Kimba Fights Nuclear Waste Dump

Written by: Nick G. on 16 February 2020


The central Eyre Peninsula farming town of Kimba has “won” the dubious honour of having been selected as the site for an Australian nuclear waste dump.

Symbolically perhaps, visitors to the town 461 kms northwest of Adelaide are greeted by an 8-metre tall Big Galah, a garrulous and somewhat random bird that has become synonymous with a fool in Aussie vernacular.

The dump is primarily for low-level waste  (paper, plastic, gloves, cloths and filters which contain small amounts of radioactivity commonly associated with nuclear medicine) but it will also store, for the time being, intermediate level waste (typically  more highly radioactive and consisting primarily of used reactor core components and resins and filters used to purify reactor water systems).

The proposal and subsequent decision have divided the town and its adjacent community and angered the traditional owners, the Barngarla First Peoples.
There is an element of “payback” in the selection of an SA site for a national low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste dump: in 1998, the Howard government proposed that a site be selected from within an area including the Woomera Prohibited Area, but a campaign by about a dozen senior Anangu women, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, lasting seven years, not only saw the federal government abandon its plans, but saw the State Liberal government break ranks with its federal counterpart and introduce legislation against an SA nuclear dump.

This time, a large number of places around the country were listed for consideration, but it was whittled down to just three: one, near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges, and two near Kimba (“half-way across Australia”) in the central Eyre Peninsula.

First Peoples very quickly took the lead in the fight against the waste dump proposals. The Barngarla from the Kimba area and the Adnyamathanha from the Flinders Ranges brought on board a wide range of allies in the No Dump Alliance. Protest rallies (see Hundreds rally against nuclear dump proposal )  were organised and a range of other activities undertaken.

The federal government saw the need to throw money at the communities concerned - $4 million for Hawker and $2 million for Kimba for “social and economic development” while the communities were being “consulted”.  The money was good.  Various items of much-needed maintenance and infrastructure were undertaken and a further $31 million was pledged to whichever community supported the nuclear dump. These were bribes, pure and simple.

The so-called “community consultation” culminated in a vote.  It was “for” or “against” the dump.  Kimba went first and the ballot was carried with 62% in favour; Hawker voted against it with a 52% margin. The proposed Hawker site was withdrawn and one of the Kimba sites selected.

However, the Kimba vote was suspect from the outset.

In the first place, the Federal Court upheld a decision by the Kimba Council that the Barngala should not be allowed to vote.  Most live in the larger regional cities of Port Augusta and Port Lincoln, and the Council said they would be difficult to identify.  Federal Court Judge White agreed (see A First Peoples’ Voice Silenced in NAIDOC Week  ).

An enlargement of the franchise for the purpose of the ballot would have required a number of subjective judgments about the extent of the enlargement and raised issues concerning the proper identification of those within the expanded franchise,” the judge said.

The Barngarla had had to wait twenty years to win their native title over Barngarla land. That decision was handed down in 2018 and politicians fell over themselves to congratulate the community. We wonder whether the Council meeting that decided to disenfranchise this community began with an Acknowledgement of Country. The word “hypocrisy” is written in white letters on Black land

To add insult to injury, the Council decision to confine the ballot to Kimba ratepayers and near neighbours of the Napandee farm, 23 kms south-west of Kimba, chosen for the site has allowed non-resident speculators to have a vote despite their not living anywhere near the site. 

And there are a few such people.  There had been a proposal for a magnetite (iron ore) mine at Wilcherry Hill, 40 kms north of Kimba. When this project was announced and approval given in 2011, the owners said they expected to employ 160 workers and promised not to use a “fly-in fly-out” workforce. They announced plans for a modular mining village to accommodate 80 people, whilst an Adelaide University study found that the existing housing stock in Kimba would not be sufficient to handle the population increase. “Once existing housing stock has been filled,” the report said, “then construction of new houses along with physical infrastructures such as roads, footpaths etc. will be required.”

The value of house blocks in Kimba soared as investors sought to make a killing.  However, the mine operators lost interest in iron ore and decided to look for gold instead; the mining village was never built; and the flood of newcomers to the town evaporated. The value of vacant blocks of land plummeted and speculators faced sizeable losses. The Napandee nuclear waste dump promises to employ 45 people, so absentee landowners had a slight bit of candle-light at the end of their investment tunnel and thus had an incentive, and Council endorsement as rate-payers, to vote for the dump.

Meanwhile, the Barngarla showed just how specious was the Council argument that they were too difficult to identify and had no right to vote as native title holders. After being excluded from the Kimba Council ballot, the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) engaged the Australian Election Company, an independent ballot agent, to conduct a confidential postal ballot of BDAC members regarding the national radioactive waste dump.

Of 209 eligible voters (all of whom are Barngarla native title holders), 83 cast valid “No” votes. Zero “Yes” votes were returned.

This unanimous “No” vote demonstrated that there is absolutely no support at all within the Barngarla community for the nuclear waste dump.

The Barngarla vote is significant in other ways.  The rate-payer and near-neighbour vote (Kimba’s community of 1300 people was reduced to 800 for the ballot) was carried by 70 votes.  Had the Barngarla been enfranchised, their vote combined with the rest of the community’s would have been similar to Hawker’s – a no vote by a small majority, but enough to put the kybosh on the dump.

In any case, the Act governing site selection requires “broad community support” for any proposed dump. The Act does not quantify “broad”, but former Minister Canavan said on several occasions that it should be around 65%. The Kimba “yes” vote was 61.58%.

A mischievous new Resources Minister Keith Pitt is now trying to muddy the waters by claiming that Barngarla native title has been “extinguished”.  It is a lie that has been picked up by lazy non-investigative journalists in the capitalist press content to regurgitate Ministerial press releases as “fact”. This “fake news” is fake because the extinguishment related to the Napandee farm site only and took place after the vote. The government’s Radioactive Waste Management Task Force said in a submission to a Senate Enquiry into the Site Selection Process in 2018 that "If the Minister declares land nominated under the Act as the site selected for the Facility, the Commonwealth may acquire the land or extinguish or affect existing rights and interests.”

There is a lot more to this story.  The Napandee site is just 2 kms from the extensive Pinkawillinie Conservation Park, a 130,000 hectares or 1307 sq kms native bush zone between Kimba and Wudinna, home to many state listed flora and fauna. The nearby farmland is used for broad-acre cropping and with above-ground storage, in drums, of low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste, the possibility of bushfires, especially after this year’s catastrophic fire season, cannot be eliminated.

Transportation of low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste is still prohibited by SA legislation following a more inclusive definition of waste inserted in the original Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000.  The federal government is relying on Commonwealth law taking precedence over State law to get its way.

A broad front of organisations (No Dump Alliance, the Barngarla traditional owners, the No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land in Kimba or SA committee, the Greens and local ALP member Eddie Hughes, the two Centre Alliance SA Senators, the Conservation Council, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society and others) will not let this matter rest.

To those politicians who say that a dump is needed somewhere, so it may as well be at remote Kimba, we say that the lawns outside the federal parliament would be an ideal site for an 8-metre Big Waste Drum and above-ground dump. Canberra is also a remote location – from Kimba at least.

The flawed Kimba decision is an injustice that needs to be righted.

People power will win out in the end!


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