Nuclear waste at Muckaty
A trip to the site of a proposed nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory
By June 2014
About halfway between Tennant Creek and Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, Michael Williams signals for us to pull over for a toilet break. He directs me to a spot by the Stuart Highway where a squat brick memorial commemorates the northernmost point of an expedition led by John McDouall Stuart in 1860 to find the centre of the continent. “A lot of massacres around in this country,” Williams says. “Some fellas got shot, some whitefella got speared. Named the highway after him.” He reads aloud from the memorial’s plaque. “‘Hostile natives and illness forced the party to return.’ See that there? We’re hostile.” He laughs and we get back in the car.
At the turn-off to Muckaty Station, we pass a “Give Way” sign graffitied to read “Don’t Give Away Country 4 Dump $”. Muckaty, an Aboriginal-owned property 110 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, is the proposed site of Australia’s first consolidated nuclear waste dump. The dump has been a long time coming. The need for a disposal facility was first identified in 1978. In 2003, a site at Woomera in South Australia was finally settled on, but that state’s government successfully challenged the decision in the Federal Court. Both before and after that challenge, other states passed legislation to prohibit the nation’s waste being stored within their borders. But the Territory has less constitutional protection, and in 2007 a block of land on Muckaty Station was proposed as a site. Despite the Labor Party’s initial opposition, the dump now has bipartisan federal support.
Williams, a traditional owner of Muckaty through his membership of the Milwayi clan, is my guide for the day. For the most part, the drive has been silent; Williams is more interested in telling me about the good life working as a stockman in the ’70s, and my questions about the dump are met with brief answers. But once we get on country, he opens up. “Mate, they’re just bastards,” he says, referring to a long line of Canberra politicians who’ve largely ignored objections to the site. “They can bloody take it and put it in their backyard.”
Williams is closer to the mark than he realises. Most of Australia’s radioactive waste, the by-product of nuclear research, resides at the Lucas Heights research reactor in Sydney. If the proposed site is approved, that waste will be trucked 3000 kilometres to Muckaty. But spent nuclear fuel rods from scientific research aren’t the only waste that could be heading north. The NSW government has announced that contaminated soil from an old uranium smelter in the upmarket Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill will not be trucked to a site at Kemps Creek, in the city’s west, as originally announced. The strong suspicion is that the toxic sludge will be sent somewhere with less influential constituents – the Territory.
Just before the site of the proposed dump, we come across an overturned road train. It has veered off the narrow bitumen strip that passes for a haulage road. The truck’s contents are strewn across the scrub – three haul trailers’ worth of manganese from the nearby Bootu Creek mine. It’s not hard to imagine a similar truck carrying barrels of radioactive waste. “They done that bad thing,” Williams says, referring to OM (Manganese) Ltd (OMM), the company operating Bootu Creek. In July 2011, a women’s sacred site known as “Two Women Sitting Down” – a distinctive rocky outcrop – collapsed after mining operations got too close. “We took them down there,” recalls Williams, “and we said, ‘You got to be careful on this one.’ One day they put the dynamite in the bottom of the ground and shook the bloody thing and the woman’s head fell down.”
In August last year, the Darwin Magistrates Court fined OMM $150,000 for desecrating and damaging the sacred site. The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority lauded the court’s decision as historic: the first time anyone had been successfully prosecuted for desecration. In 2011 OMM’s parent company registered a gross profit of $59.6 million, large enough that in the company’s annual report its directors described the impact of any potential fine as “not material”.
When we arrive at the proposed site, it’s hard to see the difference between this patch of scrub – mostly acacias dotted through surprisingly green Mitchell grass – and any other. Williams corrects me with a sweeping gesture. “This area all sacred site. Pure water, good water, underneath.” Karakara, a sacred men’s initiation site comprising a spring and a waterhole, is just a couple of hundred metres north of where we stand. “We just keep an eye on it, because if something goes wrong, it might be that we die,” says Williams.
“See, some stupid bugger they got on the chopper, and the NLC mob, they flew around here, and picked the place,” he continues. The NLC is the Northern Land Council, which administers Aboriginal-owned land from Darwin to Tennant Creek. Muckaty falls on the southernmost fringe of the NLC’s jurisdiction. It’s a sore point for some of the traditional owners; they reckon the Central Land Council would have told the government where to shove the dump. For one thing, the CLC’s Alice Springs headquarters is only 500 kilometres south of Tennant Creek, whereas the NLC is 1000 kilometres north, in Darwin. That makes the NLC saltwater people, at least as far as Williams is concerned. The CLC decision-makers – along with the majority of the Aboriginal people who live in Tennant Creek – are desert mob.
For their part, the NLC holds a “secret” anthropological report – subject to court confidentiality orders – that it claims shows the nominated land to be the sole responsibility of the Lauder branch of the Ngapa clan, not of Williams’ Milwayi clan at all. Joshua Jackson, who opposes the dump but whose brother-in-law is one of the leaders of the pro-dump group, tells me, “The people up north know which part of the land belongs to them, because they’ve got deeds and papers that say, ‘This part of the land belongs to you, and this doesn’t.’” The Lauders, he claims, have the deed to all the Muckaty lands, including the nominated site. “There’s no way you can beat the Lauders in any court, black or white man’s, because they hold the deed.”
The Lauders have said that “only a few noisy individuals in other groups have opposed our decision” to offer the land. In return, the Lauders will receive $12 million from the Commonwealth, to be used “to create a future for our children with education [and] jobs”. A sum of $200,000 has already been transferred as a nomination fee, with the balance to be paid when the federal government approves the site.
That approval has been delayed by proceedings in the Federal Court brought by those “noisy individuals”, who include senior members of both the Milwayi and Ngapa clans. Unsurprisingly, tensions are high as family groups split on the issue. Seasoned anti-nuclear campaigners like Friends of the Earth and the Beyond Nuclear Initiative are also arrayed against the dump.
The matter is due before the court this month. Justice Tony North has allocated three trial days to hear evidence on country. The case will retread old ground. In 1993, Justice Peter Gray, the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, spent seven days in the scrub here. In his report, which was instrumental in returning the land to its traditional owners, Gray identified seven clan groups with “overlapping responsibilities” in the area. In an arid landscape, it makes sense that sacred sites relating to springs and waterholes belong to all the groups who pass through. This is the crux of the claims brought by the plaintiffs: you simply can’t draw fixed boundaries across this land.
As Williams and I begin the drive back to Tennant Creek, I’m reminded of a moment of unexpected lyricism in Gray’s report: “There was water in the waterholes, which attracted considerable bird life, and much of the vegetation was flowering. I gained an impression of considerable beauty.” The rains have been through recently and the scrub is temporarily fecund. I had expected the red emptiness of the outback desert or burnt, golden grasslands. Every time we pass a creek, Williams asks me to slow the car down to a crawl so he can point out the flowing water. Some of the best cattle country in the world, he tells me.