Explainer: Muckaty Station nuclear dump

Explainer: Muckaty Station nuclear dump

Plans to build a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory deeply divided the community.


A federal court challenge was recently underway with traditional owners of the land disputing the way the site was nominated. A proposed $12.2 million compensation package was also the source of much discontent in the small community near Tennant Creek.

On June 19, 2014 the court case was dismissed. The Northern Land Council said it stood by the process which led to the nomination of the land, but had decided not to go ahead. NLC chief executive Joe Morrison said that $A12 million that had been on the table from the government as compensation for the community would now not be paid.

Muckaty: the chosen land

Muckaty Station, also known as Warlmanpa land, is around 120km from the nearest town of considerable population, Tennant Creek. Originally under traditional Indigenous ownership, the area became a pastoral lease in the late 19th century, and currently operates as a cattle station. It was returned to the traditional owners in 1999. Muckaty Station covers 221,000 hectares and seven Aboriginal groups claim land within it.

In 2007 the Northern Land Council, on behalf of certain members of the local Ngapa clan traditional owners, signed a deal with the Commonwealth allowing a small part of Muckaty Station to be nominated to store low and intermediate-level nuclear waste. Fierce opposition soon erupted amongst other traditional owners who say they weren’t properly consulted and also have a claim to the land.  The Federal Court case, that was dropped on June 19, 2014, was to determine if that nomination was valid and whether the NLC violated the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

What was the radioactive plan?

The plan was to build a bunkered facility within a one kilometre security zone to store intermediate and low-level radioactive waste.

Low-level waste (LLW) – contains enough radioactive material to require action for the protection of people, but not so much that it requires shielding in handling or storage.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) – requires shielding. If it has more than 4000 Bq/g of long-lived (over 30 year half-life) alpha emitters it is categorised as “long-lived” and requires more sophisticated handling and disposal.

Nuclear waste is the material that nuclear fuel becomes after it is used in a reactor. Each year Australia produces about 45 cubic metres of radioactive wastes. There are more than 100 locations around Australia where radioactive waste is stored. This includes hospitals and medical facilities, scientific organisations, universities and industrial facilities associated with mining and petroleum. Australia has only have one nuclear reactor, the OPAL research reactor that is operated at Sydney’s Lucas Heights.

The government has been searching for a location to store intermediate and low-level radioactive waste. The Commonwealth said nuclear waste storage at Muckaty would be about the size of two football fields. This kind of ‘waste dump’ is needed until a “geological repository is eventually justified and established, or alternative arrangements made.” Some of the waste would have come from the Lucas Heights nuclear waste facility in Sydney. If the Muckaty plans had gone ahead, it would also store Australian nuclear waste due to be returned from Europe in 2014/15. Australia has international obligations to repatriate spent and reprocessed fuel rods from France by 2015.

How is nuclear waste stored overseas?

Currently the world has to handle about 12,000 tonnes of waste every year. Australia’s percentage of that is relatively small. Nuclear waste is disposed of in various ways in other countries, mainly in shallow burial. Some countries also incinerate the waste first to reduce volume.

There are waste disposal sites all across the world including Spain, France and the US. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been wanting to get waste out of surface storage and into more environmentally susatinable set ups. Some argue that Australia has the best site on the planet to bury nuclear waste. 

Overseas there have been some concerns about living near a nuclear waste dump. If radioactive contamination was released into the environment, exposure to high levels of radiation could be linked to rapid sickness and death. Residents living near nuclear waste in Germany reportedly recorded higher rates of cancer.

Who were the major players in the Muckaty dispute?

The Northern Land Council: The NLC and the Commonwealth wanted to use two square kilometres of Muckaty Station to build the nuclear waste dump. The Northern Land Council is “responsible for assisting Aboriginal peoples in the Top End of the Northern Territory to acquire and manage their traditional lands and seas.”

The Ngapa clan: Certain members of the Ngapa clan (the Lauder family) signed a deal allowing the site to be used in exchange for federal compensation. They were backed by the NLC in their claim, as the NLC recognised them as the traditional owners.

Indigenous groups opposing the plan: The Milwayi, Yapa Yapa, Ngarrka, and Wirntiku people, and certain Ngapa clans outside of the Lauder family were opposed to the plan. They said the NLC didn’t consult them properly and that the proposed site is a sacred place and was always shared land.

The Northern Territory government: The NT government doesn’t have the power to refuse the dump and has changed its position in the past few years. In November 2012 the NT Chief Minister Terry Mills reiterated his support for the nuclear dump site at Muckaty.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam: Scott Ludlam has campaigned against the proposal for years. On June 3, 2014 Senator Ludlam told Senate Estimates the eight year campaign to dump radioactive waste at Muckaty had been a “disaster.”

What was in dispute in court?

The Federal Court was discerning whether or not the Northern Land Council violated the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act when it nominated Muckaty Station as a site for the potential dumping of nuclear waste. Traditional owners said they have claim to the land which is adjacent to a sacred site and that the NLC spoke to only a few of the local traditional owners about the deal. The NLC and the Commonwealth argue that there was valid consultation and town meetings were held, but the nature of this consultation has been called into question.

Another key issue of the case was determining who owns the roughly two square kilometres which would house the dump. The Lauder family of the Ngapa clan have been acknowledged by the NLC as the traditional owners, but other clans also say the land is theirs.

What happened in the case?

What about the millions promised in compensation?

The Lauder family were paid $200,000 and promised a further financial package to pay for a road, educational scholarships and other initiatives. If the nuclear waste dump had proceeded the Commonwealth promised to provide $12 million to be distributed amongst the community in Muckaty. But this payment was also being scrutinised in court. Lawyer for the traditional owners Ron Merkel QC told the court that “not one Aboriginal person” on Muckaty Station would have any right to the compensation. The deal involved money being put into charitable trusts which opponents argued have a very wide scope. But the NLC argued that it is “common policy” for funds to be structured to “generate long-term benefits.”