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Erin Brockovich weighs into SA's nuclear waste debate

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Environmental campaigner and Adelaide Festival of Ideas guest speaker Erin Brockovich has added her voice to SA’s international nuclear waste dump debate, saying there is no way she would want one in her backyard.

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In an interview with InDaily ahead of her appearance at the festival this weekend, Brockovich – who became known worldwide after her story was dramatised in a 2000 Hollywood film starring Julia Roberts – told InDaily that how to dispose of the world’s hazardous waste was “the $64,000 question”.

“We simply cannot continue to use our waterways and environment to dispose of our waste and leave citizens as guinea pigs to wait and see the outcome of health impacts from polluting,” she said.

“With our advanced technologies and cooperation from our governments, we must find ways to dispose of hazardous waste.”

Although the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report released earlier this year found South Australia had the attributes and capability to safely manage and dispose of used international nuclear fuel, its recommendation that the state should pursue a nuclear waste dump has proven controversial. A rally opposing any kind of nuclear waste dump in SA drew hundreds of protesters to the steps of Parliament House on Saturday.

Brockovich did not say whether she will address the issue of the state’s nuclear future at the Festival of Ideas, but said there were many things to consider, including potential effects on the environment and on public health and welfare. When radioactive materials were released, “there is no taking it back”.

“Whether we no longer have nuclear, or frack for our energy … we must pay close attention to the planet, which sustains us all, and how we take from it, treat it, and dispose of the waste we generate from it.

“For me personally, I would not want an international nuclear waste dump in my backyard, period!

“I hope Australians consider that very carefully.”

Brockovich, who made her name investigating ground water contamination, said she had received many reports from people who lived near nuclear facilities “reporting illness and concern”.

She said the biggest risk of nuclear waste repositories was with material stored near and on top of water sources: “It is an ongoing controversy, while tones of extremely hazardous waste get passed around and stored and decay, with no known solution in sight.”

Brockovich cited a recent case in Florida involving a company called Mosaic, which does phosphate mining – “rock phosphate has many millions of tonnes of uranium” – and had waste stored in ponds.

“These ponds were breached by a massive sink hole, sending millions of gallons of radioactive waste into Florida’s water aquifers which is now showing up in residential wells. When a nuclear accident occurs, or radioactive materials are released, there is no taking it back, so we must be thorough in our decisions on how we make/utilise our energy sources.”

Festival of Ideas founder and chairman Greg Mackie has described Brockovich as “one of the best-known citizen activist voices in the world”.

The film which carries her name told the story of how, while working as a law clerk in California in the 1990s, she carried out an investigation into claims that the Pacific Gas and Electric company had been poisoning ground water in the town of Hinkley, California, for more than 30 years. Since then, she has published several books, hosted television programs, championed numerous causes and become a sought-after international speaker.

“The fight comes from my being a dyslexia and the solid, ‘never give up’ attitude my parents taught me,” she says, when asked what drives her fighting spirit.

“I never liked being boxed in and told I could not do something just because I learned a different way.

“I wanted my mind to be unlocked and I want that for others as well. I learned that often times I was stifled because I wasn’t this or that, like a doctor, scientist, lawyer or politician.

“I didn’t know I had to be any of that to be a human and use my common sense and care for the environment and see the association between the destruction of it and the illness in people that is associated with that.”

Brockovich is an outspoken opponent of fracking, which was recently banned in Victoria because of its potential health and environmental risks – prompting South Australian Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis to invite unconventional gas miners to bring their business to this state.

She said the Victorian ban followed similar moves in places across the United States and in countries such as The Netherlands and France.

“Fracking is certainly a concern right here in the United States … many, if not most communities, don’t want fracking in their backyards.

“It destroys the land, [and] water and has an ultimate impact on the people.”

Brockovich, who regularly lectures in Australia and has lent her name to a number of causes in this country, said many Australians were also “fighting back” against fracking, and governments should be listening to their concerns.

“While Australia is so unique in its resources, it stands to become a failed nation if attention is not paid to the destruction of its natural resources.”

The activist said she accepted the invitation to address the Adelaide Festival of Ideas because she loves this country and is passionate about raising awareness of the precious nature of its resources, while also encouraging others to speak out and take charge “of their own backyards, neighbourhoods and health”.

And the woman who helped secure a record court settlement of $333 million in damages for the 600 residents in Hinkley has some advice for her fellow environmental campaigners, saying the key to success is “stick-to-itiveness”.

“[It’s defined as] propensity to follow through in a determined manner, dogged persistence born of obligation and stubbornness. Our health, our environment, our legacy are all at stake ­- fight for it!”

Erin Brockovich will speak at Bonython Hall at 2.30pm this Saturday as part of the 2016 Adelaide Festival of Ideas. Other Festival of Ideas speakers include former politician and writer Barry Jones, Robyn Layton QC, festival dedicatee Phillip Adams, former US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, philosopher Raimond Gaita (Romulus, My Father), neuroscience expert Dr Fiona Kerr, economist and entrepreneur Nicholas Gruen, poet and screenwriter Nick Drake, and SA-based writer and 2016 SA Young Australian of the Year finalist Manal Younus.

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