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South Australian First Nations people face a new nuclear test

Earlier this year South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced that a royal commission would be held to consider the feasibility and viability as well as the risks and opportunities associated with four areas of the nuclear fuel cycle, including storage of radioactive waste.

Arabunna Elder Kevin Buzzacott: 'If we look after this old country, the country will look after us ... How could I cut off my knee or part of my knee? I won't work without parts of me. Same for country' ... 'I can't sleep for worrying about the country. I want the word to get out.'

Michele Madigan Eureka Street 9 November 2015

During the 1950s and 1960s, the British government conducted a series of nuclear tests within the borders of its faithful ally, Australia. The mainland atomic tests and the subsequent extensive and dangerous 'minor trials' were held at Maralinga, in the South Australian desert.

Protestors with banner No Radioactive Dump In Our CountryAt the time, many Aboriginal people in the SA bush had the logical thought: 'Must be a war on again ... an enemy has come.' What a surprise to find out that the bombs, starting with the 'Black Mist' bomb of 15 October 1956 at the Emu site northwest of Coober Pedy, were detonated by an ally! Britain had simply asked a willing Australian prime minister, Menzies.

Even after the consternation of finding the Milpuddie family asleep in the Marcoo bomb crater, the British scientist Professor Titterton assured the Australian public that 'no harm was caused to anyone'. Unsurprisingly, the 1984–1985 royal commission into the British nuclear tests heard much evidence to the contrary from Aboriginal witnesses, including Mrs Milpuddie.

Having lived in both Coober Pedy and Yalata (to where the Traditional Owners of the Maralinga lands were moved in 1952), I've heard from Aboriginal people many stories and seen some of the serious repercussions myself. As well, non-Aboriginal service and other personnel have had decades of fruitless campaigning for compensation.

Personal traumatic experience of these nuclear tests was the driving force behind the leadership of Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta (KPKT) — Senior Aboriginal Women of Coober Pedy — during what became a six-year-long national campaign (1998 to 2004) against the national radioactive dump proposed by the federal government for the northern South Australian bush.

South Australia, seen as a politically weak state, proved a formidable foe, with the KPKT and environmentalists teaming to protect country, groundwaters, and present and future generations of South Australians. Huge grassroots campaigns, media support and a newly elected SA Labor government under Premier Mike Rann took up the fight.

With 86 per cent of South Australians opposed to the national proposal and a federal election on the horizon, key federal MPs from SA persuaded Prime Minister Howard to abandon the plans. Senator Nick Minchin gave 'a rolled gold assurance' that SA would never again be targeted as the site for the dump.

After being turned away from their ancestral lands for 60 years so the British could bombard it with Atomic Bombs, Maralinga was recently handed back to its true custodians.

Fast forward to early 2015 and, to the absolute astonishment of those of us involved in the previous campaign, Premier Jay Weatherill announced that a royal commission would be held to consider the feasibility and viability as well as the risks and opportunities associated with four areas of the nuclear fuel cycle, including storage of radioactive waste.

Commission questions 4.3 and 4.4 actually canvased the possibility of SA welcoming the world's high-level radioactive waste!

The world's only functional depository for high-level radioactive waste (New Mexico, USA) has been closed for the past four years. A nuclear industry, faced with falling prices and post-Fukushima growing concerns about the dangers of the nuclear industry, is looking around for new possibilities.

Pope Francis' encyclical on care for the environment Laudato Si contains words that illuminate the current battle for the environment in Australia: 'Today ... we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.'

Yes, everything is connected. The budget for the 2015 Indigenous Advancement Strategy budget funded SA Aboriginal communities less than ten per cent of what they required, and some received nothing at all. So it's a very relevant concern that some communities might be enticed to offer themselves as a site, not only for a national dump for intermediate and low-level waste, but for a depository for the world's high-level radioactive waste, which remains radioactive for a minimum 100,000 years.

This is a justice issue for the members of those communities that might be affected. But the implications are much broader. High-level radioactive waste fallout from transport accidents will be no respecter of state boundaries. This issue affects us all.

'Our goal [is] to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to our world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it,' writes Pope Francis.

Kevin Buzzacott, an Arabunna Elder and long-time campaigner against the uranium industry (which draws 29 million litres per day from the ancient waters of the Great Artesian Basin on his lands), puts it another way way: 'If we look after this old country, the country will look after us ... How could I cut off my knee or part of my knee? I won't work without parts of me. Same for country.

'I can't sleep for worrying about the country. I want the word to get out.'

Michele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in thei