Australian nuclear waste dump divides tiny outback town

"This land is our past, present and future and we don’t want a nuclear waste dump on it."

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    A sign saying no to the proposed nuclear waste dump on Yappala territory, near Hawker [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]
    A sign saying no to the proposed nuclear waste dump on Yappala territory, near Hawker [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]

    Hawker, South Australia - The towering mountains of the Flinders Ranges stand imposingly against the hundreds-of-kilometres-long stretch of flat, desolate country.

    While the mountains are named after the British explorer who trekked them in the early 19th century, the indigenous Adnyamathanha people have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years.

    This arid and remote part of South Australia has become the unlikely centre of a heated public debate after it was named the preferred site for the country's first nuclear waste dump.

    WATCH: Australian Aboriginals worried about nuclear waste

    For decades, the Australian government has wanted to build a central waste facility to store all of the country's low-grade and intermediate-grade nuclear waste, which is generated from nuclear medicine and research.

    After two previous attempts to build a waste facility fell through due to community backlash, including from nearby indigenous residents, the federal government, last year, called for landowners to nominate their personal properties. The nearby Wallerberdina cattle station was announced as the preferred site in April this year.

    But not everyone is happy; the plan has angered the local Aboriginal community, and divided residents of the nearby town of Hawker.

    "Every hill has a story," traditional owner Regina McKenzie of the Adnyamathanha and Kuyani people told Al Jazeera. "This land is our past, present and future, and we don't want a nuclear waste dump on it."

    McKenzie and roughly a dozen others live on Yappala Station, which is part of a 24,000-hectare property that was returned to Aboriginal owners by the government in 2000, to recognise their traditional ownership. The indigenous cooperative's property spans both sides of the neighbouring Wallerberdina Station, the projected location of the nuclear waste site.

    She says the proposed site will disrupt an important indigenous storyline in the area that includes an ancient travel route with a deep spiritual significance.

    "This is something that is really important to us, it's our belief system, and I believe we have the right to be protecting our sacred places," McKenzie told Al Jazeera.

    The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, which is overseeing the project, announced this site as the preferred location among those nominated due to the community being "particularly supportive", adding that 65 percent of those surveyed approved of the proposal going ahead (PDF).

    Regina McKenzie is protesting against the proposal to establish a nuclear waste site on sacred indigenous grounds [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]

    A fading town

    There are few jobs in this remote part of Australia, and Hawker is a declining town of just 250 residents. Those who remain work in cattle and sheep farming, as well tourism, an industry which sees thousands of people visiting the Flinders Ranges each year.

    "People are just moving away. There isn't much here for younger people," Ian Carpenter, the vice-chair of the Hawker Development Board and a supporter of the nuclear waste site, told Al Jazeera. The department said the project would create at least 15 full-time jobs, and the government has also promised that $7m will be spent developing the local community and infrastructure.

    "If we go back to 18 years ago, this town had 28 business; today we are down to six. So, what are we going to be in another 18 years? This could really secure the future of the town," Carpenter said.

    The cattle station where the facility is to be built, if the proposal moves forward, is co-owned by Grant Chapman, a former senator who lives in state's capital Adelaide. Some have accused the government of a conflict of interest for choosing Chapman's property, particularly because in 1995, he chaired a senate committee which recommended centralised nuclear waste storage.

    READ MORE: Australia's indigenous disadvantage problem

    But Chapman denied any conflict and, in an interview with Al Jazeera, stated that it was his work in the senate which motivated him to nominate his property.

    "We should have a centralised site because it is the safest way to look after this stuff, and it's only going to be a small portion of our property that is going to be affected. So I thought, let's see what we can offer," Chapman told Al Jazeera.

    The low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste is currently stored at various government nuclear research facilities and hospitals around the country.

    Anti-nuclear campaigner, Dave Sweeny from the Australian Conservation Foundation, an environmental NGO, said that while there is a need for a storage facility, the government should expand the capacity of land it owns alongside a nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Sydney, where much of the waste is currently stored.

    "There is no need to impose this on a community that doesn't want it," Sweeny told Al Jazeera.

    The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science declined an interview, but provided Al Jazeera with a link to a frequently asked questions webpage.

    Blocking the project

    The government is currently undertaking further geological studies and cultural heritage assessments on the property, and a final decision about whether the building will go ahead is expected in the next six months.

    However, the prospect of jobs and development in the town has not been enough to win everyone over, and those opposed are stepping up efforts to try and block the project from going ahead.

    Hawker, a town of just 250 residents, has become the centre of debate surrounding indigenous land rights [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]

    The town's local restaurant and post-office are filled with information booklets from the government, as well as pamphlets from those opposing the proposal. The town's local newspaper features heated letters from residents arguing about the issue.

    Greg Bannon is a retired farmer and part of the Flinders Local Action Group, which opposes the project. He says he is concerned about how safe the storage of nuclear waste will be in the long term and notes that the area is prone to flash flooding and minor earthquakes.

    "This stuff is going to be there for decades, even centuries … if it is so safe, why do they need to put it all the way out here?" Bannon asked Al Jazeera.

    Mayor of the Flinders Ranges Council, Peter Slattery told Al Jazeera that it was disappointing how divided the community had become over the issue.

    READ MORE: Australia artefact find divides Aboriginal clans

    "No matter how beneficial anything is to the community, it is not worth splitting the community over," he said.

    The nuclear issue has a highly emotional and complicated history in South Australia. In the 1950s, the British conducted a series of atomic weapons tests in the South Australian desert, keeping them secret from the public and even local indigenous people who were exposed to radiation.

    Uranium is also mined and sold overseas from the state, which has long been the target of anti-nuclear campaign groups.

    South Australia has the country's highest unemployment rate - at over six percent - and the state government has recently looked to nuclear waste storage as a potential job maker.

    In May, a state government Royal Commission recommended the development of a separate deep underground nuclear facility for storing high-level radioactive waste. The proposal recommended the importing of nuclear waste from overseas as a way to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state.

    But the plan has hit a roadblock, as public sentiment continues to grow against the project. The government established a jury of 350 people to examine the proposal closely, and in early November, they rejected it (PDF). In a last-ditch effort, the government is now planning a state-wide vote on the issue.

    Residents of Hawker say it has been incredibly confusing that the proposed intermediate-level facility in their community is being discussed at the same time as plans for future high-level nuclear storage elsewhere.

    The Flinders Ranges brings thousands of tourists to the area each year [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]

    Despite the government saying that many of the jobs and development opportunities near Hawker will benefit the indigenous people at Yappala, McKenzie says they will continue fighting the proposal to the end.

    A place of healing

    McKenzie's sister Heather Stuart, a softly-spoken elder at Yappala, and her daughter and grand-daughter are visiting her. Along with McKenzie, the three generations of indigenous women make the long drive out to a small water stream near where the nuclear site is proposed to be built. 

    The sports utility vehicle bumps along the road on the dry, barren plane, sparsely dotted with small shrubs and fallen trees, until the mountain range comes into view, framing the horizon. Upon arrival, the two elder women sit by the stream and throw rocks into the water, letting the spirit know they are here.

    This oasis in the desert is a particular place of spiritual healing for the women of the Aboriginal community, who come here in times of loss and sorrow. McKenzie told Al Jazeera that she wants to make sure that future generations can see and experience the land in the same way - untouched.

    "My people, we have paid a big price. We were almost pushed to extinction with what happened when we were colonised," she said. "I believe we have the right to say 'no'."

    "When they destroy the land, they destroy us."

    Heather Stuart, an elder at Yappala, is worried about the sacred healing sites that are under threat [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]

    Jarni Blakkarly is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. He tweets @jarniblakkarly.


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