‘Radioactive Racism’ in South Australia Same Country. Same People. Same Poison. SAPC July, 2004

‘Radioactive Racism’
in South Australia

Same Country. Same People. Same Poison.
Enough is Enough.

Written by the Australian Peace Committee (South Australia)

July, 2004


1. Introduction
2. Statement from Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta
3. Nuclear Weapons Tests
4. Flawed Maralinga ‘Clean-up’
5. Proposed Radioactive Waste Dump


ARPANSA – Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
DEST – Department of Education, Science and Training (Australian Government)
LLILW – long-lived intermediate-level
MARTAC – Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee
TAG – Technical Assessment Group (advised on Maralinga rehabilitation from 1986.)

1. Introduction

We are a sub-committee of the South Australian branch of the Australian Peace Committee Inc., acting with that Committee’s authority.

The basic premise of this submission is that the plan of the current federal government of Australia to build a national radioactive waste dump in South Australia is racist and adds to the radiological risks and cultural harm already imposed on Indigenous Australians by the nuclear weapons tests carried out in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Australian Peace Committee’s pursuit of this complaint has been endorsed by the Kupa Pita Kungka Tjuta – a senior Aboriginal women’s council of northern South Australia. The Kungka Tjuta include Antikirinya, Yankunynjatjara, Kokatha and Arabunna women. A statement from the Kungka Tjuta follows this introduction.

The Kupa Pita Kungka Tjuta are victims of the British nuclear weapons testing program at Maralinga and Emu Field (otherwise called Emu Junction) in South Australia in the 1950s (with further ‘minor’ trials continuing to pollute their land until 1963).

Now the Kungka Tjuta are fighting the current federal government’s plan to build a national radioactive waste dump in the centre-north of South Australia. The dump project has already involved the forced seizure of Aboriginal land (including the annulment of Native Title rights and interests), and the dump itself entails a further imposition of radiological hazards – in both respects the dump mirrors the racism of the nuclear weapons testing program.

The Kungka Tjuta have led a national campaign in opposition to the dump since 1998. The campaign is called “Irati Wanti” – ‘the poison, leave it’.

2. Statement from Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta

We are the Antikirinya, Yankunynjatjara, Kokatha and Arabunna women here in Coober Pedy (Australia) and we’re struggling to stop the Government putting the poison (radioactive waste) on our land.

In this paper we will show you how in former times the British and Australian Governments treated us very badly.

We do not want this paper, which we are sending overseas to you, to be confidential. In fact, we want as many people as possible to know who we are. We’re worrying for the future generations – our grand children and our great grand children. They have to have their life.

We understand that you look at “gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all countries.” We hope you will look at such things that have happened to us in our own country.

We will give you proof that what happened affected …“ a large number of people over a protracted period of time.” All of us were living when the Government used the country for the Bomb. Some of us were living at Twelve Mile, just out from Coober Pedy. The smoke was funny and everything looked hazy. Everybody got sick. Other people were living at Mabel Creek and many people got sick. Some of the Old People got real sick and died. Some people were living at Wallatinna. Other people got moved away…When we were young no women got breast cancer or any other kind of cancer. Cancer was unheard of with men either. And no asthma, we were people without sickness.

We believe the Government of our State (South Australia) will support us in this claim. Our Premier Mike Rann wrote to the Prime Minister in 2002 opposing the proposed dump and last year, 2003, the State Government made it illegal to build a national waste dump in our state. We have written a good letter to Mike Rann backing him up.

But, – the Prime Minister and his Federal Government in Canberra want to go ahead no matter what. Where are their ears? The Government thought they knew what they were doing with the Bomb. Now, again they are coming along and telling us poor blackfellas, ‘Oh there’s nothing that’s going to happen, nothing is going to kill you.’ And that will happen like that bomb. What about our young ones?

The desert lands are not as dry as they think. We’ve got water, a big underground river. We know that the poison from the radioactive dump will go under the ground and leak into the water. We drink from this water. The animals drink from this water – kangaroo, emu, perentie, goanna and others. We eat these animals – that’s our meat. We’re worried that any of these animals will become poisoned and we’ll become poisoned in our turn.

We can’t sleep because we are worried for our grandchildren every morning, every night – what are they going to do?

We know the Story for the land. White people have books. We have the book of the land, like a computer in our hearts. We’ve got the ceremony for the land. The Spirit is still crying. 1 Emu and Maralinga. 2. Radioactive dump.

We have scientific, pictorial and anecdotal (stories from people who have suffered from Emu /Maralinga bombs or who were told about it) proof of this suffering. AW “I lost everything. That was the finish of mother and father. They all passed through that (the Black Mist of the Emu bomb of 1953.) and I was the only one left…EKB That morning when we woke up was when we found out about K’s father passed away. Day Two we lost K’s sister then. So Day Three was K’s mother….”

We’ve travelled everywhere talking about the poison – Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra. Never mind we’re old. We’ve been talking to the DPEI – the Government Dept but they’ve taken no notice. And over and over to the Government in Canberra but they don’t listen to us ladies. Kids have grown up and have had their own kids in all this time we’ve been talking to the Government.

We have gone to every level of Government – Local, State and Federal. We’ve talked to the papers, the radio, T.V. We’ve talked to people from overseas and one of our members even travelled overseas in 2003.

Many people have come to visit us in the bush – in Coober Pedy and last year in October 2003, we held a forum at our bush camp -Kulini Kulini. We invited people from all over Australia to come and listen to us. Kulini Kulini, means “Are you listening?” One group that came and listened found out we could complain to the United Nations. They are supporting us in this.

Our campaign Irati Wanti means keep the poison out. Much of our land is already poisoned. The Government of Australia want to put the radioactive waste dump on our land this year and they say they’ll do it no matter what. We are hoping you will listen and act because the effects of the Black Mist with such sufferings and sicknesses and people passing away are still with us 50 years later. We’re only the caretakers of this country – the beautiful desert country of Australia. If we look after it, it will look after us. Please help us.

3. Nuclear Weapons Tests

The general attitude of white settlers towards Aborigines was profoundly racist; Aboriginal society was considered one of the lowest forms of civilisation and doomed to extinction. Their land was considered empty and available for exploitation – ‘terra nullius’.

The testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s by the British government in territory which sustained Indigenous culture had the effect of aiding the policy of ‘assimilation’. It did this by denying the safe use of land.

In “Fallout – Hedley Marston and the British Bomb Tests in Australia” (Wakefield Press, 2001, p.32), Dr. Roger Cross writes:

“Little mention was made of course about the effects the bomb tests might have on the Indigenous Australian inhabitants of the Maralinga area, a community that had experienced little contact with white Australia. In 1985 the McClelland Royal Commission would report how Alan Butement, Chief Scientist for the Department of Supply wrote to the native patrol officer for the area, rebuking him for the concerns he had expressed about the situation and chastising him for “apparently placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. When a member of staff at Hedley Marston’s division queried the British Scientist Scott Russell on the fate of the Aborigines at Maralinga, the response was that they were a dying race and therefore dispensable.”

The British nuclear testing program was carried out with the full support of the Australian government. Nine nuclear weapon tests were carried out at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia, and three tests were carried out on the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Permission was not sought for the tests from affected Aboriginal groups such as the Pitjantjatjara, Tjarutja and Kokatha. The use of atomic weapons contaminated great tracts of traditional land, and transformed an independent and physically wide ranging people into a semi-static and dependent group – forced relocation was one of the traumas. The damage was radiological, psycho-social and cultural. This change was profoundly negative and to this day, much of the work of lifting the living conditions of Indigenous people result from the loss of traditional independence dating from the 1950s when the use of nuclear weapons forced Aboriginals into government- and mission-controlled enclaves. The size and nature of these substitute areas was such as to prevent the successful use of traditional living skills and de-culturalisation occurred.

Little or no attention was paid during the British nuclear testing program in Australia to the increased vulnerability of Aboriginal people to the radiological effects of the tests. That increased susceptibility was due to a range of factors including lack of clothing and footwear, a diet conducive to biological magnification of radioactivity, movement patterns, language barriers, and general health status. Conversely Aboriginal people generally lacked protections available to others such as reticulated water; hard permanent dwellings with dust proofing; remotely sourced food; food storage facilities which afforded some radiological protection; laundry/bathroom and drainage facilities;

The secrecy surrounding the nuclear testing program had the effect of ensuring the social isolation of groups, including affected Indigenous populations, compounded the suffering inflicted.

Studies of the health impacts of the weapons tests have excluded non-urban Aboriginal people (e.g. the study by Wise and Moroney, first presented to the Royal Commission, which states: “ Two population groups are excluded from the calculations. They are the aboriginals living away from populations centres and personnel involved directly in nuclear test activities …” (Keith N. Wise and John R. Moroney, Australian Radiation Laboratory, May 1992, “Public Health Impact of Fallout from British Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia, 1952 – 1957”, Dept. of Health, Housing and Community Services, ARL/TRI05 ISSN 0157-1400, p.2.)

British atomic weapons tests in Australia:
Operation Hurricane (Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia)
* 3 October, 1952 – 25 kilotons – plutonium
Operation Totem (Emu Field, South Australia)
* ‘Totem 1’ – 15 October, 1953 – 9.1 kilotons – plutonium
* ‘Totem 2’ – 27 October, 1953 – 7.1 kilotons – plutonium
Operation Mosaic (Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia)
‘G1’ – 16 May, 1956 – Trimouille Island – 15 kilotons – plutonium
‘G2’ – 19 June, 1956 – Alpha Island – 60 kilotons – plutonium
Operation Buffalo (Maralinga, South Australia)
‘One Tree’ – 27 September, 1956 – 12.9 kilotons – plutonium
‘Marcoo’ – 4 October, 1956 – 1.4 kilotons – plutonium
‘Kite’ – 11 October, 1956 – 2.9 kilotons – plutonium
‘Breakaway’ – 22 October, 1956 – 10.8 kilotons – plutonium
Operation Antler (Maralinga, South Australia)
‘Tadje’ – 14 September, 1957 – 0.9 kilotons – plutonium
‘Biak’ – 25 September, 1957 – 5.7 kilotons – plutonium
‘Taranaki’ – 9 October, 1957 – 26.6 kilotons – plutonium

Monte Bello Islands

While the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia were uninhabited, the nuclear tests conducted there spread radioactivity across large portions of mainland Australia. The Royal Commission (p.261) concluded: “The presence of Aborigines on the mainland near Monte Bello Islands and their extra vulnerability to the effect of fallout was not recognised by either [Atomic Weapons Research Establishment – UK] or the Safety Committee. It was a major oversight that the question of acceptable dose levels for Aborigines was recognised as a problem at Maralinga but was ignored in setting the fallout criteria for the Mosaic tests.”

Emu Field

“The Government used the Country for the Bomb. Some of us were living at Twelve Mile, just out of Coober Pedy. The smoke was funny and everything looked hazy. Everybody got sick. Other people were at Mabel Creek and many people got sick. Some people were living at Wallatinna. Other people got moved away. Whitefellas and all got sick. When we were young, no woman got breast cancer or any other kind of cancer. Cancer was unheard of. And no asthma either, we were people without sickness.”
— Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta

At the time of the two ‘Totem’ nuclear tests at Emu Field in South Australia, the area was used, as the Royal Commission reported, for: “… hunting and gathering, for temporary settlements, for caretakership and spiritual renewal.” (p.152) A major test named Totem 1 was detonated on October 15th, 1953. The blast sent a radioactive cloud – which came to be known as the Black Mist – over 250 kms northwest to Wallatinna and down to Coober Pedy. The Totem I test is held responsible for a sudden outbreak of sickness and death experienced by Aboriginal communities, including members of the Kupa Piti Kunga Tjuta and their extended families. The Royal Commission found that the Totem 1 test was fired under wind conditions which a study had shown would produce unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the firing criteria did not take into account the existence of people at Wallatinna and Melbourne Hill down wind of the test site (p.151). In relation to the two Totem tests, the Royal Commission found that there was a failure at the Totem trials to consider adequately the distinctive lifestyle of Aborigines and their special vulnerability to radioactive fallout, that inadequate resources were allocated to guaranteeing the safety of Aborigines during the Totem nuclear tests, and that the Native Patrol Officer had an impossible task of locating and warning Aborigines, some of whom lived in traditional lifestyles and were located over more than 100,00 square kilometres (p.173).

No special consideration was given to the Aboriginal lifestyle. In an exact replica of Operation ‘Hurricane’, the authorities conveniently forgot that these people were largely or wholly unclothed. They cooked and ate in unsheltered locations and had a diet liable to biological magnification of radioactive contamination, for example, lizards such as goannas and snakes.


A number of Aboriginal people were moved from Ooldea to Yalata prior to the 1956-57 series of tests at Maralinga, and this included moving people away from their traditional lands. Yet movements by the Aboriginal population still occurred throughout the region at the time of the tests. It was later realised that a traditional Aboriginal route crossed through the Maralinga testing range.

In relation to the Buffalo series of tests in 1956, the Royal Commission found that regard for Aboriginal safety was characterised by “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism”, and that the site was chosen on the false premise that it was no longer used by the Traditional Owners – Aboriginal people continued to inhabit the Prohibited Zone for six years after the tests. The reporting of sightings of Aborigines was “discouraged and ignored”, the Royal Commission found. (p.323)

At the time of the tests it was well publicised that Indigenous People of the Maralinga lands were moved to the safety of mission stations and reserves by “Native Patrol Officers” who patrolled thousands of square kilometres of land to try to ensure Indigenous people were removed. Signs were erected in some places – written in English, which few of the effected Aborigines could understand. For the Aboriginal people who still walked the Western Desert, many living traditionally, radiation exposure caused sickness and death. There are tragic accounts of families sleeping in the bomb craters.

The British Government paid A$13.5 million compensation to the Maralinga Tjarutja in 1995. Other Indigenous victims – including members of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – have not been compensated and received no apology.

4. Flawed Maralinga ‘Clean-up’

“What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
— Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson
ABC Radio National, ‘Breakfast’
August 5, 2002.

In the 1990s the Australian Government carried out what was supposed to be a final clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site in South Australia. The clean-up stemmed from recommendations in the 1985 report of the Royal Commission.

A large majority of the contamination resulted not from the nuclear tests per se but from so-called minor trials which were discontinued in 1963. The stated purpose of the trials was to physically test the safety and security of British nuclear weapons in case of accident, and some experiments were designed to improve the trigger mechanisms. The trigger mechanisms of the weapons were subjected to chemical explosions, heat and other tests. The resultant destruction produced plumes of radioactive material in the form of fine particles. These particles fell to earth over a wide area of the test range and in some cases, beyond it. The ‘minor trials’ contaminated Maralinga with approximately 8,000 kg of uranium, 24 kg of plutonium, and 100 kg of beryllium.

In March 2000 the then Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, Senator Nick Minchin, declared Maralinga safe after $108 million had been spent on the clean-up. However, the clean-up generated a great deal of controversy, much of it generated by criticisms expressed by scientists who worked on the project, namely:
* Mr. Alan Parkinson. In 1989, Mr. Parkinson, a nuclear engineer, developed some 30 options for rehabilitation of the Maralinga atomic bomb test site. In August 1994, he was appointed the Government’s Representative to oversee the whole of the clean-up project and was also a member of the government’s advisory committee (MARTAC). In December 1997, he was removed from both appointments for questioning the management of the project.
* Mr. Dale Timmons, a geochemist involved in the in-situ vitrification (ISV) of contaminated debris at Maralinga.
* Professor Peter Johnston, adviser to the traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, and Professor of Applied Nuclear Physics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Mr. Parkinson’s view is that the clean-up was significantly flawed, especially the shallow burial of plutonium-contaminated debris. Prof. Johnston’s view is that the clean-up was successful overall despite poor project management by the Australian Government. Mr. Timmons has not commented on the overall status of the clean-up, restricting his comments to the ISV component in which he was heavily involved.

Mr. Parkinson’s statements include:
* “The Maralinga Rehabilitation Project: Final Report”, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Vol.20, 2004, pp.70-80, London: Frank Cass.
* “Maralinga: The Clean-Up of a Nuclear Test Site”, Medicine and Global Survival, Volume 7, Number 2, February 2002,
* Maralinga Rehabilitation Project, 2000, .
* “Maralinga: Clean-Up or Cover-Up?” Australasian Science, July, 21 (6), 2000, p.16.
* comments in ABC Radio National, Background Briefing program, “Maralinga: The Fall Out Continues”, April 16, 2000,

* numerous articles posted at
* Comments on the MARTAC report, April, 2003, .
* second-round submission to ARPANSA repository inquiry, posted at:

Prof. Johnston’s statements include:
* written submission number 256 to ARPANSA repository inquiry, posted at:
* presentation to ARPANSA repository forum, February 26, 2004, posted at .
* P.N. Johnston, A.C. Collett, T.J. Gara, “Aboriginal participation and concerns throughout the rehabilitation of Maralinga”, presented at the Third International Symposium on the Protection of the Environment from Ionising Radiation, Darwin, 22-26 July 2002, IAEA-CSP-17, IAEA, Vienna, 2003, p.349-356. (Posted on the IAEA website.)

Statements from Mr. Timmons are posted at:

DEST clearly failed to properly manage the Maralinga clean-up. Professor Johnston wrote in a submission to ARPANSA:

“In the Maralinga Rehabilitation Project, DEST had no in-house capacity for engineering or scientific assessment of its contractors for a substantial part of the project. It had internal engineering support for the early part of the project but that individual was removed. As a consequence, DEST contracted for services in extremely deficient ways, e.g. the Geosafe contract contained no performance criteria.” (The Geosafe contract was for vitrification of contaminated debris.)

“In the case of Maralinga, there were mitigating circumstances that kept the project going forward but in a sub-optimal way. These were the MARTAC [Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee] advisory group, the Maralinga Consultative Group as well as ad-hoc advice sought from ARPANSA at various times. While these groups greatly aided in the successful completion of the project, there were still very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project by DEST.” (Johnston, written submission)

Inevitably the poor project management had adverse consequences for the clean-up. Professor Johnston’s presentation for an ARPANSA forum listed some examples:

“DEST concluded a contract with Geosafe Australia for technical services that contained no performance criteria. Draft documents prepared by DEST have often been technically wrong due to a lack of technical input. Non-technical public servants made decisions where technical expertise was needed. Technical advice often not sought except from a contractor.”

Mr. Parkinson illustrates DEST’s inadequate project management capabilities in his submission to ARPANSA (cited above):

“A glaring example of the lack of expertise in project management is provided by the appointment by the department of GHD to manage the ISV phase of the Maralinga project. In spite of the fact that several aspects of GHD’s performance on the earlier phases of the project were less than satisfactory, and the fact that they had absolutely no knowledge or experience of the complex process and equipment of ISV, the department appointed them Project Manager and Project Authority. And those responsible cannot claim they were not aware of GHD’s ignorance in the ISV technology; it was spelled out in writing to them. It is almost a fundamental requirement for the project manager to have a good knowledge and some experience of the project – in this case GHD had none. To emphasise the department’s lack of project management skills, they also appointed GHD Project Authority, in which position they should have had a detailed knowledge of the process and equipment. No wonder the Maralinga project became such a failure.”

Consultation with the Maralinga Tjarutja was inadequate. Prof. Johnston et al note in the conference paper (cited above):

“The Australian Government responded to these [Royal Commission] recommendations by forming in February 1986, a Technical Assessment Group (TAG) to address the technical conclusions stemming from the Royal Commission and a Consultative Group was formed as a forum for discussion of the program. TAG’s task was to provide the Australian Government with options for rehabilitation rather than a recommendation. Membership of the Consultative Group was as envisaged by the Royal Commission for the Maralinga Commission but with additional representatives of the West Australian Government. Notably this structure which formed the basis for the entire rehabilitation project left the traditional owners and the South Australian Government out of direct decision making. It ensured that real authority remained with bureaucrats within the Department of Primary Industries and Energy which obtained advice from TAG and later the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC).”

The roles of these groups is explained in the same paper:

“The Maralinga Consultative Group met on an ad hoc basis during the TAG investigations in order to provide information on the progress of scientific studies, planning the rehabilitation work, during the rehabilitation work and in the preparation of the final reports. The consultative group was established to discuss and monitor the TAG studies was re-established in 1993 involving South Australian Government and Maralinga Tjarutja to discuss the MRP. It first met in March 1994. During 1997 and 1998, while a great deal of the rehabilitation work was done, there were few meetings of either MARTAC or the consultative group.”

The most problematic aspect of the project was the decision to abandon ISV in favour of shallow burial of plutonium contaminated debris in totally unsuitable geology. The Australian Government claims that ISV was abandoned because of safety concerns following an explosion on March 21, 1999. However, the use of ISV was curtailed even before the explosion and the decisions to curtail and then abandon ISV were clearly motivated by cost-cutting objectives. This is revealed by numerous statements in the project documentation. To give some examples:
* an October 1998 paper by MARTAC said: “The recent consideration of alternative treatments for ISV for these outer pits has arisen as a result of the revised estimate for ISV being considerably above the project budget.”
* a July 17, 1998 paper written by the chair of MARTAC gives the following criteria for considering options for the Taranaki pits: time savings; cost savings; nature of waste form; potential for exposure of waste; and efficiency of operation.
* at an April 13, 1999 meeting, Garth Chamberlain from GHD, the construction company which was appointed as project manager (despite having little knowledge about ISV and no experience with the technology), said it was a much easier, quicker and cheaper option to exhume and bury debris rather than using ISV.

As Prof. Johnston et al. note in their conference paper (cited above), the decision to abandon ISV: “… was announced to the Maralinga Consultative Group in the middle of a meeting in July 1999 without the consent of the other members of the Consultative Group, particularly Maralinga Tjarutja and South Australia. … The Consultative Group has continued to meet through 2000 and 2001, but there was diminished confidence in the consultative process as a result of the Commonwealth unilateral decision to abandon ISV.”

The unilateral decision to abandon ISV was taken despite previous agreement that no changes to the clean-up methodology would be taken without discussing the proposed changes with the Maralinga Tjarutja.

Senator Minchin said in a May 1, 2000 media release that: “As the primary risk from plutonium is inhalation, all these groups have agreed that deep burial of plutonium is a safe way of handling this waste.” By “these groups” the Minister meant ARPANSA, the Maralinga Tjarutja and South Australian Government. The Minister’s statement is false on two counts. Firstly, the burial of plutonium-contaminated debris is not ‘deep’ no matter how loose the definition – the soil cover is just 5 metres. Secondly, the Maralinga Tjarutja certainly did not agree to the decision to abandon ISV in favour of burial – in fact they wrote to the Minister disassociating themselves from the decision (Senate Estimates, May 3, 2000).

The Australian Senate passed a resolution on August 21, 2002, which reads as follows:

That the Senate-
(a) notes:
(i) that the clean up of the Maralinga atomic test site resulted in highly plutonium-contaminated debris being buried in shallow earth trenches and covered with just one to two metres of soil,
(ii) that large quantities of radioactive soil were blown away during the removal and relocation of that soil into the Taranaki burial trenches, so much so that the contaminated airborne dust caused the work to be stopped on many occasions and forward area facilities to be evacuated on at least one occasion, and
(iii) that americium and uranium waste products are proposed to be stored in an intermediate waste repository and that both these contaminants are buried in the Maralinga trenches;
(b) rejects the assertion by the Minister for Science (Mr McGauran) on 14 August 2002 that this solution to dealing with radioactive material exceeds world’s best practice;
(c) contrasts the Maralinga method of disposal of long-lived, highly radioactive material with the Government’s proposals to store low-level waste in purpose-built lined trenches 20 metres deep and to store intermediate waste in a deep geological facility;
(d) calls on the Government to acknowledge that long-lived radioactive material is not suitable for near surface disposal; and
(e) urges the Government to exhume the debris at Maralinga, sort it and use a safer, more long-lasting method of storing this material.

The Australian Senate passed another resolution on October 15, 2003, which inter alia condemned the Maralinga clean-up. The resolution was as follows:

That the Senate:
(a) notes:
(i) that 15 October 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the first atomic test conducted by the British government in northern South Australia;
(ii) that on this day “Totem 1”, a 10 kilotonne atomic bomb, was detonated at Emu Junction, some 240 kilometres west of Coober Pedy;
(iii) that the Anangu community received no forewarning of the test;
(iv) that the 1984 Royal Commission report concluded that Totem 1 was detonated in wind conditions that would produce unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the decision to detonate failed to take into account the existence of people at Wallatinna and Welbourn Hill;
(b) expresses its concern for those indigenous peoples whose lands and health over generations have been detrimentally affected by this and subsequent atomic tests conducted in northern South Australia;
(c) congratulates the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – the Senior Aboriginal Women of Coober Pedy – for their ongoing efforts to highlight the experience of their peoples affected by these tests;
(d) condemns the Government for its failure to properly dispose of radioactive waste from atomic tests conducted in the Maralinga precinct; and
(e) expresses its continued opposition to the siting of a low-level radioactive waste repository in South Australia.

The problems with the Maralinga clean-up raises an important issue with respect to the proposed national radioactive waste dump – many of the same organisations and individuals involved in the flawed Maralinga clean-up are now involved in the radioactive waste dump project, namely DEST, ARPANSA, and at least one private contractor.

Prof. Johnston argued in his written submission to ARPANSA that DEST had failed to demonstrate an ability to properly manage the dump project:

“The applicant for a licence [DEST] does not have the technical competence required to manage the contracts of a proposed operator. The operator who may have the necessary technical competence is not a co-applicant. I am not convinced the applicant will have effective control of the project. I believe the application has not demonstrated that the applicant has the capacity to ensure that it can abide by the licence conditions that could be imposed under Section 35 of the ARPANS Act because of a lack of technical competence in managing its contractors.”

5. Proposed Radioactive Waste Dump

There are clear parallels between the atrocities inflicted on Aboriginal people because of the nuclear weapons tests and the current plan for a national radioactive waste dump – albeit the case that the likely scale of radiological hazard is likely to be less for the dump when compared to the weapons tests. The parallels are as follows:
* the dump represents another forced imposition of radiological toxins.
* Aboriginal land has been seized in support of the dump proposal just as it was for the weapons tests. This alienation includes but goes beyond the annulment (as part of the Federal Government’s compulsory acquisition of land for the dump) of formal Native Title rights and interests over the dump site and the transport corridor from the site to the highway.

As for the scale of the radiological hazard, the initial stockpile comprises approximately 3,700 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level waste. There is widespread concern that the dump site will at a later date host a store for all of Australia’s long-lived intermediate-level waste (LLILW) including wastes arising from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from nuclear research reactors operated at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney. In the longer term the site may also host a deep underground dump for Australia’s LLILW. In short, there is a significant risk that the initial radiological imposition will snowball by several orders of magnitude.

An international consortium called ARIUS – the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage – has argued that a deep underground dump for disposal of Australia’s LLILW also ought to accept high-level waste from overseas nuclear power plants (The Australian, September 2, 2002). Thus there is a risk – albeit a small one – that the initial radiological imposition will snowball by many orders of magnitude.

The imposition of a national radioactive waste dump presents a severe hazard to health according the Public Health Model adopted by the United Nations and to which Australia is a signatory (Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986, Appendix F). This is because:
i) Trauma related to radiological incidents is present in the community. (Incidents include the trauma of the Black Mist incident, beta radiation burns, illness and death due to radiation exposure and ascribed as such by the affected community.)
ii) Prior to the critical incidents, loss of territory occurred.
iii) Loss of lifestyle and access to cultural icons of existential significance occurred.
iv) A transition of independence to dependence occurred.

Indigenous opposition.

Since the Federal Government announced its decision to build a national radioactive waste dump in the centre-north of South Australia in February 1998, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta have actively opposed the proposed dump. Their campaign has been widely celebrated and supported by communities – but ignored by the Australian Government.

The Kungka Tjuta were awarded the Jill Hudson Award for Environmental Protection from the Conservation Council of SA.

The Kungka Tjuta also received a regional SA Great award for contribution to the environment. (Advertiser, December 16, 2000.)

Mrs. Eileen Kampakuta Brown, a member of the Kungka Tjuta, was awarded an Order of Australia on Australia Day, January 26, 2003 for her service to the community “through the preservation, revival and teaching of traditional Anangu (Aboriginal) culture and as an advocate for indigenous communities in Central Australia”. On March 5, 2003, the Australian Senate passed a resolution noting “the hypocrisy of the Government in giving an award for services to the community to Mrs. Brown but taking no notice of her objection, and that of the Yankunytjatjara/Antikarinya community, to its decision to construct a national repository on this land.”

Representatives of the Kungka Tjuta, Mrs. Eileen Kampakuta Brown, a Yankunytjatjara/Antikarinya elder, and Mrs. Eileen Wani Wingfield, a Kokatha elder, were awarded the prestigious international Goldman Prize in 2003 for their campaign to prevent the dump ().

Commenting on the Goldman Award, The Adelaide Advertiser argued in an April 15, 2003 editorial:

“Award of the Goldman Environmental Prize to Aboriginal elders Eileen Kampakuta Brown and Eileen Wani Wingfield for their dogged opposition to the planned radioactive waste dump is recognition and inspiration.

The two women are survivors of the atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s. They are also a timely rebuff to the Federal Government’s continued message that opposition to the low level dump is synonymous with hysteria and ignorance.

Half a century on, these two women have lived with the lethal impact and the Berlin Wall of denial that followed Maralinga.

Their misgivings [about the dump] are the misgivings of the overwhelming majority of their fellow South Australians.

If only this award would be accompanied by Federal Government acceptance that their dump decision is unfair and unwarranted.”

The dump is opposed by Native Title claimant groups, namely the Kokatha and the Barngala.

The dump is opposed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. (ATSIC). Acting Chair of ATSIC, Lionel Quartermaine, argued in a submission to ARPANSA: “The Nulla Wimila Kutju Regional Council is fully supportive of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta … who have been vocal in their opposition to the proposed [repository] siting. Many witnessed the effects on their people of the Atomic Tests conducted in their country in the 1950s. It is patently unfair that these should now once again face the prospect of being at risk of radiation exposure.” (Submission No.242, . See also: “ATSIC in fear of N-dump leakage”, by Rebecca DiGirolamo, The Australian, December 16, 2003, p.4.)

An April 14, 2003 letter from the Federal Environment Department’s Indigenous Advisory Committee states:

“The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, senior Aboriginal women of north SA, fundamentally oppose this nuclear waste dump which they see as the imposition of poison ground onto their traditional lands.

The Kokatha people, as registered native title claimants, oppose the nuclear waste dump and the intended acquisition and annulment of their native title rights and interests.

Throughout the EIS process under the EPBC Act, the Native Title claimants and other community members feel that there has not been adequate consultation. Traditional owners have also not been able to find out about the intended legal approach of the Commonwealth Government in carrying out key aspects of the proposed project.”

Those concerns were ignored in the Environment Department’s Environmental Assessment Report (March 2003) and by the Environment Minister David Kemp, who approved the dump project. Minister Kemp’s approval was the final stage of an Environmental Impact Assessment process under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Convention Act 1999 – a farcical process whereby Federal Government departments wrote, ‘reviewed’ and approved the Environmental Impact Statement.

False consultation

The Federal Government’s Government’s approach to ‘consultation’ was spelt out in a document leaked in 2002 (Department of Education, Science and Training, 2002, “Communication Strategy: Announcement of Low Level Radioactive Waste Site in SA”). The document states: “Tactics to reach Indigenous audiences will be informed by extensive consultations currently being undertaken … with Indigenous groups.” In other words, sham ‘consultation’ was used to fine-tune the government’s pro-dump advocacy.

Aboriginal groups were coerced into signing agreements consenting to test drilling of short-listed sites for the proposed dump. The Federal Government made it clear that if consent for test drilling was not granted by Aboriginal groups, that drilling would take place anyway. A clear signal of the Government’s intent to proceed regardless of Aboriginal support for or engagement in the process came on April 30, 1999, when the Federal Government issued a Section 9 notice under the 1989 Land Acquisition Act which gave the government legal powers to conduct work on land that it might acquire to site the dump.

Aboriginal groups were put in an invidious position:
* they could attempt to protect specific cultural sites by engaging with the Federal Government and signing agreements, at the risk of having that engagement being misrepresented or misunderstood as consent the dump per sé; or
* they could refuse to engage in the process, thereby having no say in the process whatsoever.

Aboriginal groups were between “a rock and a hard place” according to Stewart Motha from the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, which represented the Antakirinja, Barngarla, and Kokatha people in negotiations over the dump. Mr. Motha said, “If Aboriginal groups do get involved in clearances [for test drilling] they face the possibility that the Government will point to that involvement as an indication of consent for the project. If they refuse to participate, who will protect Aboriginal heritage, dreaming and sacred sites?”

According to Parry Agius, manager of the ALRM’s Native Title Unit, “The nuclear waste repository issue highlights the inadequacy of native title rights as they are currently constituted under the Native Title Act and is a showcase for the consequences of the 10 Point Plan. While native title purports to recognise Aboriginal peoples’ particular relationship to the land, and the negotiations we are currently undertaking are aimed at protecting Aboriginal heritage, the commonwealth government may extinguish these rights by compulsory acquisition.”

Dr. Roger Thomas, a Kokatha man, told an ARPANSA forum on February 25, 2004 (transcript at: ):

“The Commonwealth sought from the native title claim group the opportunity to carry out site clearances. They presented to us, as a native title group, some 58 sites that they would like us to consider for the purpose of cultural significance clearance. Of the 58, there were seven sites that they saw as being the priority locations for where they had intentions to want to locate the waste repository. I would like it to be registered that, of the 58, the senior law men and women had difficulty and made it quite clear that there was no intent on their part to want to give any agreement to any of those sites. … The point of concern and controversy for us is that we were advised – and we were told this by the various agencies involved – ‘If you don’t proceed with signing the agreement, the Federal Government will acquire it under the constitution legislation.’ From our point of view, we not only had the shotgun at our head, we also were put in a situation where we were deemed powerless. If this is an example of the whitefella process and system that we’ve got to comply with as Indigenous Australians, then we attest that this whole process needs to be reviewed and looked at and we need to be given under the convention of the United Nations the appropriate rights as Indigenous first nation people. Our bottom line position is that we do not agree with any waste material of any level being dumped, located or deposited in any part of this country.”

Aboriginal groups did reluctantly engage in surveys resulting in the signing of so-called Heritage Clearance Agreements. Heritage assessment surveys were conducted by three groups:
* Antakirinja, Barngala and Kokotha Native Title Claimant Groups, working jointly and with the same legal representatives;
* Andamooka Land Council Association, with separate legal representation;
* Kuyani Association, represented by an adviser.

One risk was that those agreements would be misrepresented by the Federal Government as amounting to Aboriginal consent to or even support for the dump per sé. That risk has in fact been realised. Federal Government politicians and bureaucrats have repeatedly made reference to the surveys and the resulting Agreements without noting that those Agreements in no way amount to consent to the dump. The following excerpt from Senate Hansard provides an example of this type of misrepresentation-by-omission (30 October, 2003, p.16813, question 2118):

Senator Allison (Australian Democrats) asked the Minister representing the Minister for Science, upon notice, on 18 September 2003:
(e) have any Indigenous groups consented to the construction and operation of the repository at the site known as Site 40a; if so, which groups;
(f) have any Indigenous groups stated that Site 40a has no particular Indigenous heritage values; if so, which groups;
Senator Vanstone — The Minister for Science has provided the following answer to the honourable senator’s question:
(e) The site has been cleared for all works associated with the construction and operation of a national repository, with regard to Aboriginal heritage, by the Aboriginal groups with native title claims over the relative site as well as other groups with heritage interests in the region. These groups are the Antakirinja, Barngala and Kokotha Native Title Claimant Groups, the Andamooka Land Council Association and the Kuyani Association.
(f) See answer to (e).

There is no recognition whatsoever in the above statement from the Federal Government of Aboriginal opposition to the dump.

Likewise, DEST official Mr. Jeff Harris told an ARPANSA forum on December 17, 2001 that: “… those Aboriginal groups that have heritage interests in those lands we have consulted extensively with them, and each of the three sites that are going through environmental impact assessment has been inspected by these Aboriginal groups and have cleared for the construction and operation of the repository.” (Transcript at ).

The same misrepresentation-by-omission occurs in the Environment Department’s Environmental Assessment Report regarding the planned dump () and in numerous other Federal Government statements.

This misrepresentation-by-omission has occurred repeatedly despite the fact that the Heritage Clearance Agreements specifically note Aboriginal opposition. One such Agreement, between the Federal Government and the Antakarinja Native Title Group, the Barngarla Native Title Group and the Kokatha Native Title Claimant Group, dated May 12, 2000, includes the following clauses:

E. The agreement to undertake Work Area Clearances is not to be deemed as consent, and the COMMONWEALTH do not under this Agreement seek such consent, by the Claimants to the establishment of a NRWR in the Central North Region of South Australia.

I. The COMMONWEALTH acknowledges that there is “considerable opposition” to the NRWR within the Aboriginal community of the region, but notwithstanding that the Claimants have made a commitment that the heritage clearance and the contents of the Work Area Clearance Report will not be influenced by such opposition.

It hardly needs to be added that the Federal Government has never publicly released those clauses of the Agreement.

Federal Government politicians and bureaucrats have acknowledged Aboriginal opposition to the dump – but infrequently, and generally only when attention has been drawn to their attempts to misrepresent Heritage Clearance Agreements as amounting to consent to the dump.

DEST states in the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (ch.11): “The preferred site and two alternatives have been identified by Aboriginal groups as not containing areas of significance for Aboriginal cultural heritage, and have been cleared for all works associated with the construction and operation of the national repository.” That statement assumes that the cultural significance of northern SA region can be reduced to relatively small, discrete sites of significance – a false assumption. It conflicts with the true significance of the region to Aboriginal people.

Ironically, the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (ch.11) also expresses a clearer understanding:

“As described in two of the work area clearance reports, many of the region’s landscape features have important spiritual associations. Numerous spiritual pathways or Tjukurrpa trails extend for hundreds of kilometres, linking this region with the central desert areas and to cultural areas north and west. They also link to the eastern lakes and Flinders Ranges region. In this respect the area of investigation straddles an area of particular cultural interest. The interconnected nature of the cultural environment means that to the Aboriginal groups concerned, the locations proposed for the potential repository sites, even though very small, cannot be viewed as isolated entities, but need to be considered within the broader cultural perspective of Aboriginal beliefs. The gibber plains are commonly associated with significant Tjukurrpa and the fact that almost all of the work areas (including the three under consideration) were located on gibber plains made their clearance for development more difficult.”

Likewise, the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (ch.11) also states:

“Of specific concern to Aboriginal groups was the potential of the project to adversely affect the values that the landscape of the central–north region of South Australia has for them. These values include most importantly cultural heritage values, not expressed solely as sites or places that might be physically avoided, but in a number of religious narratives, generically called Tjukurrpa, that incorporate different parts of the regional landscape.”

Since DEST evidently has some appreciation of the nature of Aboriginal cultural connections to the land, it is unfortunate that DEST consistently expresses a contrary view – even in the same chapter of the Draft EIS – whereby cultural significance attaches only to discrete sites.

Native Title Rights and Interests

In 2002, the Federal Government tried to buy-off Aboriginal opposition to the dump. Three Native Title claimant groups – the Kokatha, Kuyani and Barngala – were offered $90,000 to surrender their native title rights, but only on the condition that all three groups agreed. Two of the groups – the Kokatha and Barngala – refused, so the government’s ploy failed.

Dr. Roger Thomas, a Kokatha man, told an ARPANSA forum on February 25, 2004:

“The most disappointing aspect to the negotiations that the Commonwealth had with us, as Kokatha, is to try to buy our agreement. This was most insulting to us as Aboriginal people and particularly to our elders. For the sake of ensuring that I don’t further create any embarrassment, I will not quote the figure, but let me tell you, our land is not for sale. Our Native Title rights are not for sale. We are talking about our culture, our lore and our dreaming. We are talking about our future generations we’re protecting here. We do not have a “for sale” sign up and we never will.” (Transcript at: .)

According to The Age, the meetings took place at a Port Augusta motel in September 2002 and the Commonwealth delegation included representatives of the Department of the Attorney-General, the Department of Finance and the Department of Education and Science and Training. (Penelope Debelle, “Anger over native title cash offer”, The Age, May 17, 2003.)

The Age article quotes Dr. Thomas saying: “The insult of it, it was just so insulting. I told the Commonwealth officers to stop being so disrespectful and rude to us by offering us $90,000 to pay out our country and our culture.”

The Age article quotes Andrew Starkey, also from the Kokatha, saying “It was just shameful. They were wanting people to sign off their cultural heritage rights for a minuscule amount of money. We would not do that for any amount of money.”

The Australian quoted solicitor Philip Teitzel, representing the Barngala people, said they had rejected the $90,000 because many South Australians objected to a radioactive waste dump in their state. (“Blacks veto cash for N-dump site rights”, Rebecca DiGirolamo, The Australian, February 27, 2003.)

On July 7, 2003, the Federal Government used compulsory land acquisition powers under the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 (Senator Nick Minchin, Minister for Finance and Administration, Media Release, July 7, 2003.). By so doing, Native Title rights and interests were annulled. This took place with no forewarning and no consultation with Indigenous groups, the South Australian Government, the holders of the pastoral lease on the dump site, or with any other section of the Australian community.

Siting of the Dump

The Federal Government’s plan to establish a national radioactive waste dump might have at least some merit if the Government’s routine claim that the chosen site is the “safest and best” site available was true. However, that claim is demonstrably false.

The Federal Government’s siting study is described in the Bureau of Resource Sciences, 1997, “A Radioactive Waste repository for Australia – Site Selection Study Phase 3 Regional Assessment”, a document produced by DEST. The Bureau of Resource Sciences was at that time an agency within DEST’s predecessor, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy.

The Bureau of Resource Sciences document clearly shows areas of “high suitability” in five states (p.14).

That document states that the centre-north of South Australia was chosen because it contains the largest area of “high suitability” land. However, the merit of that argument is substantially diminished by the fact that other “high suitability” sites in several states contain sufficient land to host hundreds or thousands of dump sites.

Furthermore, a site in western New South Wales, within the ‘Olary’ region, was found to meet all of the siting criteria and it has the additional advantage of being closer to the main waste source – the nuclear reactor plant at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney – than the centre-north of South Australia.

Federal Science Minister Peter McGauran wrote in the September 8, 2002 Sunday Mail that: “… unlike the Olary region in western NSW, the [South Australian] region did not overlap the Great Artesian or Murray-Darling Basins which are important water resources.” The Minister’s claim is demonstrably false. The selected centre-north region of South Australia also partly overlaps the Great Artesian Basin, just as the Olary region does, as described in the Bureau of Resource Sciences document and subsequently acknowledged by Mr. McGauran.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that a double-standard was applied when comparing the New South Wales and South Australian sites, and that political factors influenced the decision to try to establish the proposed national dump in South Australia.

Finally, it should be noted that the Federal Government has not even attempted to establish a net benefit with respect to radiological hazard of the proposed dump. Professor Ian Lowe, an invited panelist at an ARPANSA forum on the proposed dump, noted in his written report ():

“DEST told the forum that “Disposal of the waste in a purpose-built national repository will reduce the cumulative risks of storing wastes”, leading to the conclusion that “The community and the environment will benefit”. Questioning revealed that the basis for this assertion is shaky. It is by no means clear what the exact scale of the current problem is.

… In the absence of solid information about the scale and physical distribution of the existing waste, it would be hard to do even a rough risk calculation that would justify the claim that a repository would “reduce the cumulative risk”.

… However, no attempt has been made to estimate the increased risk of collecting and transporting this waste to the repository, even in orders of magnitude. Assuming the aim of the exercise is to ensure that the handling of waste represents minimum risk to the community, it needs to be shown that collection and transport represent a relatively low risk compared with storage. It is clear that the community needs to be reassured on this point.


POSTSCRIPT: In July 2004 the federal Coalition government announced that it had abandoned its plan to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA. This occurred in the context of a Federal Court ruling that the urgeny provisions of the Land Acquisition Act had been illegally used, and in the context of a looming federal election.

One Response to “‘Radioactive Racism’ in South Australia Same Country. Same People. Same Poison. SAPC July, 2004”

  1. CaptD Says:

    Yet another great Post, showing how Aboriginal lands and the people living on them, have been “dumped” on by the AU Government – History will show, especially with information like this, that those that trust their Government to do the RIGHT thing have much to fear instead because of the Power of Greed!

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