Yellow nuclear radiation warning signs are scattered across South Australia’s landscape. Modern symbols of Indigenous dispossession, they mark weapons test sites, uranium mines and radioactive uranium mine tailings dumps. Not even the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is spared. The state is littered with the debris of government policies that jeopardise human health and the environment in order to make a buck or enhance military influence. And it’s a constant fight to make sure no new signs are needed.

The latest battle in that war centres on Kimba, a small town on the Eyre Peninsula which is also home to the Barngarla people. The federal government has announced that the town will be the location for a new nuclear waste dump. Waste from Lucas Heights (and other sites, such as the Woomera Test Range) will be transported by road to Kimba and stored in an above-ground facility in the agricultural region. Long-lived, “intermediate-level” waste – a serious hazard capable of poisoning land and people if exposed – will be stored there. In France and elsewhere, the same material is classified as high-level waste.

James Shepherdson is a Kimba resident and anti-dump activist. One of his concerns is the risk inherent in transporting the waste. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to transport intermediate-level waste 1,700 kilometres across the country, on the highway, in the traffic”, he says. James refers to an accident in 1980, when a truck transporting nuclear waste rolled on the Old Pacific Highway, spilling 4.5 tons of dangerous material. The waste was buried by the roadside and the incident was covered up. In 2012, road workers unearthed the radioactive waste, later suffering nausea, vomiting and sore throats.

This dump will be above-ground because it is supposedly temporary, pending the eventual creation of a deep geological repository at a different site. But the plan is vague and distant. “I don’t trust the government”, another Kimba resident says. The announcement opens a new chapter in a long-running story of government arrogance and manipulation in relation to this dump proposal. For years, the facility has been sold to locals as the key to creating jobs and saving the town from decay. But you don’t have to look far to find resentment about a “consultation” process widely seen as designed to quash opposition.

“There has been no transparency”, James says. “As soon as we did our own research and asked the difficult questions, we were basically ignored. The conversation went along the lines of how great this facility was going to be for this area, while they absolutely disregarded our questions. It was all spin.”

While ignoring hard questions, the government has run a campaign to “educate” residents out of their supposedly irrational bias against waste. The media have played their part in this propagandising. James is frustrated at the ABC for downplaying numbers at a recent anti-dump rally and for promoting pro-dump voices “telling [locals] we just need to get over it ... The ABC has been sprinkled with magic government dust too”. Sure enough, when I tune in to the local ABC station in the days after the dump announcement, I get an earful from Hefin Griffiths, chief nuclear officer at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. With calculated dullness, Griffiths tells us we have nothing to worry about.

This, combined with the government’s promise of $31 million, seems to have won over much of the town. The implication is that people only have the right to basic services and infrastructure if they accept dangerous waste. Will they be left to rot if they refuse?

Most residents voted “yes” to the dump in a community ballot last year. But there is plenty of dissent. Toni Scott is an organiser of the recent anti-nuclear rally and secretary of No Radioactive Waste Facility for Kimba District. She is sceptical of government claims: “They’re saying there’ll be 45 jobs, but facilities of equivalent size overseas are staffed with two people. It’s hard to trust that we’re getting all the information”. Nonetheless, “half the community [is] cheering that they’re going to get some money and some jobs”. 

The appearance of democracy belies the reality. One town has been bribed with $31 million while the rest of the country, many of whom will be potentially affected, gets no say. “It’s a disgrace that they’re leaving the decision up to a very small community”, Toni argues. “It’s going to affect a lot more than just Kimba.”

The Barngarla people, on whose land the waste will be dumped, have likewise had their rights trampled. The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation conducted its own poll and delivered a resounding “no” vote. A legal challenge against the ballot’s exclusion of the Eyre Peninsula’s Barngarla community was dismissed in the Federal Court, despite the Barngarla people holding native title in the area. But a new case is being mounted. As a spokesperson explained to Red Flag: “The ballot only returned a yes vote to the radioactive waste facility, because our votes were not included ... It is sad in the 21stcentury that Aboriginal people have had to go to court for the right to vote”.

The process has aroused distrust and suspicion among people like Toni. “I don’t trust that it will remain what they say it is”, she says. “I definitely think that there is an ulterior motive, and that this could lead on to other projects.” This dump may act to further normalise the nuclear industry, providing a foot in the door for the authorities’ longer term ambitions. Local suspect these include an international high-level dump, such as that proposed by former premier Jay Weatherill, and the possibility of commercial nuclear power generation. James echoes the suspicion: “It doesn’t make any sense unless there’s some ulterior motive. It can only make you speculate: why, why, why?”

Kimba locals I spoke to share a sense of stress and exhaustion. They have been fighting an uphill battle for five years. But there is also a determination that their fight will continue, that this is “a long way from a done deal”. There is reason for hope – over the decades the government has been pushing for this dump, it has been defeated at Woomera, Muckaty and Barndioota. Between 300 and 500 people were at the towns recent anti-dump protest. “It was a really great turnout in a little remote town to have supporters come from all over the Eyre Peninsula ... all the people who haven’t had the opportunity to have their say”, Toni says.

James thinks the mood is shifting: “Other South Australians, particularly the wider Eyre Peninsula, are starting to get wind of just how suspicious this is ... This has only restored conviction in my mind that this is so wrong. The fight has definitely not stopped, we’re not going to just get over it”.