The tiny town where Scott Morrison is building a nuclear dump
[Theme music starts]
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
The federal government has announced that a tiny town in South Australia will house the country’s first nuclear dump. The decision has bitterly divided the community - with protests, hate mail, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. Today - Royce Kurmelovs on the question of where we store our nuclear waste… and the future of rural towns.
[Theme music ends]
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:
“Two farmers in Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula have put forward their properties to house the nuclear waste dump.”
Archival Tape ---- Andrew Baldock:
“The longer it’s there the more jobs we have, is the way I see it. I don’t see it as being a concern. Currently the waste is sitting in Sydney, where I think there's roughly 2 million people that live within a 20km radius of it. There is about a hundred people living within a 20km radius of this.”
So Royce, when was it officially decided that Kimba would be the place for this nuclear dump?
So just over a week ago, the then-resources minister, Matt Canavan, released a press release. It was a Saturday morning and the press release basically described how Kimba had been chosen as the location, and specifically the property owned by the family of Jeff Baldock would be the site where the facility will be built.
Royce Kurmelovs writes for The Saturday Paper.
And his son, Andrew Baldock, who I spoke to, is pretty happy about the decision,
Archival Tape --Andrew Baldock:
“I find it amazing that we are going to be involved in this, and that Kimba is going to play a part that we're going to be linked to Australia's medical treatment and the research side of things. And we need it.”
He sees this as a symbol of hope for the town. He believes that it will ensure Kimba’s future.
Archival Tape -- Andrew:
“I moved home originally in the mid to early 2000’s and we had a terrible run in the millennium drought, and I left and vowed I’d never come back again.
We've just seen a steady decline over time, which hopefully this will put a halt to it.
It will be quite exciting to watch it happen out in the back paddock and they’ll have construction of a facility worth in excess of $200-300 million.”
So Royce, tell me about the town of Kimba.
Yeah, so Kimba is a town in South Australia. It's not a very well-known place. It’s not a very big place either. About 700 people live there.
I mean, if you threw a dart on the map, you would never hit it. It's about a five hour drive north west of Adelaide, sitting on the Eyre Peninsula.
It's also a huge agricultural community. So its primary business is growing food. And lately, the place has been struggling. It's been in a drought for the last three years, which has meant that people have had to look for something else to kind of shore up their livelihoods and try and find something a bit more stable to depend on as the seasons break down.
So, nuclear waste could be a solution then, but what is it exactly that would be stored in Kimba?
So while Australia doesn't have any nuclear power itself, we do have a nuclear research reactor at a place called Lucas Heights in Sydney.
We do rely on nuclear power as part of medical research and applications in terms of radiotherapy. And this stuff generates waste as with any nuclear process.
And this waste comes in different forms, sometimes it's low level waste in the form of gloves, gowns, equipment that's been irradiated. But then it can also be intermediate level waste, which is much higher. It's the kind of stuff that gets used in nuclear reactors and it's a much more of an industrial product.
And currently this stuff has been left sitting on sites around the country, and it's been left to kind of build up sometimes in car parks, sometimes in sheds and warehouses. So the government has essentially been looking for a place to store this for nearly 20 years now.
Their first attempt started when the Howard government was looking for a place to store intermediate level waste and settled on Woomera in South Australia.
That proposal didn't really go anywhere when South Australia banned the storage of nuclear waste within its borders in 2004.
And since then, other sites have been proposed.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:
“The question of where to permanently store Australia's nuclear waste has felt about as radioactive as the material itself.”
There was an attempt, for instance, to store nuclear waste on a site in the Northern Territory, but that buckled in the face of a lot of opposition from indigenous communities
who, you know, rightfully didn't want this on a land that they share a close bond with.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #2:
“For nine years we fought the federal government on imposing nuclear waste dumps in the Northern Territory, we begged you to talk to us on country and you never did. Well guess what? We whipped your asses.”
And in recent times, the proposal to build the nuclear waste dump has returned to South Australia.
In the last few years, it then zeroed in on to Kimba specifically, where much of the focus has been.
OK, so how did people in Kimba initially respond to the idea of there being a waste dump in their town?
So it has been a five year process, and initially the people of Kimba were divided. The idea of putting a radioactive waste dump in the middle of agricultural land scared people.
So there were two votes that were taken within Kimba on this issue. The most recent vote on this was taken in November 2019, when 60 percent of the community said that they would be in favor of building a facility in the town, while 40 percent said they would prefer it not to be.
Depending who you ask there, it is a contentious subject because this vote did exclude people. It excluded the Barngarla people who are the local indigenous people. It excluded certain people who might have been neighbours who have been beyond the boundaries of the town. And in doing so, the opponents say, well, it’s not quite inclusive of everyones opinion and the people who should be taken into account weren’t.
Archival Tape --Unidentified Woman #1:
“Myself as a Barngarla person, it’s sad that we were given back our land only to be told that we don’t have a voice, we can’t say anything.”
As this conversation has progressed about what to do, it's gradually turned toxic. People have been reported being sent hate mail, being given death threats, having arguments in pubs or over the dinner table.
Archival Tape --Unidentified Woman #2:
“Everytime I drive into town and I cross the welcome sign, it breaks my heart to see how the community has been affected.”
It's divided into friends and family and relationships. Some people will even cross the street rather than, you know, have to engage with someone who disagrees with them on this issue. The announcement has led to hundreds of people protesting on the streets of Kimba.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:
“The job of this department was to find the most appropriate location, which does exist somewhere in Australia. But we are telling you now, Mr Canavan, that it sure is not Kimba!”
We’ll be back in a moment
So Royce, were talking about Kimba, the town that has been selected for a nuclear waste dump. What is it specifically about this waste that people in Kimba are worried about?
The people who are against say, hold on. We're not exactly opposed to the low level nuclear waste, but this intermediate level stuff is much more potent and much more problematic. And the timescales this is operating across are beyond human comprehension. We may be around for a hundred years, but the material itself may be around for potentially thousands.
One of the biggest concerns is the idea that this is the thin end of a wedge. The idea being that if you put this put this material within Kimba and you start off with something lower level, over time, someone will get the idea to scale up, the facility will be expanded and then other forms of waste will be moved to the site.
Ok so is the federal government doing anything to try and address locals concerns?
In short, the federal government has been promising a whole lot of money.
So in order to kind of build community support and to try and get people to agree to this, $55 million dollars has been spent trying to encourage people to try to educate people, essentially.
This is a program which includes arranging visits for a group of mayors from France and the Champagne region where similar facilities operate, to come to Australia to talk about what happened there.
People have been flown from Kimba to Lucas Heights to have tours of the facility and see how it operates.
People have had lectures in the science of nuclear physics. So people have had to learn a lot about this to kind of assuage some of the safety concerns that they have to deal with.
And then there's the community benefits program?
So, the $31 million dollar community benefits program is on top of the $55 million that's already been spent to convince the community to embrace this opportunity.
And it's also on top of the a couple hundred million dollars that is going to be spent to actually build the facility itself.
The catch is that for this money to you paid, the facility first has to be built.
So you don't get that money if the facility doesn't get built at all,
Ok so if the facility is built, then - and obviously the government has now acquired land for it - and this extra $31 million dollars does come to Kimba, what would it be spent on?
Primarily, it’s going to be used to build infrastructure, so things like a new school, GP clinics. That's anything the community wants of an infrastructure nature, stuff that they probably should have already had.
It’s a lot of money for a town of 700 people, and some of the people within the town have said that maybe this isn't the best idea.
I spoke to Barry Wakelin, who was the former Liberal MP for the area, who has come out actually against the proposal.
His concerns were the way that this process has been managed from the beginning. And one of his objections has been the amount of money that's been spent,
Archival Tape -- Barry Wakelin:
“We are told, over the last four years, it's between $40-$50 million dollars and we have no detail on that whatsoever. If you need that much money to convince Kimba that it should take it, you have to ask the other question, why?”
The other side of this, as well, is that the people who have been critical see a lot of money being offered to people to sway their views that has deeply divided a town which is facing drought and is looking for a way out.
Archival Tape --Barry Wakelin:
“They’ve no interest in our people whatsoever, other than throwing money at them, hoping they can be bribed. And I think it’s a disgraceful way to run our affairs.”
So the hostility within the town has grown so deep, some, like farmer James Sheperadson, have said they are already thinking about leaving. They don’t see how the hostility can be overcome.
Archival Tape -- James Sheperadson:
“I’ll be thinking very seriously about selling my farm and moving my family to a community that is far more cohesive. There's just classic examples of division here, you see it everyday, it’s very very sad.”
James Shepherdson described the fallout from this very bitter discussion within the town about whether to have this facility built as something that is hit them personally. James’ mental health has suffered and he's experienced social isolation and he feels ostracised, sometimes, from the community.
Archival Tape --James Sheperadson:
“I can’t view it as anything but bribe money. I believe there's been a plan to target a small community that is very tight knit, we’ve been through a lot of turmoil previously…”
So Royce, Kimba residents are obviously facing a really difficult decision here about the future of their town. Broadly speaking, what do you think that this tells us about the dilemma that's at the heart of a lot of regional Australia?
In many ways, it's a hyper local story of a conversation that communities around the country are having, especially in regional Australia.
In other towns and other places, this may be a conversation about a coal mine, about an iron ore mine, about some other major project. And we're seeing this play out again and again and again.
Many are already facing the effects of climate change, the effects of droughts. Many towns are having water trucked in. Many are watching as the climate that they've come to depend on for so long shifts and the crops they used to grow no longer work in that environment.
And many are looking for a way out. In a lot of ways, It's come back to a devil's bargain. When the federal government comes knocking and starts offering a lot of money to set up a facility that promises, at least on the face of it, stable, long term work, that option starts to seem very attractive. But then that also needs to be balanced against the long term consequences, at least for the people who oppose it. You're still dealing with a product that is fundamentally toxic, that has a long lifespan, that will be here for a very long time on a scale that humans can't comprehend.
Royce, thanks so much for your time today.
Ruby, thank you so much for having me.
Also in the news;
There are now 175 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which is currently docked in Yokohama in Japan. The number of Australian passengers who’ve been infected has risen to 15, however all are reportedly recovering and in a stable condition.
And all four of the prosecutors involved in the criminal case against former Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone have resigned after the President criticised the sentence that they recommended.
Stone was found guilty of obstructing justice and witness tampering. The Justice Department prosecutors recommended seven to nine years in prison - a recommendation President Trump criticised as a “miscarriage of justice”.
Additional reporting for today’s episode was by Elle Marsh, our features and field producer. Elle’s position is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Additional audio from Kimba is by Kim Mavromatis and the ABC.
I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See ya tomorrow.
The Morrison government has bought part of a farm in Kimba, South Australia, where it intends to build a nuclear waste dump. Millions have been spent trying to secure community support – but some see this as a bribe and say the risks to health and land are too great.
Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper Royce Kurmelovs.
7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
More episodes from Royce Kurmelovs