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In The Year of the Outback the Australian Federal government is planning a radioactive nuclear waste dump in the Woomera Forbidden Area.

By Ashley Crawford

There is nothing there, according to the Australian Federal Government, in the planning of a radioactive waste dump in the Woomera region in South Australia. The indigenous people of the area tend to disagree. And, due to the fact that the site is in the Prohibited Area run by the Australian Department of Defence, most people are unlikely to get a look at the site.

However given the opportunity to visit this site with an Aboriginal of the Kokotha people it becomes rapidly evident that there is tradition and culture in this region that spans generations.

In the Year of the Outback, the proposal by the Federal Government to establish a National Radioactive Waste Repository in the Woomera Prohibited Area has Aboriginals, environmentalists, and the South Australian State Government up in arms. The Federal Government needs a waste disposal plan to facilitate the construction of a new nuclear reactor at the Lucas Heights facility in suburban Sydney. The existing reactor, to be switched off in 2005 would also be dismantled and dumped at the proposed site.

Leading the push against the dump are the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, who represent Aboriginal women from across northern South Australia. These feisty elderly women are old enough to remember the Maralinga tests of the 1950s.
“It was the biggest flash I ever seen,” says Ivy Makinti Stewart. “Now I can’t go back to my own lands. They set it up without any notice. We didn't know. They just dropped it. I can’t understand why they drop the bomb like they did in Maralinga. It was good land, good hunting land. They never talked to us. Why they dropped it on our land I don’t know.” The Kungka Tjuta are making their message clear. “Irati Wanti!” they say: “the poison – leave it."

“Nganana Wangkanyi piyuku - Pina Yaaltji,” says Mrs Eileen Kampukuta Brown. - “We're talking over and over - Where are the government's ears?”

“We say no radioactive waste in our ngura (our country). Don’t waste our country. Don’t waste our future.”

The journey to visit the old women took in the interior of the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) - the forbidden zone, Australia's equivalent to America’s Area 51 - indeed, the Federal Government’s preferred site for the radioactive waste dump is known as Area 52A.

The Department of Defence defines the area as approximately 127,000 square kilometres (12.7 million hectares). Its south-eastern corner is located approximately 450 kilometres north north-west of Adelaide. According to the Department of Defence website “The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) is declared under part VII of the Defence Force Regulations as a prohibited area for the purposes of ‘the testing of war material’. The unique size and location of the WPA provides Defence with a secure environment for the safe operation, development, testing, trials and assessment of experimental and operational resources and material. It is essential to the Department of Defence's ability to develop and maintain operational effectiveness in key areas of military technology. The Defence Force Regulations confer on the Minister for Defence the right to control access to and all activities within the WPA.”

It is in the Prohibited Area that the Federal Government Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources are planning to establish the nuclear dump. The waste, the government says, would come predominantly from the Lucas Heights Reactor in Sydney, hospitals, industry, universities and the Defence Department. The planned dump would comprise 20 metre deep unlined trenches covering an area of approximately 1.5 square kilometres. The waste would begin five metres below the surface and be covered only with rammed earth.

The South Australian Government was elected in February after an election campaign where they clearly opposed the Federal dump plan. So far they have matched rhetoric with action and have passed legislation in the lower house stating their opposition to the dump. While this sends a strong message to Canberra, the Federal Government has responded by threatening to override state laws. Community concern over the dump is strong with independent polls routinely showing 80 per cent of South Australians joining with local indigenous people opposing the plan and the Federal Government seems headed for a serious radioactive showdown in the desert.

Access to the restricted area planned for the dumpsite was gained via the Department of Defence Indigenous Liaison Officer, Andrew Starkey.
Andrew Starkey is in an invidious position. On the one hand he represents the Australian Department of Defence. On the other he is a member of the Kokatha nation and well versed in the traditional law, customs and mythology of the region. He admits that sometimes “it is like sleeping with the enemy.”

The proposed dumpsite is 45 kilometres west from the township of Woomera and passes the rusting remains of rocket launches and military bunkers and is a mere 200m from a live firing range which is currently used by Defence. To European eyes, the region appears unliveable, an ideal region to dump just about anything unwanted. But for the Aboriginal people of the it is excellent hunting ground and an area rich in story and culture.

There is proof in abundance that people have traversed the area, says Starkey. “Where we're standing now you can see where stone tools have been manufactured. Although it may appear uninhabitable, on the way in you would have seen the kangaroos, that's why people come out to this terrain. It's good hunting. What you see in these low lying areas is what we call gulgai, or a crab hole, and when it rains those areas attract the water first and the emus come to those place and are easy to hunt. There are permanent rock holes of water just to the north of here.”

At the same time, it suits the government's purpose perfectly. “There’s security (when trials are active), there are good roads.”

Born in Port Augusta, Starkey has been with the Department of Defence for five years. Prior to this post he was Homelands Manager at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Central Australia.

“Initially I was brought on to negotiate Native Title land agreements,” says Starkey. He admits that his position can be difficult. “Sometimes I have to be very careful what I say. I'm talking to you now as Defence. When we stop for lunch I'll change hats and talk to you as Kokatha.”

There are traditional stories about why the Woomera region is devoid of trees, but they are secret says Starkey. “The whole place is a cultural landscape for Kokatha and a few other groups to the North and West,” he says.

The Department of Industry, Tourism & Resources have spent a lot of time and money researching a potential site for the waste dump says Starkey. “If it goes here at site 52A it's going to cost the Department of Defence a lot of money to find somewhere else in the region to undertake defence trials,” he says. If it doesn’t go as the Federal Government hopes, it will cost the Department of Industry, Tourism & Resources a great deal of money and effort to find somewhere else.

Although the site is under a pastoral lease it can be compulsorily acquired through the use of the Commonwealth Land Acquisition Act. At that stage it would become both an Aboriginal Land Rights and a state’s rights issue. The Kokatha, Barngala and Kujani people have Native Title claims in place over the area of the proposed dump.
“Out here it is really out of sight out of mind,” says Starkey. “Your first impression might be that there's nothing out here, but when you look, when you really look, there is so much.” Not far from the proposed site are the remnants of a crashed Jindavik plane (a remote controlled target), shot down by the military in an exercise during the 1960 - 70s. The region continues to be used by both military and commercial interests for testing. Indeed, in July, only a week after our visit, a test flight by a prototype supersonic jet plane, launched by the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan, exploded just after take off. The rocket had reached approximately 100 metres before spiralling out of control and exploding 800 metres away. In October 2001 an experimental Hyshot scramjet being developed by Australian and British designers faced a similar fate. With the proposed nuclear waste sitting only five metres below the surface there are real concerns about the outcome of any direct hit on the dump. Similarly, nearby is a large corrugated iron shed containing 10,000 barrels of radioactive soil from a botched early uranium processing bid at Melbourne's Fishermen's Bend in the 1960s – a large target for any rogue missile or failed test.

Starkey says the bid by the elderly Aboriginals to prevent the dump is causing a serious drain on their resources. “These are people with mortgages, putting their kids to school, they don't need this added pressure.”

Starkey has been cataloguing specific areas of historical and cultural interest in the Prohibited Area, which he then guides the Department of Defence trial activity around so that areas of importance are protected and respected. “There are engravings and special sites all over the area,” he says.

Sitting by a fire 45 minutes from Coober Pedy, with red dust swirling around her, Eileen Kampukuta Brown says the uranium is Wanti - poison. “Leave it,” she says.
Mrs Brown is a spokesperson for the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta who represent the senior traditional owners of Kokatha, Arabunna, Antikarinya and Yan Kuntjatjara country where the radioactive dumpsite is proposed.

While the town of Coober Pedy (legend has it that the name is a translation of 'white man in a hole') is a blasted wilderness of mullock heaps, the Aboriginal encampment sits in a sheltered and picturesque creek bed surrounded by ghost gums.

The ladies are of a generation that remember the Maralinga tests. On October 15th, 1953, a major test – designated Totem 1 – was detonated at Emu Junction. The blast sent a dense radioactive cloud, which became known as the Black Mist, far beyond the testing range, over 250kms northwest to Wallatinna and down to Coober Pedy. It was later proved that it was the cause of the sudden outbreak of sickness and death experienced by nearby Aboriginal communities, including members of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta and their extended families.

“There was a big light and then smoke,” says Mrs Brown.

Myra Tjunmutja Watson, who says she was born at a rock hole at Maralinga, says; “They moved all our people from our camp there. But then the wind came around.” “People got sick that night,” says Ivy Makinti Stewart. “People's eyes got sick.”
“I can't go back there now,” says Mrs Watson. “Radiation.”

“I was in Wantjapila, with my mother, father and sister, all the family. Sitting down. And when 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. I went back to where I was born. People there were passing away, some type of flu. And I was the only one left.

“People who [were sent] went to pull down a building there all died. Young fellas, all got chest problems. They were strong, there was nothing wrong with them.
“We want a future for our children, for our great grand-children. We don't want waste. We don't want sickness.

“I couldn't ever get over that, that they never warned us. Our people were enjoying the land, next thing we were weak. Lots got strange sickness they had in the chest, in the stomach. They were strong people who had worked there, then they were sick. The fruit fell off the trees. The people used to live off that land. It was a clean place for everybody. The bomb, that was the end of it.

“We were sad. There were lots of special (sacred) spots,” says Mrs Watson. “That waste, they can put it where they're making it."

“That Menzies Government, I didn't like them. Shorty, John Howard, he's a bit like him (Menzies). I don't like him. I hate them politicians. They never ask the traditional owners. We don't know when they might drop another bomb. They're still making it. I have to stop now. I might cry.”

The old ladies feel that no-one in the Federal Government is listening. “Seven of us went to Sydney with our flag, to Lucas Heights. We told 'em we don't want any more. Told 'em off good and proper. Told 'em we don't want a second Maralinga. I was there. I was born there. In 1946 the missionaries sent us away. Then boom. The sky was an orange colour. Can't go back.

“That Government. I don't like that Government. They never come our here to talk to us.”

However the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta did meet with Carolyn Perkins from Department of Primary Industries and Energy (the then name of the Federal Department pushing to open the dump) in 2000. Again they felt that their comments were ignored. In a fax dated 5 June the Kungka’s wrote: “We women, traditional Aboriginal women here in Coober Pedy, made a strong effort to come to your day here in Coober Pedy about the radioactive dump. We spoke to you for two hours and tried to educate you on the many things you don’t know about, including the land, the water present in the desert that you don’t understand. We also explained to you about the Tjukur, the Dreaming present in the area…. You promised you would get in touch with us, to show you listened and understood. But its just like our words went on the wind…. Now we hear the place is close to Coober Pedy, 150kms. It’s too close. Really close. Kapi-wiya, the water will be affected. You have to come back here and talk to both man and women.”

Similarly in a letter to 17th February, 2000 the Kungka’s beseeched Dorothy Kotz, the former Liberal State Minister for the Environment and Aboriginal Affairs, to visit them.

“Dear Dorothy Kotz,
“Pinangku kulila, please listen to us.
“We want to see our kids grow up. We don’t want our kids to be poisoned. We want our life. Every time we’re talking, our words bounce back. Over and over we’re saying the same thing. Don’t let them bring the poison from where they are treating it in Sydney. Put it back there in Sydney. It’s too dangerous, the trucks bringing it all the way here.
“Yes, over and over, we’re saying the same thing. Its just like we’re bouncing a ball and nobody catching it. Manta winki, it’s the whole country that’s got the Tjukur, the Law: north, east, south, west. You’re a woman like us. Anangu kulila, listen to us Aboriginal ladies.”

The old ladies say that neither letter received a reply.

However the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta have taken on the new South Australian Government as allies. The State Government’s Environment Minister, John Hill, has been overseeing the passage through the South Australian Parliament of the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility Prohibition Amendment Bill. The Bill seeks three key outcomes: the banning of a low level waste repository; the outlawing of transportation of radioactive waste from interstate or overseas into South Australia for dumping and making any future Federal plans for a radioactive waste store in South Australia into a referendum issue. If the Federal Government acquires the land via the Land Acquisition Act the South Australian Government would be hamstrung legally but is determined to act against the dump. “There is nothing we can do legally if they want to put it in South Australia, but we will pursue them politically,” Hill told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The South Australian Government, the media, the traditional owners and the community would all be familiar with the ‘no’ case and the Prime Minister and his ministers would be forced to come here to argue the ‘yes’ case. We are prepared to hold that referendum one week before the next federal election and fight it in that context,” he says.

Much of the debate however was on hold until the release of an environmental impact study by the Federal Government. Science Minister Peter McGauran released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the National Radioactive Waste Repository on July 26, the day Democrat senator ??? resigned.

The study had been expected for some time with reports that it was due in May, then the end of June. Science Minister Peter McGauran released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the National Radioactive Waste Repository on July 26, the day Democrat senator ??? resigned. The study includes proposed transport corridors for carrying the waste from Lucas Heights in Sydney to the Woomera. That aspect of the study alone is sure to fuel debate in local communities and centres across regional Australia.

Groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth have joined forces on the issue.

“We'd been told recently that it would not be released until August,” said Dave Sweeney, Anti Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for the ACF. “Yet late on a Friday, with a South Australian Democrat resigning, is too good an opportunity to miss if you're trying to bury the story not just the waste.”

According to Sweeney there are safer ways to handle the waste material.
“In every case possible we would adopt a non-nuclear alternative,” says Sweeney. “In cases where that may not be a viable option, such as certain medical procedures, we would suggest procedures that produce small amounts of material. Radioactive isotopes can be generated without a nuclear reactor, in a cyclotron within the hospital itself. They make much more short lived and specific material. In the longer term the real key to dealing with the hot, long-lived and dangerous radioactive waste is to stop producing it.”

“Basically we believe any radioactive waste should be kept above ground, secure, monitored and retrievable at or near the site of production or use. Above ground means that it is kept in sight, not swept under the carpet where there is the potential of it seeping into ground water, retrievable means that if a better storage technology comes along you can make use of it. Storing on or near site simply reduces the potential dangers of transporting such material.”

“Having a nuclear reactor fits in with a broader government policy of keeping a foot in the nuclear door, says Sweeney. “This project is imposing an unwanted industrial facility on people who are at the lowest of the Australian demographic in terms of social power and social access,” he says. “It's environmental racism and it shouldn't happen.”

The battle over the Woomera dumpsite coincides with a similar fight in the United States. Following a decision by the US Senate to approve the use of Nevada's Yucca Mountain 150 kilometres north west of Las Vegas as America’s first national nuclear waste dump, the State of Nevada vowed to fight the decision. However President George Bush signed legislation to override Nevada’s veto.

The decision has been hailed as a major victory for the nuclear industry in the US and in particular for President George Bush who is outspoken advocate for nuclear power.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer conceded that the battle was not over as Nevada’s lawmakers and acivists pledged to continue to fight the $US58 billion ($A107 billion) project. A poll this year showed 83 per cent of Nevadan opposed the dump. The site, consisting of a network of concrete tunnels in Yucca Mountain, 140 kilometres from Las Vegas, is set to store 77,000 tonnes of radioactive waste from more than 100 nuclear reactors across the US. As with the Woomera plan, the state government, environmentalists, Native American activists and the wider community are fighting the decision.

Opponents of the US dump plan have highlighted that even in casino happy Nevada, housing radioactive waste is a gamble few are prepared to take. In the corridors of the South Australian Parliament, the lounge rooms of Adelaide and a creek bed near Coober pedy this sentiment, and the anger, is shared.

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© 2003 21C Magazine