The federal government has abandoned plans to locate a national nuclear waste dump on Muckaty Station for now, but a second site may soon get the nod.
Opponents of a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory have won the battle, but perhaps not the war.
The Northern Land Council has three months to nominate another site for Australia’s nuclear waste storage facility after abandoning the Muckaty site, following a seven-year battle with Aboriginal traditional owner groups who launched a Federal Court challenge against the NLC for what they said was inadequate consultation and a failure to obtain informed consent from all traditional owners.
The NLC settled with opponents of the dump midway through a trial that had travelled from Melbourne to Tennant Creek and Muckaty, and was due in Darwin next week.
“The NLC have walked away without being held truly accountable,” said Gerry McCarthy, local member for the Barkly tablelands, of which Muckaty is a part.
He now hopes for a scientific approach to locating the dump, which previous reports said would suit conditions in the northwestern corner of South Australia.
“Science will prove this facility needs to go to the driest part of this continent, (with) a water table very deep and preferably contaminated by salt, and also an area of minimal infrastructure that provides access to what will be low to intermediate-level waste coming home from France shortly,” he said.
Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Dave Sweeney told AAP that for 20 years, successive governments had tried to find a “remote and vulnerable community and a remote place to dump Australian waste”.
He said the federal government needed “an open, inclusive, evidence-based assessment of the range of radioactive waste management options available” for responsible and effective long-term storage.
Clan members think the NLC capitulation is not the end of the matter, with Marlene Bennett saying they were “still feeling slightly apprehensive”.
Both sides maintain they would have won, with NLC CEO Joe Morrison saying it walked away to protect the Muckaty clans.
Five groups lay claim to the site nominated for the facility, with interwoven dreamings and intermarriages, resulting in divided families.
“I was disturbed by the fractures created in the community,” Mr Morrison said.
“At stake here is the fundamental right of Aboriginal people to decide for themselves how their land is to be used; (they) should be able to arrive at those decisions without the influence of outside groups who have their own agendas.”
But Natalie Wasley of the Beyond Nuclear Initiative said if concern for the community was so strong, the NLC could have acted seven years ago when the schism first appeared.
She denied her organisation had influenced traditional owners.
“It’s patronising to say traditional owners have been pushed around, told what to say and manipulated by interest groups, because clearly people are intelligent, articulate and able to make up their own minds about this decision,” she told AAP.
Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion told ABC he hoped for another nomination of a northern site at Muckaty, not susceptible to the conflicts of the first.
Mr McCarthy said the NT couldn’t refuse the dump, which “should never be forced on a community due to constitutional exploitation”.
Spent nuclear fuel rods are due to be returned to Australia from France by mid-2015, and traditional owners are ready to continue their fight if Muckaty is circled again.