Howard’s nuclear dump backdown
On July 14, 2004, the federal government announced that it had abandoned plans to build a national radioactive waste dump in South Australia. The backdown was a major victory for the environmental and Aboriginal organisations which fought the dump plan for over six years.
The government announced its intention to build the dump near Woomera, 500 kms north of Adelaide, in February 1998 – just a few months after it announced its intention to build a new nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney. The two plans were closely linked. Up to 90% of the waste to be dumped in SA is stored at Lucas Heights. And the political agenda was simply to get radioactive waste out of Lucas Heights in order to reduce public opposition to the new reactor.
A campaign to oppose the dump took shape. The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – a senior Aboriginal women’s council from northern SA – took up the fight, as did the Kokatha traditional owners. The Kungkas – victims of the British nuclear testing program at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s – have been supported by the GANG (Girls Against Nuclear Genocide) who have moved to Coober Pedy to help fight the proposed nuclear dump.
The Kungka Tjuta recounted time and again their experiences of the Maralinga nuclear test program in South Australia in the 1950s. They knew first hand about the problems of the nuclear industry and pleaded with the politicians to ‘get their ears out of their pockets’.
The Maralinga experience also influenced the dump campaign in another way. The federal government completed a ‘clean-up’ of Maralinga in the late 1990s, but it was grossly inadequate. Even after the ‘clean-up’, kilograms of plutonium remain buried in shallow, unlined trenches in totally unsuitable geology. The botched ‘clean-up’ was hardly reassuring.
The federal government planned to build two facilities at Woomera – an underground dump for lower-level waste, and an above-ground store for ‘interim’ storage of higher-level wastes including those arising from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from the Lucas Heights reactor. As public and media opposition to the dump plans grew, the Olsen Liberal government in SA sniffed the political wind and announced in 1999 that it would accept the underground dump but would legislate in an attempt to ban the higher-level waste store. The Labor Party – state and federal – trumped them by announcing opposition to both the dump and the store.
Several environment groups have fought the dump plan since it was first announced, including Friends of the Earth and the Australian Conservation Foundation. Opposition to the dump grew along the transport corridor linking Lucas Heights to Woomera, in no small part because of Friends of the Earth’s Nuclear Freeways project. On numerous occasions FoE activists took a mock nuclear waste castor along the transport corridor, building relations with communities all the time. This project was highly successful. Of the 18 councils along the transport corridor, 16 took a position of opposing the dump and the trucking of radioactive waste through their communities. FoE also organised numerous ‘radioactive exposure’ tours, taking hundreds of students to nuclear sites in SA – the proposed dump site and the uranium mines at Honeymoon, Beverley and Roxby Downs.
The Nuclear Freeways project was also significant in linking the dump proposal to the root of the problem – the planned new reactor at Lucas Heights. While the federal government mounted scare campaigns about waste stored in urban areas, it became increasingly well known that the dump plan had nothing to do with the small volumes of waste stored around the country and the everything to do with Lucas Heights. The NSW government was persuaded to hold a parliamentary inquiry into radioactive waste management in 2003-04, and that inquiry concluded that the dump proposal could not be justified and should be abandoned.
The Labor Party won the 2002 election in SA, and in the following year it legislated in an attempt to ban any form of national radioactive waste facility being built in SA.
The SA Labor government also tried a legal manoeuvre to stop the dump in 2003 – announcing its intention to declare the dump site a public park, which would make it immune from compulsory acquisition by the federal government. That led the federal government to use an urgency provision in the land acquisition act to seize control of the dump site with the stroke of a pen in mid-2003. The SA Labor government challenged the land seizure in the federal court, but lost. The SA government appealed the judgement to the full bench of the Federal Court, and that appeal was upheld in June 2004 – reversing the land seizure.
By July 2004, the Howard government was in trouble. It had the option of appealing the Federal Court decision to the High Court, but that appeal would have been deeply unpopular and it probably would not have succeeded in any case. And already, the dump was shaping up as a key issue in marginal seats in SA. For example, in the marginal seat of Adelaide, polling showed that the dump was second only to Medicare as a vote-swinging issue.
The Howard government decided to cut its losses and abandon the dump plan. The government said it would instead attempt to find a site to co-locate both lower and higher level wastes.
The victory of the dump campaign is something to savour – a fantastic result reflecting an enormous amount of hard work by a broad, effective alliance.
The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta’s ‘Irati Wanti’ website is archived at
‘We are winners because of what’s in our hearts, not what’s on paper.’
Open Letter from the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – senior Aboriginal women’s council from northern SA – after the Federal Government abandoned its plan to build a national radioactive waste dump in South Australia.
People said that you can’t win against the Government. Just a few women. We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up. We told Howard you should look after us, not try and kill us. Straight out. We always talk straight out. In the end he didn’t have the power, we did. He only had money, but money doesn’t win.
Happy now – Kungka winners. We are winners because of what’s in our hearts, not what’s on paper. About the country, bush tucker, bush medicine and Inma (traditional songs and dances). Big happiness that we won against the Government. Victorious. And the family and all the grandchildren are so happy because we fought the whole way. And we were going away all the time. Kids growing up, babies have been born since we started. And still we have family coming. All learning about our fight.
We started talking strong against the dump a long time ago, in 1998 with Sister Michelle. We thought we would get the Greenies to help us. Greenies care for the same thing. Fight for the same thing. Against the poison.
Since then we been everywhere talking about the poison. Canberra, Sydney, Lucas Heights, Melbourne, Adelaide, Silverton, Port Augusta, Roxby Downs, Lake Eyre. We did it the hard way. Always camping out in the cold. Travelling all over with no money. Just enough for cool drink along the way. We went through it. Survivors. Even had an accident where we hit a bullock one night on the way to Roxby Downs. We even went to Lucas Heights Reactor. It’s a dangerous place, but we went in boldly to see where they were making the poison – the radiation. Seven women, seven sisters, we went in.
We lost our friends. Never mind we lost our loved ones. We never give up. Been through too much. Too much hard business and still keep going. Sorry business all the time. Fought through every hard thing along the way. People trying to scare us from fighting, it was hard work, but we never stopped. When we were going to Sydney people say “You Kungkas cranky they might bomb you”, but we kept going. People were telling us that the Whitefellas were pushing us, but no everything was coming from the heart, from us.
We showed that Greenies and Anangu can work together. Greenies could come and live here in Coober Pedy and work together to stop the dump. Kungkas showed the Greenies about the country and the culture. Our Greenie girls are the best in Australia. We give them all the love from our hearts. Family you know. Working together – that’s family. Big thank you to them especially. We can’t write. They help us with the letters, the writing, the computers, helped tell the world.
Thank you very much for helping us over the years, for everything. Thank you to the Lord, all our family and friends, the Coober Pedy community, Umoona Aged Care, the South Australian Government and all our friends around Australia and overseas. You helped us and you helped the kids. We are happy. We can have a break now. We want to have a rest and go on with other things now. Sit around the campfire and have a yarn. We don’t have to talk about the dump anymore, and get up and go all the time. Now we can go out together and camp out and pick bush medicine and bush tucker. And take the grandchildren out.
We were crying for the little ones and the ones still coming. With all the help – we won. Thank you all very much.
No Radioactive Waste Dump in our Ngura – In our Country!
Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta
Coober Pedy, South Australia
Ivy Makinti Stewart
Eileen Kampakuta Brown
Eileen Unkari Crombie
Emily Munyungka Austin
Tjunmutja Myra Watson