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Shorten offers qualified support for N-dump

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Labor insiders are mobilising support for a South Australian nuclear waste dump, as federal leader Bill Shorten today dramatically turned the debate on its head, expressing qualified support for the findings of the Scarce Royal Commission.

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Shorten initially greeted Jay Weatherill’s establishment of the inquiry with scepticism, re-stating his party’s “longstanding position [against] nuclear power based on the best available expert advice”.

But now that the commission has broadly rejected Australia’s involvement in nuclear power production or uranium enrichment, Shorten – in Adelaide today – was surprisingly upbeat about the prospects of a high-level waste dump, provided it met safety concerns and carried community support.

The Opposition Leader responded testily to a media question that presupposed his stance on a waste repository, saying: “You haven’t asked me a question on what I think about that.”

“I support having the royal commission, and I think the tentative findings are an important addition to the knowledge about our future nuclear waste storage in this country,” Shorten continued.

“Federal Labor has always said we do support safe storage of low-grade nuclear waste.”

On the question of high-level waste, he insisted “Jay Weatherill and I are of one mind”.

“We need a sensible analysis… we’ve got to make sure the numbers stack up, the environmental safeguards stack up and the community supports it,” he said.

The support of federal Labor is significant, as the national party – long ideologically opposed to the nuclear industry – loomed as the major stumbling block to the Scarce report’s insistence that bipartisan consensus at both state and federal levels was a prerequisite to pursuing a repository.

Weatherill himself is remaining publicly circumspect, batting away questions about the economic opportunities of an enterprise the commission found could boost the state economy by billions each year.

“That’s certainly the perspective of some people [but] you won’t have heard government spokespeople saying those things,” the Premier responded when asked on ABC radio about the lofty rhetoric being pushed by nuclear proponents.

But his own caucus whip, Tom Kenyon, has conspicuously refused to follow that script, penning a robust endorsement of the Commission’s findings in InDaily today.

“I’ve been arguing for this concept for quite a long time, that we should take spent fuel and charge a lot of money for it, and use that money to build infrastructure,” Kenyon said.

“The Royal Commission has confirmed my view that that is feasible – and confirmed it in quite spectacular style.

“I think given there’s a community debate about this now, this is something that’s worth doing.

“You can’t have a debate without both sides – or even many sides – of the debate being put – I’m happy to put mine.”

Kenyon said he was not in conflict with the Premier in his open endorsement, as “I’m not the one who has to make a decision.”

“The most influential decision-making body in the state is the cabinet, and I’m not in the cabinet,” said the former minister, who stepped down after the 2014 election citing family reasons.

“The cabinet is right to keep its powder dry and preserve the debate [but] I have a bit more freedom to put one side of the argument,” Kenyon said.

“There are plenty of people advocating for this not to happen… I don’t think you can have a community debate with only one side of the argument out there.”

Weatherill said it was important to “first slow this down and make sure that the whole community feels that they’ve got a genuine opportunity to get involved in this decision”.

“This isn’t one of those decisions where governments wake up one day and say ‘yeah we’re going nuclear’… this is something that is going to affect the next 100 years, so it needs to be given deep consideration and that’s why we’ve got such a long and extensive process,” he said.

Despite the emergence of a potential political consensus, the Premier’s caution was highlighted by the response of Aboriginal elders, who today accused authorities of paying lip service to traditional owners’ fears about a proposed waste dump in the South Australian outback.

Australian Nuclear Free Alliance co-chair and Kokatha-Mula woman Sue Coleman-Haseldine says the proposal threatens her people’s spiritual health.

“We can’t survive in this world without our culture and the land is the main part of that. We’ve got sacred sites, we’ve got Dreamtime stories out there,” she said.

“We don’t seem to be able to get this through the Government’s heads, the people’s heads. All they see is the dollar signs.”

Coleman-Haseldine said the commission’s findings cherry picked favourable Aboriginal views.

“If we’re not ‘yes’ people, we’re not going to be listened to. There’s people who say `yes, give us the money’ without a thought for mankind’s future,” she said.

Arabunna man Kevin Buzzacott said his people had an obligation to respect the land and preserve it for future generations.

He said he was particularly concerned about the risk of contamination.

“You have to get the stuff there, transfer it from A to B, and that’s not safe. If you have an accidental spillage, then that area’s contaminated,” he said.

“I don’t know what these people are trying to do to [our] people and country.”

The report’s author, former Governor Kevin Scarce, has insisted on board community support for any proposals, while Weatherill insists he will “put people before money”.

“There’s no amount of money or benefit that would persuade me… to go down this path if it couldn’t be found to be safe,” he said.

-with Georgie Moore, AAP

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