First shipment of nuclear waste on its way, as we speak

Natalie Whiting ABC The World Today 16 October 2015

The first shipment of Australia's nuclear waste to be returned from re-processing in France has now left a French port, and will arrive on our shores by the end of the year.

The return of the 25 tonnes of nuclear waste is putting renewed pressure on the Federal Government to find a location for a permanent waste dump.

The shipment began its journey just a day after senior Aboriginal women gathered in Adelaide to mark their fight against a proposed dump in South Australia in the 1990s.

The women say they will fight against any new move to put the waste on their land.

Australia has been sending nuclear waste to France, the United Kingdom and the United States for it to be processed.

Spent fuel was sent to France in four shipments in the 1990s and early 2000s.

When the shipment of waste from France arrives it will be temporarily kept at the nuclear facility in Lucas Heights in southern Sydney.

David Sweeny from the Australian Conservation Foundation said that was the best option.

"It is where this waste was originally generated, and it's where there has been a dedicated and purpose-built facility to host it for an extended interim storage," he said.

"So we say that it's the least-worst option and it is sensible and responsible to keep it at Lucas Heights."

Radioactive waste lasts a very long time and it's a very significant issue and a very significant management challenge.
David Sweeny,
Australian Conservation Foundation

. . . and that is an understatement

The Federal Government has begun a process to try to find a permanent site, calling for people to voluntarily nominate possible locations.

"We're hoping that will be a different and better approach than what's been used in the past," Mr Sweeney said.

"What we need to do is not do the wrong thing - we need to not rush.

"Radioactive waste lasts a very long time and it's a very significant issue and a very significant management challenge."

The nomination process for a site for the waste dump ended in May, but the Government is yet to announce a preferred site.

SA Aboriginal women remember waste dump victory

A Federal Government plan to build a nuclear waste dump in the South Australian outback in 1998 attracted fierce opposition, especially among local Aboriginal people.

An event in Adelaide last night celebrated the work of a group of women called kupa piti kungka tjuta, who campaigned against the dump.

Emily Austin from Coober Pedy was one of them.

A sign at the Lucas Heights reactor

Image: When the shipment of waste from France arrives next month it will be temporarily kept at the nuclear facility in Lucas Heights.
(ABC News: Philippa McDonald)

"We used to fight, we travelled everywhere - we went to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide," she said.

"We were telling them that's poison and you're going to bury it in our country?

"That's no good."

The women campaigned for six years until a Federal Court challenge from the South Australian government put an end to the dump.

Ms Austin said she could remember the day the court found in South Australia's favour.

"I was out in the bush hunting and I heard it on the radio in the Toyota. We were all screaming, 'We won'.

"All the kungkas (women) were happy."

While the Federal Government is in the midst of a voluntary process for finding a site for a dump, South Australia's outback is still seen as an ideal location.

SA Government's attitude changing

The South Australian Government's attitude to the industry has been shifting.

It has launched a royal commission to investigate possible further involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The royal commission is looking at everything from mining uranium, processing, waste storage and nuclear power.

The organiser of last night's event, Karina Lester, is the granddaughter of one of the women who campaigned and her father was blinded by the British nuclear tests at Maralinga half a century ago.

She said the Aboriginal people in South Australia's north have a long and tortured history with the nuclear industry.

"Maralinga's had a huge impact because people speak from first-hand experience," she said.

"People like the amazing kupa piti kungka tjuta, many of those old women who are no longer with us today, they were there the day the ground shook and the black mist rolled.

"It's an industry that doesn't sit comfortably with Anungu community."

Ms Lester said it was good to see the royal commission consulting with people before a decision is made.

"Credit to the royal commission that they've made an effort to engage with a broader community of Aboriginal communities," she said.

"But how many of those Anangu are really understanding he technicality of this royal commission and what industry really means?"

Ms Austin said she was ready to fight any future attempts to set up a waste dump in the region.

"Oh yeah, I've still got fight yet. They might stop yet, they might listen, I dunno," she said.