Aboriginal First Nations and Australia's 'pro-nuclear environmentalists'

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners Heather Stuart, Vivianne McKenzie and Regina McKenzie, pictured at a 3000-strong protest against nuclear dump proposals, Adelaide, October 2016.

Australia's Aboriginal people have long been mistreated by governments and industry in the pursuit of nuclear projects. The attitudes of 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' or 'ecomodernists' towards Aboriginal people is as disrespectful as those of governments and industry, argues JIM GREEN.

Nobody wants toxic waste in their back yard, this is true the world over. We stand in solidarity with people across this country and across the globe who want sustainable futures for communities, we will not be moved.

The plan to turn South Australia (SA) into the world's nuclear waste dump has lost momentum since 2016 though it continues to be promoted by some politicians, the Business SA lobby group, and an assortment of individuals and lobbyists including self-styled 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' or 'ecomodernists'.

In its 2016 report, the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission established by the state government promoted a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (about one-third of the world's total) and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste.

The state Labor government then spent millions on a state-wide promotional campaign under the guide of consultation. The government also initiated a Citizens' Jury process. However two-thirds of the 350-member Citizens' Jury rejected the waste import proposal "under any circumstances" in their November 2016 report. The Jury's verdict was non-binding but it took the wind out of the dumpsters' sails.

A key factor in the Jury's rejection of the waste import plan was that Aboriginal people had spoken clearly in opposition. The Jury's report said: "There is a lack of aboriginal consent. We believe that the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions. The aboriginal people of South Australia (and Australia) continue to be neglected and ignored by all levels of government instead of respected and treated as equals."

The respect shown by the Citizens' Jury to Aboriginal Traditional Owners had been conspicuously absent in the debate until then. The SA government's handling of the Royal Commission process systematically disenfranchised Aboriginal people.

The Royal Commission

Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce ‒ a retired Navy officer ‒ didn't appoint a single Aboriginal person to the staff of the Royal Commission or to his Expert Advisory Committee. Aboriginal people repeatedly expressed frustration with the Royal Commission process.

Tauto Sansbury, Chairperson of the SA Aboriginal Congress, said:

"In our second meeting with Commissioner Scarce we had 27 Native Title groups from all around South Australia. We had a vote on it. And it was unanimous that the vote said 'no we don't want it'. It was absolutely unanimous.

"Commissioner Scarce said 'well maybe I'm talking to the wrong people' and we said 'well what other people are you going to talk to? We're Native Title claimants, we're Native Title Traditional Owners from all over this country ... so who else are you going to pluck out of the air to talk to ... we've stuck to our guns and we still totally oppose it. That's every Native Title group in South Australia'."

The Royal Commission acknowledged the opposition of Aboriginal people to its nuclear waste import plan – but it treated that opposition not as a red light but as an obstacle to be circumvented. The Commission opted out of the debate regarding land rights and heritage protections for Aboriginal people, stating in its report: "Although a systematic analysis was beyond the scope of the Commission, it has heard criticisms of the heritage protection framework, particularly the consultative provisions."

Such an analysis wasn't "beyond the scope of the Commission" ‒ it ought to have been core business. The terms of reference specifically directed the Commission to consider potential impacts on "regional, remote and Aboriginal communities" and to consider "lessons learned from past … practices".

No analysis but favourable conclusions

Despite its acknowledgement that it had not systematically analysed the matter, the Royal Commission nevertheless arrived at unequivocal, favourable conclusions, asserting that there "are frameworks for securing long-term agreements with rights holders in South Australia, including Aboriginal communities" and these "provide a sophisticated foundation for securing agreements with rights holders and host communities regarding the siting and establishment of facilities for the management of used fuel."

Such statements were conspicuously absent in submissions from Aboriginal people and organisations. There is in fact an abundance of evidence that land rights and heritage protection frameworks in SA are anything but "sophisticated."

To give one example, the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 provides feeble rights and protections at the best of times, but it does not apply to the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine. The mine must partially comply with an old (1979) version of the Act ‒ or at least, the mine might have to comply with the 1979 version of the Act but that it is doubt since the 1979 Act was never proclaimed and has dubious legal standing.

The legislation governing the Olympic Dam mine ‒ the Roxby Downs Indenture Act ‒ was amended in 2011. A perfect opportunity to do away with the mine's exemptions from the Aboriginal Heritage Act. But the state Labor government failed to consult Traditional Owners and enshrined the exemptions in the amended legislation. Asked to justify that decision, a government MP said in state Parliament: "BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the Government did not consult further than that."

Enter the ecomodernists

Ben Heard from the 'Bright New World' pro-nuclear lobby group said the Royal Commission's findings were "robust". Seriously? Failing to conduct an analysis and ignoring an abundance of contradictory evidence but nevertheless concluding that a "sophisticated foundation" exists for securing agreements with Aboriginal rights-holders ... that's "robust"?

Likewise, academic Barry Brook, a member of the Commission's Expert Advisory Committee, said he was "impressed with the systematic and ruthlessly evidence-based approach the [Royal Commission] team took to evaluating all issues."

In a November 2016 article about the nuclear waste import plan, Ben Heard and Oscar Archer wrote: "We also note and respect the clear message from nearly all traditional owner groups in South Australia that there is no consent to proceed on their lands. We have been active from the beginning to shine a light on pathways that make no such imposition on remote lands."

In Heard's imagination, the imported spent nuclear fuel would not be dumped on the land of unwilling Aboriginal communities, it would be processed for use as fuel in non-existent Generation IV 'integral fast reactors'. Even the stridently pro-nuclear Royal Commission gave short shrift to Heard's proposal, stating in its final report: "[A]dvanced fast reactors and other innovative reactor designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future. The development of such a first-of-a-kind project in South Australia would have high commercial and technical risk."

Heard claims his imaginary Generation IV reactor scenario "circumvents the substantial challenge of social consent for deep geological repositories, facilities that are likely to be best located, on a technical basis, on lands of importance to Aboriginal Australians".

But even in Heard's scenario, only a tiny fraction of the imported spent fuel would be converted to fuel for imaginary Generation IV reactors (in one of his configurations, 60,000 tonnes would be imported but only 4,000 tonnes converted to fuel). Most of it would be stored indefinitely, or dumped on the land of unwilling Aboriginal communities.

Honoured in the breach

Heard says he "respects" the opposition of Traditional Owners to the waste import plan, but that respect appears to be honoured in the breach. Despite his acknowledgement that there was "no consent" to proceed from "nearly all traditional owner groups in South Australia", Heard nevertheless wrote an 'open letter' promoting the waste import plan which was endorsed by 'prominent' South Australians, i.e. rich, non-Aboriginal people.

One of the reasons to pursue the waste import plan cited in Heard's open letter is that it would provide an "opportunity to engage meaningfully and partner with Aboriginal communities in project planning and delivery". There is no acknowledgement of the opposition of Aboriginal people to the waste import plan ‒ evidently Heard believes that their opposition should be ignored and overridden but Aboriginal people might be given a say in project planning and delivery.

A second version of Heard's open letter did not include the above wording but it cited the "successful community consultation program" with Aboriginal communities. However the report arising from the SA government's community consultation program (successful or otherwise) stated: "There was a significant lack of support for the government to continue pursuing any form of nuclear storage and disposal facilities. Some Aboriginal people indicated that they are interested in learning more and continuing the conversation, but these were few in number."

Beyond offensive

Geoff Russell, another self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalist, wrote in a November 2016 article in New Matilda:

"Have Aboriginals given any reasons for opposing a waste repository that are other than religious? If so, then they belong with other objections. If not, then they deserve the same treatment as any other religious objections. Listen politely and move on.

"Calling them spiritual rather than religious makes no difference. To give such objections standing in the debate over a repository is a fundamental violation of the separation of church and state, or as I prefer to put it, the separation of mumbo-jumbo and evidence based reasoning.

"Aboriginals have native title over various parts of Australia and their right to determine what happens on that land is and should be quite different from rights with regard to other land. This isn't about their rights on that land.

"Suppose somebody wants to build a large intensive piggery. Should we consult Aboriginals in some other part of the country? Should those in the Kimberley perhaps be consulted? No.

"They may object to it in the same way I would, but they have no special rights in the matter. They have no right to spiritual veto."

Where to begin? Russell's description of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs as "mumbo-jumbo" is beyond offensive.

His claim that Traditional Owners are speaking for other people's country is a fabrication.

Federal native title legislation provides limited rights and protections for some Traditional Owners ‒ and no rights and protections for many others (when the federal Coalition government was trying to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in SA in 2003, it abolished all native title rights and interests over the site).

National nuclear waste dump

The attitudes of the ecomodernists also extend to the debate over the siting of a proposed national nuclear waste dump. Silence from the ecomodernists when the federal government was passing laws allowing the imposition of a national nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory without consent from Traditional Owners.

Echoing comments from the Liberal Party, Brook and Heard said the site in the Northern Territory was in the "middle of nowhere". From their perspective, perhaps, but for Muckaty Traditional Owners the site is in the middle of their homelands.

Heard claims that one of the current proposed dump sites, in SA's Flinders Ranges, is "excellent" in many respects and it "was volunteered by the landowner". In fact, it was volunteered by absentee landlord and former Liberal Party politician Grant Chapman, who didn't bother to consult Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners living on the neighbouring Indigenous Protected Area.

The site is opposed by most Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners and by their representative body, the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA).

Indigenous Protected Area

Heard claims there are "no known cultural heritage issues" affecting the Flinders Ranges site. Try telling that to the Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners who live on Yappala Station, in the Indigenous Protected Area adjacent to the proposed dump site. The area has many archaeological and culturally-significant sites that Traditional Owners have registered with the SA government over the past decade.

So where did Heard get this idea that there are "no known cultural heritage issues on the site"? Not from visiting the site, or speaking to Traditional Owners. He's just repeating the federal government's propaganda.

Silence from the ecomodernists about the National Radioactive Waste Management Act (NRWMA), which dispossesses and disempowers Traditional Owners in every way imaginable:

  • The nomination of a site for a radioactive waste dump is valid even if Aboriginal owners were not consulted and did not give consent.
  • The NRWMA has sections which nullify State or Territory laws that protect archaeological or heritage values, including those which relate to Indigenous traditions.
  • The NRWMA curtails the application of Commonwealth laws including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Native Title Act 1993 in the important site-selection stage.
  • The Native Title Act 1993 is expressly overridden in relation to land acquisition for a radioactive waste dump.

Uranium mining

Silence from the ecomodernists about the Olympic Dam mine's exemptions from provisions of the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Silence from the ecomodernists about sub-section 40(6) of the Commonwealth's Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which exempts the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory from the Act and thus removed the right of veto that Mirarr Traditional Owners would otherwise have enjoyed.

Silence from the ecomodernists about the divide-and-rule tactics used by General Atomics' subsidiary Heathgate Resources against Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners in relation to the Beverley and Four Mile uranium mines in SA.

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Dr Jillian Marsh, who in 2010 completed a PhD thesis on the strongly contested approval of the Beverley mine, puts the nuclear debates in a broader context:

"The First Nations people of Australia have been bullied and pushed around, forcibly removed from their families and their country, denied access and the right to care for their own land for over 200 years. Our health and wellbeing compares with third world countries, our people crowd the jails.

"Nobody wants toxic waste in their back yard, this is true the world over. We stand in solidarity with people across this country and across the globe who want sustainable futures for communities, we will not be moved."

Now, Traditional Owners have to fight industry, government, and the ecomodernists as well.

This Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a longer version of this article was originally published.

On 15 October 2016, 3,000 South Australians took to the steps of Parliament House in Adelaide to protest the state government's plan to turn SA into the world's nuclear waste dump, and also a separate plan by the federal government to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in SA.

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