Interview with ABC Radio, Adelaide
SPENCE DENNY: The federal government has decided to not appeal a decision to stop the construction of a nuclear waste facility at Kimba. This was after the Federal Court made a ruling a few weeks ago. So it’s an interesting decision. It’s been welcomed by a number of bodies, including the Conservation Council of South Australia, and also the Barngarla people have acknowledged and thanked Minister King for her statement. In fact, we will speak with a representative hopefully from the Barngarla community shortly. In the meantime, that decision was made by the federal Resources Minister Madeleine King. I spoke with her earlier when she was available.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Good afternoon, Spence. Thank you for having me on today.
SPENCE DENNY: Why have you opted to walk away?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: What the government is determined to do is to make sure there is a low-level radioactive waste facility in this country for the responsible storage but also disposal of low-level waste but also intermediate-level waste. We have not walked away from that commitment. What I have made a statement about today is that we will not appeal the judgement of the Federal Court made in July that found there was apprehended bias in the decision of the former Minister for Resources in the former government in relation to that site selection. So that is a judgement I had to make on the basis of the facts before me, and that is the decision I have made. I think tying this matter up in the court system for what could be a very long time does not progress adequately the driving force behind my decision, which is to settle on a site that’s accepted widely in the community, all of the community, whether it’s landholders, businesses, traditional owners, the whole community, to have a place that can properly be the responsible host for low-level radioactive waste in this country.
SPENCE DENNY: Nobody suggested you were walking away from the need for a facility like this. In fact, it’s abundantly clear given that we are also going into a phase where Australia is going to adopt nuclear-powered submarines. The question was why you walked away from the proposed site at Kimba. Did the political implications from potentially appealing the High Court’s decision play a part in the decision?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Spence, perhaps I misheard you, but I heard the question to say why did I walk away, and my point was I’m not walking away from anything. In relation to the site selection process, which includes Napandee and two other sites, the site declaration has been set aside by the Federal Court. This is just a matter of fact and one that I have to deal with. So, in my opinion, holding this up further in potential appeals and perhaps appeals by others as well is not the best path forward to making sure we have a site for nuclear waste in this country.
SPENCE DENNY: Would it have not been damaging to the Voice referendum if the government opted to appeal a decision given in favour of First Nations people who exercised their voice?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: I want to be absolutely clear: this decision of mine has nothing to do with the referendum on the Voice. Absolutely not. And I’ve seen others trying to conflate this decision of mine with native title law as well. And that’s also not true. I’ve also seen people trying to conflate this decision with the national conference of the Australian Labor Party. That is also so far from the truth that it’s bearing on the unhinged. Now, people can make all these statements they want. I don’t mind freedom of speech. I’m a total supporter of it. But what everyone should understand – and I hope your listeners understand – is that the Barngarla people went to the court on the basis of the decision and the decision-making process. It did not turn on whether they had an ongoing legal interest in the land. And I might add, anyone with an interest in this decision could have brought this action. It could have been one of the number of farmers I spoke to that might not have land bordering right on the Napandee site but did have land proximate to it. They could have done this. They chose not to or maybe they are still considering it; I really don’t know and I can’t speak for them. But the point is: this is about people being able to have judicial review and a decision of government. And the Barngarla people had questions about the decision. They quite rightly exercised their right as anyone else can to judicial review. They did it and the judge found that there was apprehended bias in the former minister’s decision.
SPENCE DENNY: Well, according to the Nationals Leader David Littleproud, the federal government didn’t rule against the site but set aside a ministerial decision on administrative grounds. And the court didn’t rule on the merits of the project nor the viability of the site.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: They ruled on the site declaration, and that has been set aside. That is correct. So they have said there was apprehended bias in the decision. So my decision is that I won’t appeal that because I – in my opinion, there’s limited chances of success. But, more importantly, any appeal then ties up the progress of finding a site for low-level nuclear active waste – radioactive waste, sorry, in this country even longer. So if you appeal this decision, if I chose to appeal this decision then we do have to stop progress on whatever works are happening right now. That would be the fair and right thing to do. So we come to another impasse in this long process. And, you know, I – no one likes making a decision that’s unpopular with particular groups. I sure don’t; it’s not much fun at all. But we do have to. I have to as a minister, act in the national interest, and that is what I believe I have done.
SPENCE DENNY: Well, clearly your decision has been welcomed by the Barngarla people and also by the Conservation Council. Let’s talk about the community at Kimba. It’s a set of events that has divided this community for a long, long time. What do you say to those who supported the proposal?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, I say now and I said in my statement today I’m really sorry for the length of time this has taken and the uncertainty that their community has gone through. You know, I think one can argue that this has been a process that has been very long, has injected a lot of uncertainty into many communities, Kimba especially. And I agree, and I said in my statement, I take my hat off to those in the community that sought to diversify their economy through this. But – and they are not to blame for the problems in the process of the federal government. Absolutely not. This is not their fault. But there were issues in the federal process of making the site selection, which the judge in the Federal Court in Adelaide has highlighted. So to them, I say, again, I’m sorry for the uncertainty they’ve lived with. The people of Kimba, I went there in January and had long discussions with those that support this project and those that do not support this project. There is, you know, division in the community and, you know, I’ve had accusations about saying that there will be more division in the community. And clearly, I do not want for that to happen, and I hope that that does not. But, you know, I also think regional communities do band together and that is what I expect and hope will happen in Kimba.
SPENCE DENNY: You are listening to ABC Radio Adelaide South Australia and Broken Hill, speaking with federal Resources Minister Madeleine King in the wake of the decision by her for the Federal Government to formally abandon plans to build a low-level nuclear waste dump near Kimba at the top of Eyre Peninsula. Minister, does the federal government own this parcel of land?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yes, it does.
SPENCE DENNY: How much have you spent on the proposal so far?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: I don’t have those figures to hand, and I’ve no doubt they will become available, and it is regularly pursued in Senate estimates, those figures.
SPENCE DENNY: What are you going to do with the land?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: That is a matter we have to look into, absolutely. What I am doing with the land right now is making sure it remains safe, that any site characterisation activities cease and that any changes that were made in the past year since – or year or so since the declaration, are fully remediated and that it will be monitored, the land, to make sure that any cultural heritage or other items remain safe. So that’s what we’re doing right now, and we will also, with the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency – which, I might add, this government funded, when the last government did not fund after the last budget – that agency will be looking into options and are doing so urgently and promptly.
SPENCE DENNY: Okay. Let’s go to the obvious question: where does it leave the federal government in the search for another site to store low-level nuclear waste?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: That’s a very good question. Of course, we have to go through those options with the agency responsible. And it’s a good team of experts and we will be pursuing that. We know this is an urgent matter. And it’s been a long time in the making and, as I said, and I know the Leader of the Nationals quoted my words, I thought the site declaration was a step forward when it was made in 2021. And I stand by those words. The judgement is a different step, and it does alter the progress on this matter. But in my opinion, we need to look for different options to come up with a better solution to this problem, which is not going to go away, and it’s not going to go away for thousands of years. And I entirely accept that, and I entirely accept that it is the responsibility of the government to manage this properly.
SPENCE DENNY: If you can’t find somewhere for this medical waste, how are you going to find a facility for spent reactors from nuclear subs?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: There is no doubt dealing with radioactive waste across all levels has been very challenging in this country. Absolutely. And, you know, that is something the Defence Minister and I will work together on.
SPENCE DENNY: Okay. So, how are you going to find another site?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, as I said before, Spence, we’re going to speak with the agency. They are currently looking into different options. You know, this is surmountable. And I know given the time it’s taken it might seem that it’s not, but it is possible to build a facility to store low-level radioactive waste in this country. And right now we actually have them, right? It’s just not sustainable in the very long term. And that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. What we need to do is have a consultation process that includes more people. And I think my experience in dealing in the resources sector from before I was Resources Minister but certainly since I have been in that position for over a year is that resources companies do this really very well, to be able to establish mines and mine sites and so forth. They negotiate with Indigenous people right from the very start as the traditional owners of the land. And I think that is a critical part of this activity and this pursuit. And that’s what I’m determined to do, rather than an approach that might leave them left out. That just doesn’t help.
SPENCE DENNY: Right. So if it’s such a simple process –
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: No, no; I’m not saying it’s simple. Not at all.
SPENCE DENNY: Well, okay. Okay, well let’s talk about a potential time frame then. What is the time frame for the federal government to find somewhere else?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Oh, no, I can’t put a time frame on it. I am seeking advice from the agency. They are looking at options, but we know it is a matter of urgency.
SPENCE DENNY: Are we talking a decade? Are we talking 20 years, seven years? What are we talking about?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: It will take time. But, you know, the facilities where low-level waste is are safe. But I agree, that’s not the long-term future for that waste. It does need to be in accordance with international best practice, at a particular site. And I’ll remind listeners that the proposal of the former government involved not following international best practice by transporting intermediate-level waste, which is another level of seriousness, all the way from New South Wales to South Australia to be stored above ground, not even in, you know, stable geological ground, for an indeterminant amount of time to go to an undetermined place. So that was the former government’s position. And I think that’s unacceptable. So as soon as I came into government as minister we set up our agency on the process of investigating what the permanent disposal options are for intermediate-level waste. So a lot of work has been going on in the last year on that topic, maybe not so much before that time.
SPENCE DENNY: Let’s just finish off with how the community of Kimba is affected by this. Is there the potential there for people who’ve invested in Kimba anticipating that there was going to be some economic benefit for that part of the top of Eyre Peninsula to seek compensation?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Look, I’m not sure about that. I’m afraid – I think I’ve got a division, Spence, so I’m going to have to go in a moment. But I would say that the Kimba community has been very engaged with the process. They benefit from the community benefit program to the tune of $4.6 million. Obviously, I hope that any investment that has occurred continues to occur and that the community can be sustained. We know it’s one of the best agricultural areas in the country and, you know, I do hope we’re able to continue to engage with them because I know this is a difficult time for the people of Kimba. I don’t know if you can hear the bells, Spence, but I really have to go, I’m afraid.
SPENCE DENNY: Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King, thank you.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Thank you. Bye.