Hawker, South Australia – The towering mountains of the Flinders Ranges stand imposingly against the hundreds-of-kilometres-long stretch of flat, desolate country.
While the mountains are named after the British explorer who trekked them in the early 19th century, the indigenous Adnyamathanha people have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years.
This arid and remote part of South Australia has become the unlikely centre of a heated public debate after it was named the preferred site for the country’s first nuclear waste dump.
After two previous attempts to build a waste facility fell through due to community backlash, including from nearby indigenous residents, the federal government, last year, called for landowners to nominate their personal properties. The nearby Wallerberdina cattle station was announced as the preferred site in April this year.
But not everyone is happy; the plan has angered the local Aboriginal community, and divided residents of the nearby town of Hawker.
“Every hill has a story,” traditional owner Regina McKenzie of the Adnyamathanha and Kuyani people told Al Jazeera. “This land is our past, present and future, and we don’t want a nuclear waste dump on it.”
McKenzie and roughly a dozen others live on Yappala Station, which is part of a 24,000-hectare property that was returned to Aboriginal owners by the government in 2000, to recognise their traditional ownership. The indigenous cooperative’s property spans both sides of the neighbouring Wallerberdina Station, the projected location of the nuclear waste site.
She says the proposed site will disrupt an important indigenous storyline in the area that includes an ancient travel route with a deep spiritual significance.
“This is something that is really important to us, it’s our belief system, and I believe we have the right to be protecting our sacred places,” McKenzie told Al Jazeera.
The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, which is overseeing the project, announced this site as the preferred location among those nominated due to the community being “particularly supportive”, adding that 65 percent of those surveyed approved of the proposal going ahead (PDF).
A fading town
There are few jobs in this remote part of Australia, and Hawker is a declining town of just 250 residents. Those who remain work in cattle and sheep farming, as well tourism, an industry which sees thousands of people visiting the Flinders Ranges each year.
“People are just moving away. There isn’t much here for younger people,” Ian Carpenter, the vice-chair of the Hawker Development Board and a supporter of the nuclear waste site, told Al Jazeera. The department said the project would create at least 15 full-time jobs, and the government has also promised that $7m will be spent developing the local community and infrastructure.
“If we go back to 18 years ago, this town had 28 business; today we are down to six. So, what are we going to be in another 18 years? This could really secure the future of the town,” Carpenter said.
The cattle station where the facility is to be built, if the proposal moves forward, is co-owned by Grant Chapman, a former senator who lives in state’s capital Adelaide. Some have accused the government of a conflict of interest for choosing Chapman’s property, particularly because in 1995, he chaired a senate committee which recommended centralised nuclear waste storage.