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Australia's radioactive migraine

By Scott Ludlam - posted Friday, 26 September 2008

When the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 was forced through the Senate, Labor accurately described it as, “extreme, arrogant, heavy-handed, draconian, sorry, sordid, extraordinary and profoundly shameful”.

Why? Because it wiped out Northern Territory laws prohibiting transport and storage of nuclear waste. The legislation also squashed Aboriginal heritage laws and the Native Title Act, overriding procedural fairness.

Amendments passed in 2006 explicitly stated that site nominations from Land Councils are valid even in the absence of consultation with Traditional Owners. These amendments were also opposed by the Greens and Labor opposition.


Exactly one year ago this week, senior ALP spokespeople reiterated the party's platform to repeal this legislation. The Australian Greens are tired of waiting for the ALP to deliver what they unequivocally promised and will move for a repeal of the heavy handed and controversial legislation today in the Senate.

Repealing this legislation will pave the way for a new approach to the management of Australia's radioactive waste. The Territory Government, the Traditional Owners and the broader community across the NT were never asked if they wanted to host a dump for Australia's most intractable waste. The Prime Minister must now be called to account: this was a very clear election promise, and it is time it was honoured.

Australia's radioactive waste is a legacy of decisions made in the past, specifically in the Menzies era when the government opened a research reactor at Lucas Heights, 31km from the heart of Sydney.

Despite the best minds of science working continuously since 1945 on a way of safely containing the deadly poison of radiation from effecting water supply, human health, and the gene pool, there is no known solution. Despite billions of dollars of investment in various disposal options, the nuclear industry and governments have failed to come up with a feasible, safe and sustainable solution for managing nuclear wastes for the periods of time required.

Because there is no known solution for long term safe management of nuclear waste, any claim for disposal of this material is premature. The movement of waste is simply transferring a problem from one place to another: it will not go away. The targeting of communities in the Northern Territory, on no basis other than their political vulnerability, was immoral and opportunistic, and must be overturned by Prime Minister Rudd.

The decisions we take today about Australia's radioactive waste - how it should be stored, where it should be stored, whether it should be transported and centralised - should reflect the best science we have at our disposal now, as well as the best democratic and transparent processes that governments and citizens can utilise in today's world - not Cold War thinking that makes these decisions under a cloak of silence.


Most importantly, we must ask why we are producing this waste at all. Yesterday we saw public acknowledgement that the research reactor in Sydney is still leaking, despite having been shutdown for 11 of the 14 months since it first opened. The first step in dealing with our 60-year radioactive migraine is to stop producing this waste in the first place, and divert the substantial resources consumed by this substandard facility into the many alternative technologies for producing radioisotopes.

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About the Author

Senator Scott Ludlam is the public transport spokesperson for the Australian Greens. In December 2008 he initiated the first national inquiry into public transport, which reported in August 2009 and can be found here.

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