As I drove down Mona Vale Road this week on a visit to Sydney, I began to wonder what would have happened if the tanker involved in last week's fatalities had been transporting nuclear waste. It is not a fanciful thought because that is the present federal proposal: trucking nuclear waste through Sydney streets to a new national storage facility thousands of kilometres away in central Australia.
The accident made me question yet again the sense of that proposal. Is one site for low- and medium-level nuclear waste preferable to many local? Does storing the waste in remote Australia make it safer, more secure? What are the known dangers inherent in nuclear waste storage? We need to discuss these issues.
I became part of the nuclear waste storage issue when I was chief minister of the Northern Territory, but the story starts before that. In the 1980s, scientists were charged with finding a site to build a national nuclear waste facility. Then and now, each state and territory had been locally storing their own nuclear waste. The new proposal was to store that waste and any waste returned from overseas in one place, safely and securely.
In 1998, land near Woomera in South Australia was named. The South Australian government and the local Aboriginal people rejected the nomination. A legislative battle ensued between Commonwealth and state. Eventually South Australia won. The Howard government, facing an election, declared that all plans for Woomera were off.
South Australia had effectively used its constitutional muscle to defeat the Commonwealth. But where a state could fight the Commonwealth, a territory could not. John Howard turned north. He abandoned all the previous research and its recommendations, and in 2005 declared that a nuclear waste facility would be built in the Northern Territory. He chose three sites, not for their suitability but because they were owned by the Commonwealth.
I was chief minister at the time and was shocked at Howard's contempt for us. No discussion with me, no scientific evidence to back his decision. He was simply going to force the territory to take Australia's nuclear waste. Our Parliament unanimously passed legislation that banned the transport and storage of this nuclear waste on territory land. The Howard government hit back, as I knew it would.
The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 was a draconian piece of legislation that took overriding the territory to a new level. It gave the Commonwealth all the powers it needed to build a nuclear waste facility anywhere in the territory. Environment and heritage laws could be set aside, so could the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. This time Howard was determined to remove all possible resistance.
I argued that this was constitutional thuggery but my protests fell on deaf ears. My state colleagues developed temporary deafness as well. I could understand their logic; their state backyards were safe.
I took my case to Canberra. I argued the dangers of transporting nuclear waste thousands of kilometres across Australia's roads and railway lines. I pointed out the difficulties of maintaining security of the waste in such remote areas. I kept returning to my central argument: that the site of such a nuclear waste facility should be determined by science, not by constitutional muscle. The territory, I said, would accept such a scientific determination.
But my arguments were sideswiped by an unexpected proposal. In September 2007, a small group of the traditional owners of Muckaty Station near Tennant Creek offered their land for the nuclear waste facility. Howard was delighted. The nomination was accepted.
However, that delight was premature. Questions were immediately raised about the legitimacy of those traditional owners to make such a decision. They were just one group within the Muckaty Land Trust. Other families had not only not been consulted but also strongly disagreed with the nuclear waste proposal. Their protest since has been loud, clear and unfailing. Their only course was legal action and six years later these determined Aboriginal Territorians are still arguing their case in the Federal Court.
In federal Parliament, the debate over nuclear waste storage and Muckaty has been sad to watch. At a time when the two major parties struggled to find common ground on myriad issues, there was no disagreement here. Except for the Greens, there was one voice. The Northern Territory and Muckaty Station was the nuclear waste solution.
So we arrive at October 2013 and are no closer to a decision on where to build this nuclear waste facility. What we have witnessed has been a tawdry chain of events: science abandoned, the constitutional weakness of the territory exploited and a small Aboriginal community in central Australia fighting and bitterly divided.
It says to me that we need to question yet again whether a national nuclear waste facility is needed. Does it make sense to transport low- and medium-level nuclear waste from all parts of Australia and the world to central Australia? Just what are the dangers of doing that? What would an accident mean? If a petrol tanker can cause such a tragedy, what might happen with a load of nuclear waste?
For the new Abbott government, it is most certainly time to ''fix the waste''.
Clare Martin is a former chief minister of the Northern Territory.