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The government’s decision to build a nuclear waste facility in Kimba has divided the South Australian town, with detractors questioning the millions spent on building community support. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Nuclear waste site selected in SA

Former Resources minister Matt Canavan.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Last Friday night, Andrew Baldock was putting his kids to bed when his father called from overseas to say he had just spoken to the then federal Resources minister, who had good news.

After five years, Matt Canavan had chosen their 7500-hectare cereal and sheep property near Kimba, South Australia, as the site for a proposed nuclear waste storage facility.

Others might have been devastated; they were thrilled.

“It was sheer elation when I heard,” Baldock says. “I’m very, very excited about what lies ahead for Kimba. It gives me a great feeling of relief. I’m quite excited to have it on my property and see it develop, to have our kids around it and see some opportunities close to home.”

The decision means 160 hectares of the family property, Napandee, will be carved out to build a facility to store low-level and intermediate nuclear waste from 100 sites around the country.

According to Baldock, doing so will save Kimba. The 37-year-old carpenter says the facility will bring steady work, a certain future and millions of dollars to the town of 700 people on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

It will also see the government pay the Baldocks for their property, though neither the family nor the Coalition has disclosed the amount, other than to say the figure will be “four times the land value” but can also be negotiated. For his part, Andrew Baldock is quick to add that this is not about the money, but the spreading drought.

“Right now is as dry as I’ve ever seen it,” he says. “You do what you can to build reserves for these tough times, but it’s always hard when you’re in it, to see the equity eroding, see the debt growing and know the bank is coming, not knowing when but knowing they are until we see change, until we see life in the paddock again … I see it as really important for Kimba to diversify its economy where we can make sure we’re not reliant on agriculture.”

 

The search for a nuclear waste storage facility in Australia began in 1998 with the Howard government, which sought to build one at Woomera, about 450 kilometres north of Adelaide. When that plan went nowhere, the government briefly flirted with putting a facility at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, until Indigenous opposition forced a backdown in 2014.

A year later, talk returned to South Australia. While the federal proposal gathered steam, the Labor state government had captured national attention with a plan to build a storage facility that would take in nuclear waste from across the world.

Although the state plan was soundly rejected, the federal proposal remained quietly viable when Kimba’s local Liberal MP, Rowan Ramsey, offered up his farming property as a possible site. Ramsey would be joined by former Liberal senator Grant Chapman, who offered his own land near Hawker, much to the dismay of locals.

Both would later be excluded due to the obvious conflict of interest. Yet while community opposition in Hawker led to the town eventually being removed as an option, the volunteering of properties by the Baldocks and others kept Kimba in contention.

But community support was lacking. To attract that support, French mayors were flown in from Champagne to talk about the nuclear storage facilities that operate there. Interested locals were given tours of the Lucas Heights research reactor in Sydney. Lectures on nuclear science were held.

Supporters formed the view that Australia’s continued use of nuclear medicine, such as radiotherapy, meant a demand had to be filled. Opponents answered that suggesting people with cancer might not receive treatment without a nuclear waste facility in Kimba was emotional blackmail.

Those in favour fired back that the material being stored would be handled according to “world’s best practice” and would be totally safe. People in cities drive past sites laden with radioactive waste every day, they said. If so, opponents countered, then why isn’t the facility being built in the Sydney suburbs?

More serious, however, was the issue of intermediate waste. While much of the focus had been on the “low-level medical” waste – which opponents say didn’t bother them – this other material is many times more potent.

When authorities said they would use Kimba to “temporarily” house higher-grade radioactive waste for several decades “until a more permanent solution can be found”, the plan’s detractors thought it sounded like the facility was the thin end of the wedge.

Once the waste was in Kimba, why not upsize?

Hate mail was sent; bitter arguments broke out at the pub or across the dinner table. Opponents say they were increasingly excluded from social engagements and official processes.

All this reached a new climax last Saturday morning, when Matt Canavan issued a press release about his decision.

“Napandee was volunteered by the landowner, is suitable from a technical perspective, and has broad community support from those who live and work nearby,” Canavan said.

Two days later, Canavan resigned his cabinet position to back an ill-fated attempt by Barnaby Joyce to retake the Nationals leadership.

 

Kimba’s mayor, Dean Johnson, talks numbers. To date, about $55 million has been spent to find a site and build community support. It’ll be another 12 months before construction on the facility starts. There’s other legislation that needs to pass before then, as well as the risk of litigation.

More money has been promised. There is a $31 million Community Benefit Program, $8 million of which will be spent on skills, education and business training. Another $3 million will be used to fund an Indigenous heritage program. Finally, $20 million will be given to a community capital fund. The facility promises 45 full-time jobs, which Johnson insists will not be fly-in, fly-out.

The catch is that the waste dump must be built before the money flows.

“We don’t have the final figures yet, but all told it’s in the vicinity of half a billion dollars,” Johnson says. “That’s a lot of money. Yes, it is. There’s a lot of building. A lot of benefits going for Kimba, the Eyre Peninsula and South Australia. It’s a national facility so the benefits will go nationwide.”

Others, such as Barry Wakelin, aren’t so sure.

“There’s no detail about how that [$55 million] has actually been spent,” he says. “This makes sports rorts look like absolute petty cash.”

Wakelin served as the electorate’s federal Liberal MP for almost 15 years, before he was succeeded by Rowan Ramsey in 2007. For him, coming out against the facility was a “matter of principle”. The decision has seen his party turn on him.

“I didn’t want anything to do with politics when I left,” he says. “I needed this like a hole in the head, but eventually your moral conscience kicks in.

“When we saw the reaction of our friends, we said: ‘What are we doing to these people?’ We have not seen anything like that in our community. The federal government has done everything they can to belt a small community.”

Wakelin is referring to the almost 40 per cent of people in town who voted against the project in late 2019.

Among them was James Shepherdson, 48, who was on his farm when the news broke on Saturday morning. To get reception on his mobile he had to drive to the top of a nearby hill. There he learnt of Canavan’s decision – two days before a planned rally against the proposal.

“I physically started to shake when I heard the news,” Shepherdson says. “Absolute betrayal. That’s the right words, I would say.

“They took a vote – they excluded a lot of people – and only got 61 per cent. This entire time they said they needed what they called ‘broad community support’ where Canavan said that was about 65 per cent.”

Sunday’s rally drew up to 300 people, standing against the facility. While Shepherdson is determined to fight, the shearer turned farmer says he is already thinking about leaving, although not because of the danger posed by radioactive material.

Instead, he says the divide and conquer strategy the government has run to secure community support means he simply doesn’t see a future in Kimba for himself or his two kids.

“Honestly, I don’t think people in favour of this are looking at anything past their lifetime of financial assistance. I call it bribe money,” Shepherdson says. “At the end of the day, money talks.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Nuclear division". Subscribe here.

Royce Kurmelovs
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.

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