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Battle Lines Drawn as Australia Debates Radioactive Waste Dump

Opposition is growing to government plans to build Australia's first nuclear waste dump, on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. Indigenous groups are gathering at a public meeting to debate the controversial proposals. The federal government has identified a remote cattle station north of Tennant Creek as a likely site. The plan has caused serious divisions within the local indigenous community.

In the next six years, nuclear waste that Australia sent to Europe for reprocessing will be returned when contracts with facilities in France and Scotland expire. Government officials in Canberra have yet to decide where to put it.

Muckaty Station, an isolated property 120 kilometers from Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, has been identified as a possible site. Local Aborigines have offered to sell the land for $11 million, a move that has infuriated other indigenous groups in the area, who object to the plan on health and environmental grounds.

Those conflicting views are expected to collide at a public meeting in Tennant Creek, an old gold mining town south of Darwin.

Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says the plan to build a radioactive waste dump in the region has become extremely divisive.

"It already risks setting families against families and the government has not bothered to try to and bring the whole community along. They have picked off a handful of people, got some signatures and now they are going to try and force it through," he said. "We have had a small ten-megawatt research reactor operating in Australia since the late '50s. The industry and the government never bothered to investigate waste storage scenarios. So now, in 2010, they are now desperately casting around for an Aboriginal community who will take that legacy waste from the last few decades."

Australia's government has said that Muckaty Station would be subject to thorough scientific and environmental assessments. Ministers have indicated that the nuclear dump would not be built if landowners opposed it.

Critics believe that recent earthquakes in that part of the Northern Territory have raised serious questions about the safety of the site.

The Australian Greens have said that radioactive waste should be stored at the country's only nuclear facility, on the outskirts of Sydney.

Australia's fledgling atomic industry is pushing for the country to build 10 nuclear power stations by 2030, in response to concerns about climate change and the nation's reliance on cheap supplies of coal for electricity generation.

About 400 nuclear reactors are in use around the world. In Asia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and Taiwan have embraced the technology, while Indonesia and Thailand have ambitions to join them.