage of criticism from environmentalists and fellow Aborigines, who believe that a waste dump would defile their sacred land.

Ancient bond

Kath Martin, another Aboriginal elder, lives at the foot of a hill range just north of Alice Springs.

Her home is close to another site which has been earmarked for the dump – “the track of old kangaroo legends,” as she described it.  There could be contamination – they can’t tell me that’s not a possibility

Aboriginal elder Kath Martin

Sitting on her veranda, Kath thought she could best sum up her love of the land by reading a poem written by her daughter. But she broke down in tears as she reached its coda.

“This great land that we have used for thousands of years just to survive…

“Now stand here with me and help us fight to keep this alive…”

Another anti-dump protester Mitch – she has chosen not to have a surname – lives in a lace-curtain suburb of Alice Springs, in a bungalow protected by a wire fence with an anti-waste dump protest sign at the entrance.

She’s an Engawala woman from Harts Range, another of the four sites under consideration.

“If it’s not in their backyard, they’re happy,” she says of white Australia. “But it’s going to be in our backyard and we’re not happy about it.”

Building a waste dump, she says, would sever the ancient bond with the land.

“You won’t be able to go onto country to talk the stories, you won’t be able to go onto country to dance, and paint your bodies up and do the ceremonial stuff that we are obligated as Aboriginal people to do on our land.

“There could be contamination. They can’t tell me that’s not a possibility.”

Putting up a fight

In opposition, the Australian Labor Party condemned the Muckaty Station proposal, and pledged to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, the legislation that underpins it.

But so far that has not happened.

Martin Ferguson, the minister responsible for making that call, declined to be interviewed – no one else from the department was available for comment either.

The Australian Greens suspect the government will uphold its pre-election pledge to repeal the legislation, but in a way which still keeps open the option of siting a waste dump in the outback.

For Amy Lauder, meanwhile, the current uncertainty is frustrating.

She can see her opportunity slipping through her fingers and she’s not going to let that happen without putting up a fight. –Nick Bryant, BBC News, Northern Territory

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