In 1985, the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia recommended that “Section 400” – a parcel of contaminated land – should be cleaned-up and returned to its Traditional Owners. A $100 million clean-up finished in 2000. For the next nine years, Maralinga Tjarutja negotiated with the Commonwealth and State Governments over the conditions under which the land would be returned.
On 18 November 2009, the South Australian Parliament passed legislation to enable the handback to proceed.
The Paper Trail
Section 400 is a 3126 square kilometre parcel of land located inside the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands.
From the 1950s onward, the title for Section 400 was held by the Commonwealth Government. In 1956 and 1957, the British Government conducted seven full-scale nuclear tests within Section 400. Other ‘minor’ tests – concluding in 1963 – included the explosive dispersal of 22 kilograms of plutonium.[i]
In 1984, the South Australian Government returned the freehold title for the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands to its Traditional Owners. Concerns over radiological hazards prevented the handback of Section 400.
In 1985, the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia recommended that certain lands – including Section 400 – should be cleaned-up “so that they are fit for unrestricted habitation by the traditional Aboriginal owners.”[ii] The Royal Commission also recommended that after the clean-up, the title for the lands should be transferred to the Traditional Owners “subject to whatever additional agreements for surveillance and inspection are agreed to by Maralinga Tjarutja” and the State and Commonwealth governments.[iii]
In the mid 1990s, the Commonwealth Government commenced extensive clean-up and rehabilitation works on Section 400. Federal Parliament was told this clean-up would:
enable the land to revert to control of the South Australian Government which has indicated its intention to add the land to Maralinga Tjarutja freehold land, pursuant to the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984.[iv]
The clean-up and rehabilitation works concluded in April 2000. At that time, Maralinga Tjarutja commenced lengthy negotiations with the Commonwealth Government for the handback of Section 400.
The State Government worked closely with Maralinga Tjarutja throughout these negotiations. On 15 August 2002, the Premier of South Australia (Hon Mike Rann MP) said:
The South Australian government has been working in collaboration with the Maralinga
Tjarutja people to determine whether or not the transfer of section 400 … will ever be a viable
option. … The South Australian government will not accept a transfer of section 400 if it is not satisfied that the clean-up has been successful and unless the conditions it negotiates with the Commonwealth government offer the State and the Aboriginal Maralinga Tjarutja people
protection against any future liability associated with the area.[v]
In 2002, the South Australian Government provided assistance to Maralinga Tjarutja to enable it to complete a feasibility study of the possible future uses of Maralinga Village.[vi]
In its negotiations with the Commonwealth, Maralinga Tjarutja repeatedly identified three issues that needed to be resolved before the handback could proceed:
- the adequacy of the clean-up of the former test sites,
- the establishment of appropriate indemnities,[vii] and
- the need for the handback to be cost-neutral for Maralinga Tjarutja.
Of these issues, the need for the handback to be cost-neutral proved the most difficult to resolve.[viii] In April 2006, Maralinga Tjarutja estimated that it would cost about $400,000 per annum to maintain Section 400’s existing infrastructure.[ix] This includes the buildings, airstrip and fuel dumps at Maralinga Village.[x]
In August 2006, Maralinga Tjarutja told a State Parliamentary Committee that it had reached an agreement with the Commonwealth on financial assistance and that it was hoping that the handback would happen within a couple of months.[xi]
In October 2006, the State Government indicated that negotiations for the handback were almost completed and expressed its hope that a handback ceremony would be held in April 2007.[xii]
More than a year later, on 30 June 2008, the State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (Hon Jay Weatherill MP) indicated that all of the parties involved were “on the verge of being able to conclude” handback arrangements, stating:
Handback negotiations are being finalised. A draft handback deed is being developed, the majority of which has been agreed by everyone: state, federal, local and Maralinga Tjarutja. It has been agreed that there will be no mining on the Section 400 for five years after the handback … following the handback Maralinga Tjarutja intends to develop a land management and heritage resource centre at Maralinga Village which will be funded by the Australian Government.[xiii]
At the same time, the Minister reported that discussions were continuing between the State and Commonwealth about funding for “the ongoing radiological monitoring of Section 400.” [xiv]
On 17 June 2009, the Paper Tracker asked the Federal Minister for Resources and Energy (Hon Martin Ferguson MP) for an update on the handback of Section 400.[xv]
In a reply dated 22 June 2009, the Minister stated that negotiations were “well advanced” and that the Australian Government, the South Australian Government and Maralinga Tjarutja were all “working towards handing back the land by the end of 2009.”[xvi]
The Minister also advised that:
- the terms of the settlement would “remain confidential until the handback agreement is finalised and signed,”
- as part of the handback negotiations, “a draft Maralinga Lands Environment Management Plan” has been developed,
- the purpose of this plan is “to clearly define the radiological review functions” that the Federal Government will continue to implement once the land has been handed back to its Traditional Owners, and
- the Federal Budget currently “provides $239,000 annually to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism for maintaining facilities at Maralinga, including support of a site manager at Maralinga Village.”[xvii]
On 17 November 2009, the State Government introduced the “Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill” into South Australia’s House of Assembly.[xviii]
At that time, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (Hon Jay Weatherill MP) explained that:
- the Bill provided the legislative framework for the formal return of Section 400 to its Traditional Owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja people;
- the Federal Government had agreed to indemnify both the State Government and Maralinga Tjarutja from “all claims where the loss is directly or indirectly related to the contamination of the land as a result of the British nuclear test program”;
- the radiological status of the lands would be periodically monitored “to ensure the continuing effectiveness of the rehabilitation works and, if necessary, remedial action undertaken”;
- Maralinga Tjarutja was proposing “to develop a small Land Management and Heritage Resource Centre at Maralinga Village” and, as part of this development, hoped “to establish and operate a caravan park style tourist facility [there] that would include a kiosk and a small interpretive centre”;
- mining activities on Section 400 – and in other contaminated areas[xix] – would be prohibited “in response to concerns about the potential risks associated with significant ground disturbances;” and
- this prohibition would be formally reviewed within five years.[xx]
The Minister also indicated that the Bill included “several amendments not directly related to the handback of Section 400” and that these had been included at the request of Maralinga Tjarutja. These amendments, if passed, would:
- grant Maralinga Tjarutja the power to make a constitution,
- clarify “the capacity of the Maralinga Tjarutja Council to delegate powers and functions”, and
- provide Maralinga Tjarutja with the power “to make by-laws (subject to the approval of the Minister) to control alcohol, petrol and other regulated substances” on its lands.[xxi]
Within two days of its introduction, the Bill passed through both houses of the South Australian Parliament without amendment.[xxii]
Additional information (added 21 December 2009)
On 18 December 2009, Section 400 was formally handed back to its Traditional Owners during a ceremony held at Maralinga Village.
In an accompanying statement, the Federal Government noted that while most of this parcel of land “is now suitable for unrestricted access,” around 400 kilometres is “safe for casual access such as hunting” but not permanent occupation. The Government stated that it would “continue to monitor the site to assess the ongoing effectiveness of the rehabilitation work and, if necessary, take remedial action.”[xxiii]
The Paper Tracker congratulates Maralinga Tjarutja and the State and Federal Governments on the return of Section 400 to its Traditional Owners.
This article was last updated in December 2009. It has been archived and will no longer be updated. It will, however, remain accessible online as a source of background information for anyone wishing to undertake further research on this issue.
[i] Historical information drawn from: (1) Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee. 2002. Rehabilitation of Former Nuclear Test Sites at Emu and Maralinga (Australia), Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, and (2) Annual Report of the Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee 2005/06, Parliament of South Australia, PP219, p18-20.
[ii] Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia. 1985. The report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, AGPS, Canberra, p614.
[iii] Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia. 1985. The report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, AGPS, Canberra, p587.
[iv] Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (1995) Report relating to the proposed Maralinga rehabilitation project, SA, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, PP 109, p1.
[v] Rann. M. 15 August 2002. Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia. See also Rann, M. 25 March 2003, Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia, and Breuer, L. 19 February 2004, Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia.
[vi] Rann. M. 15 August 2002. Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia.
[vii] The Australian Government has now indemnified MT and the SA Government “against all future claims regarding radiation contamination.” Accordingly, Maralinga Tjarutja “is now able to pursue public liability insurance for Section 400.” Information provided by B Ramsay, General Manager, Maralinga Tjarutja via email on 24 July 2007.
[viii] ABC News online. 10 June 2003. “Money concerns hold-up Maralinga handover.” http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2003/06/10/875746.htm. Accessed 9 July 2007.
[ix] Collett, A. 5 April 2006. Interview. ABC Local Radio 891AM.
[x] In negotiations with the Commonwealth around the issue of ‘cost-neutrality,’ Maralinga Tjarutja initially sought a payment of $7 million; comprised of $6 million for infrastructure and renovations and $1 million start-up money for a proposed land management and tourist centre. A counter offer by the Commonwealth of $4.4 million was not accepted. In August 2005, Maralinga Tjarutja indicated that it would accept a Commonwealth offer of $6 million, on the basis that it could approach the State Government for the start-up funding. In 2006, however, the State Government indicated that the costs associated with establishing a land management and tourist facility at Maralinga Village would be “fully funded by the Commonwealth.” (See: Collett, M. 22 August 2005. Transcript of evidence given to Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee (SA), p357; Weatherill, J. 20 October 2006, Hansard, Budget Estimates Committee A, Parliament of South Australia.)
[xi] Collett, A. 9 August 2006. Public meeting at Maralinga Village, Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee (SA).
[xii] Weatherill, J. 20 October 2006, Hansard, House of Assembly – Estimates Committee A, Parliament of South Australia, p127.
[xiii] Weatherill, J. 30 June 2008, Hansard, House of Assembly – Estimates Committee A, Parliament of South Australia, p196.
[xiv] Weatherill, J. 30 June 2008, Hansard, House of Assembly – Estimates Committee A, Parliament of South Australia, p196.
[xv] McDonald, P. 17 June 2009. Letter to Hon M Ferguson MP.
[xvi] Roberts, N. 22 June 2009. Letter to Rev. P McDonald from the Office of the Hon Martin Ferguson AM MP.
[xvii] Roberts, N. 22 June 2009. Letter to Rev. P McDonald from the Office of the Hon Martin Ferguson AM MP.
[xviii] Weatherill, J. 17 November 2009. “Maralinga Tjartutja Land Rights (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill, Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia, p4623.
[xix] These other areas are known as Section 1486 (Emu) and Section 1487 were previously returned to Maralinga Tjarutja in 1991 after “a program of minor works,” (Weatherill, J. 17 November 2009. “Maralinga Tjartutja Land Rights (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill, Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia, p4623).
[xx] Weatherill, J. 17 November 2009. “Maralinga Tjartutja Land Rights (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill, Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia, p4623-4.
[xxi] Weatherill, J. 17 November 2009. “Maralinga Tjartutja Land Rights (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill, Hansard, House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia, p4624-5.
[xxiii] Ferguson, M and Macklin, J. “Maralinga Nuclear Test Site Reclaimed After Half a Century,” Australian Government, media release.