2020 looks to be the year in which the Australian Federal Government will decide on a location for its first centralised National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF). The facility is planned to be the destination for the country’s low- to immediate-level nuclear waste . Three South Australian sites were originally shortlisted based on land-holder nomination, Lyndhurst and Napandee near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula on traditional Barngarla lands, and the Wallerberdina Station near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges on Adnyamathanha land . Both communities near the proposed sites have since faced much division over the planned facility and the site-selection and consultation process has been widely criticised [2, 3]. At the end of 2019, Wallerberdina Station was ruled out as a possible site, leaving the two potential sites near Kimba .
Attempts by the Federal Government to create a centralised nuclear waste facility go back many years . The majority of the country’s nuclear waste, around 85%, is currently coming out of the nuclear research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights on the outskirts of Sydney . The waste is stored at more than 100 different sites across Australia, including hospitals and the reactor itself in Sydney . In the early 2000s, a first attempt was made by the Federal Government to install a permanent nuclear waste facility in South Australia, but this was rejected by the then regional Labor government in an inter-state battle between the Federal and South Australian Governments . Similarly, plans for a facility in the Northern Territory were also abandoned following legal efforts taken by the Aboriginal traditional owners of the land . Several years later the Federal Government passed the ‘National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012’ and created a task force to pave the way for a new site-selection process, establishment and operation of a centralised Australian nuclear waste facility . This attempt was placed back on the South Australian agenda when the state set up a Royal Commission in 2015 to examine its future role in the nuclear industry, the results of which included recommendations to build a facility to store and dispose of international high-level waste to create income for the state [6, 8]. The recommendation was made in spite of existing legislation under the ‘Nuclear Waste Storage (Prohibition) Act 2000’ prohibiting non-SA nuclear waste dumping in the state . Simultaneously, the attempt to create a national nuclear waste facility was being pursued by the federal government, and both proposals faced much opposition and mobilisation from people across SA .
In 2015, the Federal Government initiated the site-selection process for a national waste facility based on land-holders voluntarily nominating their land to host the waste facility . The Wallerberdina Station near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges was nominated and in April 2016 named the preferred site, despite strong divisions in the community . Two other SA nominations followed, near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula. The government has stated that ‘broad community support’ is needed to go ahead with the site-selection process, however without clarifying what specifically this entails and who is included when referring to ‘community’ . While 2017 saw some success with the SA premier at the time abandoning the proposal for an international waste dump due to the lack of bipartisan support and a citizens’ jury in opposition , the efforts to pursue a national waste facility continued with resistance from a broad-based alliance of groups.
In December 2019, a community vote was held in the Flinders Ranges town of Hawker on traditional Adnyamathanha land, which resulted in a small majority voting against a nuclear waste facility being placed near their community . Similarly, a ballot took place in October-November 2019 in Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula to gauge community support for the waste facility, where 61.58% voted in favour of the facility . However, the Kimba ballot has faced much criticism and legal action for excluding Barngarla traditional owners of the land. The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation took legal action in the Federal Court in July 2019 to try and stop the ballot on the grounds that it was unlawful because it excluded native title holders in the region . The court found that the ballot did not contravene the Racial Discrimination Act, but the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) have lodged an appeal and are expecting to go before the court again in 2020 . Members of the Barngarla community near Kimba called on an independent election company to conduct a separate ballot in November 2019 with Barngarla native title holders in the area, which saw a unanimous vote against the facility with 83 out of 209 eligible voters . Following this, the BDAC wrote to the current Resources Minister Matt Canavan urging that it showed there is no broad community support for the Kimba sites, a plea that will be taken into consideration according to the Federal department handling the process . How exactly it will be taken into consideration compared to the official Kimba ballot however remains unknown. The Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association in Hawker also took legal action as the traditional owners of the land in the area by lodging an Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) complaint about the fundamentally flawed site-selection process for the Wallerberdina Station when it was still being considered as the preferred site .
A key issue in the site-selection process and debate around the need for a centralised site has been the exclusion of and disrespect towards Aboriginal communities on whose lands the facilities have been proposed. It has been regarded as another example of continued marginalisation of Aboriginal communities and resulted in native title holders in both Kimba and Hawker playing a leading role in the mobilisation against the waste dumps: “We actually want to have a voice on our own country like we’ve been promised”, a speaker of the Barngarla stated . Another spokesperson for the Barngarla described the disrespect from the consultation and site-selection process in a video interview: “It feels like we’re being treated as flora and fauna again” . While the Wallerberdina Station site was still being considered, Adnyamathanha traditional owners saw the proposal of a facility on a traditional women’s site as neglecting its cultural significance . Overall the proposed nuclear waste facility has created much community division both in Hawker and in the town of Kimba, where one resident describes in an interview with SBS that some residents are not talking to each other any more: “The whole atmosphere is just really depressing” . The several year-long process of uncertainty and community debate has impacted many people personally in the two rural communities, as visualised in the mini-documentaries by SA filmmaker Kim Mavromatis . The site-selection process was viewed by Kimba residents as placing a heavy burden on rural communities who felt singled out . Residents in opposition of the facility felt that the process had been treated unfairly as a local issue rather than a regional or national one, considering that the site would process the waste of the entire country . Residents in Kimba felt frustrated that people just outside the council boundaries would not be able to get a say in the decision, referring to the ballot held at the end of 2019 . A Kimba farmer voiced this in a video interview: “And we’re supposed to make a decision for the whole nation just because the government and ANSTO (Sydney nuclear reactor site) want to get rid of it out of Sydney” . Another Kimba farmer expressed the need for it to be handled as a national issue: “They can buy a little community but they can’t buy a state” .
With agriculture one of the main sources of income near Kimba, farmers have raised concerns with the potential reputational damage the nuclear waste dump could have on their produce, as well as any potential toxic impacts on agricultural land if an accident were to happen at the site . ARPANSA, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, have guidelines in their site selection criteria to prioritise not storing waste on agricultural land , raising questions as to why the Kimba sites are being considered . The Barngarla people have voiced solidarity with Kimba farmers and special concerns with potential impacts on underground waterways in case of a spill .
Next to the opposition and legal efforts by the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation and Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, mobilisation against the facility has come from many different groups. The broad based ‘No Dump Alliance’ has actively campaigned against a nuclear waste dump in South Australia with a coalition of members from traditional owner groups, faith groups, trade and labour unions, civil society and environmental bodies as well as individual members in joint opposition to end the federal government’s intention of establishing a waste dump in South Australia . This alliance was formed and active in mobilising against the original attempt to create an international nuclear waste facility in SA and carried on campaigning against a national waste facility alongside the Aboriginal-led Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA) under slogans including ‘We Say No’ and ‘Dump the Dump’ . A rally in front of Parliament House in Adelaide in October 2016 was attended by around 3000 people - including members of Aboriginal communities affected by British nuclear weapons testing in Maralinga - opposing any nuclear waste facility in South Australia . Protests have taken place in Adelaide each following year, and many further rallies in other SA locations including in Kimba and Hawker. The next local rally in Kimba will take place in February 2020, where the local community is encouraging people from across the Eyre Peninsula and SA to join [17, 19].
Beyond this, many other initiatives have been led by different groups opposing a nuclear waste facility in SA. Environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the SA Conservation Council have called on the Federal Government to abandon the plans in Kimba through a formal submission . Several petitions against the project in Kimba and more generally against a SA waste facility are ongoing, including one by the Australian Conservation Foundation which currently has 11,175 signatures (status 20/01/20) . The Green political party has also been active in speaking out against the site-selection process and handling of the waste facility, with the SA Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young saying: "The entire process has been badly botched from the start, with community concerns ignored and the Adnyamathanha and Barngarla people sidelined" .
Local action groups including farmers and Aboriginal members of the community, both in Kimba and in Hawker when the location was still being considered, have been active in voicing their disapproval of the waste dump. A series of mini-documentaries were released by filmmaker Kim Mavromatis, who is based in the SA town Port Pirie close to the Eyre Peninsula, which tell the stories of the communities affected by the four-year process to find a nuclear waste facility site. He worked with Kimba’s local opposition group with the intention of spreading local concerns to a wider audience and raising more awareness around the issue . However, the debate has been highly divisive in local communities with those in favour of the waste facility arguing that rural areas face declining populations and economic opportunities . While the Wallerberdina Station in the Flinders Ranges was still being considered, those in favour of the facility included a minority of the Adnyamathanha, who saw the facility as an opportunity for another industry not reliant on agriculture and job creation especially for young people . In Kimba, with just over 60% of its council residents voting in favour of the facility, the divisiveness over the issue also remains Australia’s current Resources Minister Matt Canavan announced that he would make a formal statement in early 2020 on the site-selection process . It remains to be seen whether resistance from the Barngarla people, local residents and farmers in opposition, environmental groups and other stakeholders are able to resist the approval of a site near Kimba.
UPDATE: On the 31st of January 2020, Resources Minister Matt Canavan announced that the Federal Government has selected the Kimba farm Napandee as the site for the controversial nuclear waste facility, a property 20km west of Kimba . In response, the local opposition group No Radioactive Waste Facility for Kimba District held a rally on the 1st of February 2020 against the decision in Kimba on Sunday and Friends of the Earth have denounced the decision saying it ignores opposition from Aboriginal title holders and does not show the broad-based 65% support needed. . Following Canavan's announcement, the Federal government has been pushing ahead with legislation to establish the site at Napandee in Kimba, despite an ongoing legal challenge by Barngarla native title holders against their exclusion in the Kimba community ballot . Labor has delayed its decision to support the legislation and native title holders are continuing to lobby against the site nomination, leaving some uncertainty in the latest developments on the national nuclear waste facility . Part of the government’s proposal is to award a 31 million AUD community development package to the Kimba community .