Outback nuclear dump site triggers hot debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 June, 2003, 12:00am

There is a deeply unhappy history to the scrub-covered plains and scorched sand dunes surrounding the Outback town of Woomera in South Australia.

To the west lie the Maralinga Aboriginal lands, a vast desert area used by the British for detonating atomic bombs between 1952 and 1963. Closer to the town lies the equally huge Woomera Prohibited Area, used for rocket and weapons testing by the Australian military. To the north are two controversial uranium mines.

And until recently Woomera itself, a fly-blown outpost far from anywhere, played host to a refugee detention centre, which after a series of high-profile escapes, riots and hunger strikes, is in the process of being mothballed. Now a sheep station 20 kilometres from Woomera has been chosen by the federal government as the site for Australia's first national nuclear waste dump.

But Canberra has a battle on its hands. The state government of South Australia is fiercely opposed to the soccer pitch-sized underground repository, and has vowed to put up a fight. A recent poll showed 87 per cent of South Australians oppose the dump.

For weeks a war of words has been raging over the fate of Arcoona Station, the proposed dump site, as well as an alternative site on nearby Andamooka Station. The argument came to a head this week, with the South Australian government vowing to introduce urgent legislation to designate both sites as public parks.

The move is intended to block federal attempts to acquire the two sites through compulsory purchase. South Australia's Environment Minister, John Hill, whose determination to block the dump has turned into something of a personal crusade, said: 'South Australians have said time and time again they don't want the nation's radioactive waste to be dumped in their state and the state government is doing everything possible to make the [federal] government reconsider.

'The quicker we can get it [the legislation] through the better. We are serious about trying to stop this dump.'

The repository, which Canberra wants to be built by next year, would accommodate low-level radioactive waste from hospitals, universities and a nuclear research facility at Lucas Heights, a suburb of Sydney. The family who owns Arcoona has reluctantly accepted that the underground facility will go ahead, despite the best efforts of their representatives in the state capital, Adelaide, 480km to the south. Station owner Andrew Pobke, who has been promised compensation, said: 'I don't think anyone wants a radioactive waste dump on their land [but] I haven't got a choice in the matter.'

Local Aborigines are also strongly opposed to the dump, which they say would interfere with sacred sites and stories from the Dreamtime, the mythical age in which the land was trod by ancestral beings. Environmentalists have also weighed into the battle, saying that some of the radioactive waste due to be buried at the site would take 300 years to decompose and become safe.

David Sweeney, an anti-nuclear campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, said: 'The waste represents a significant contamination risk. We are also concerned about the dangers of transporting this stuff by road, over vast distances - the material from Sydney would have to travel 1,800km.'

He said the federal government wanted to establish the dump in order to accommodate waste from a new nuclear research facility being built next to the existing one at Lucas Heights. The federal government warned this week that South Australia's efforts to block the dump would lead to a long and costly legal battle. It has made it clear that it is determined to establish the facility, and that ultimately South Australia's objections will be overruled by federal legislation and the national interest.