The Guardian • Issue #2047

Nuclear waste in South Australia

A saga of mismanagement and First Nations suffering

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2047

CPA members marked Hiroshima Day 2012 with a banner drop. Photo: CPA

Holding the largest single deposit of uranium anywhere in the world located at Olympic Dam, inevitably, South Australia has been set on the road to involvement with the nuclear industry worldwide. Uranium was first discovered in South Australia at Radium Hill 1906. Since then, apart from mining at Radium Hill and Olympic Dam, there have been atomic weapon tests at Maralinga and rocket firing at Woomera. In addition, there have been restoration attempts at Maralinga in the wake of radioactive contamination and, currently, radioactive waste storage at Woomera on federal government “owned” land.


During the past century for South Australia the fortunes of the radioactive materials industry have fluctuated, but with steady production, between 2000 and 2021 the value of uranium exports from South Australia amounted to $6.7 billion. However, along with this “achievement” comes an implied obligation to receive spent nuclear material for storage as part of a developing involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. In fact, during this recent period suggestions were being made in SA, in particular to Labor Party members, that rivers of nuclear waste could become rivers of financial gold for the SA economy as a result of deeper involvement in the nuclear fuel industry. The logistics of the necessary handling and storage processes involved were conveniently lacking in detail, as only the supposed financial benefits were emphasised.

Consequently, an enquiry was sought to address what could be seen as partly a political problem with the state government examining the issue in 2016 when former governor Kevin Scarce, a retired rear admiral, headed a royal commission that recommended the creation of a nuclear waste storage industry in SA.


Since the Maralinga tests conducted by the United Kingdom in 1966 and 1967, South Australia has been facing a significant imposed waste management challenge mainly focused on the Maralinga site. Besides this, there has arisen the human factor which involves not only military personnel from two nations, but more especially miners, for instance from Radium Hill, local inhabitants, notably the true Australian owners of the land and most vulnerable group, the Maralinga Tjarutja people. Miners families have suffered increased rates of lung cancer, stillbirths and higher mortality. In the case of the Maralinga people, many received no warning of the imminent nuclear testing due to cursory pre-testing surveys of the area involved. Post-testing, many have suffered a wide range of serious reactions ranging from flu-like symptoms to blindness, and higher cancer mortality rates.

A commentary on Maralinga by the National Museum of Australia contains this disturbing revelation:

A letter from Alan Butement, Chief Scientist, Commonwealth Department of Supply, to Walter MacDougall’s manager in 1956 stated, “Your memorandum discloses a lamentable lack of balance in Mr McDougall’s outlook, in that he is apparently placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

According to The Nuclear Chain, “The people, whose health has been compromised for the production of nuclear weapons, they are also Hibakusha.” *

Predictably, secrecy levels were strict for the personnel involved. At the risk of imprisonment, “nuclear veteran,”Avon Hudson, virtually became a whistle blower during the 1970s with revelations of inadequate restoration procedures at Maralinga which led to the McLelland Royal Commission (1984–1985). This inquiry exposed not only “significant residual contamination” of the country, but also the deliberate subjection of British and Australian servicemen to fallout from the blasts in order to study “radiological effects.” Pilots with inadequate protective gear were ordered to fly through the mushroom cloud as sampling exercises.

As a result of a claim by the traditional owners of poisoning by the tests, in 1994 the Australian government reached a compensation settlement with $13.5 million in settlement with the Maralinga Tjarutja people. As a result of studies by an international multi-disciplinary team it was found that plutonium contamination had persisted in the desert environment despite two major clean-up attempts.


Currently, 10 000 drums of mainly low level nuclear waste is being stored at the Woomera Rocket Range, a location principally being used for the testing of such items as missiles, aircraft weapons, drone aircraft, and rockets. The rocket range, the land of ten Aboriginal groups: Maralinga Tjarutja, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yunkunytjatjara, Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Arabana, Gawler Ranges, and Kokatha peoples, is technically held under a crown lease from the SA government to the Department of Defence. Continued waste storage at Woomera seems a distinct possibility; however, transport requirements need to be taken into account. In the past the Port Adelaide CPA Branch has staged protests opposing the shipment of radioactive material through Port Adelaide. As an alternative to Woomera, the proposed Kimba site, possibly for high level waste, has been staunchly challenged in the federal Court by the area’s traditional owners, the Barngarla people.

In the 1990s the Royal Australian Air Force realised that Woomera possessed one key advantage in that it was the only land-based test range within the nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) large enough for the testing of the new generation of weaponry required for Australia’s headlong rush to militarisation, as well as to meet nuclear waste storage obligations.

Current militaristic developments, such as purchasing nuclear powered submarines and AUKUS involvement stand out among the key pressures now linking Australia even more tightly with the international nuclear fuel cycle, whereby South Australia seems targeted to become the national, if not an international, nuclear waste dump.

* Hibakusha – a Japanese word referring to a “bomb affected person.”
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