Argentina: next nuclear dump for the world?

Protesters fear vote on treaty with Australia could pave way for wider dumping

Feature story - 8 November, 2002
Argentina must not become a nuclear waste dump for Australia -- or any other nation. Greenpeace and other activist groups across the country are on permanent high alert pending the outcome of a vote on a proposed Argentina-Australia nuclear waste dumping treaty. They fear it could be just the start of dirty and dangerous nuclear waste imports into Argentina from around the world.

Greenpeace banner on Australian embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina: 'Australia: Argentina rejects your nuclear waste'.

Lunatic logic

One of the legislators pushing for the nuclear imports, Arturo Lafalla, told the energy journal "El Globo News" that the nuclear waste imports could be justified because "dangerous waste of all kinds circulates around the country anyway." He added that "Argentina should enter that stage of nuclear technology (reprocessing of nuclear waste) and share that business with the few companies and countries that do it".

Tangled plot

The Argentinean-Australian nuclear deal to import nuclear waste is not a simple one-way affair. In 2000, an Argentinean state-owned company called INVAP won a contract to build a research nuclear reactor in the Sydney, Australia suburb of Lucas Heights. When the contract was won, Argentinean government authorities at first basked in the glow of their nation's ability to compete technologically with the rest of the world and come first.

But then a dirty truth percolated to the surface. The Lucas Heights reactor contract, which even today remains secret, stipulates that the reactor's waste is not to be processed in Australia. So where on Earth would it go?

Argentina, these deal-makers say.

Two steps to radioactive ruin

But reprocessing the waste in Argentina would blatantly violate the nation's constitution.

This fact has a poignant history. In 1994, during the nation's constitutional reform, Greenpeace and members of the broader Argentinean environmental movement won a momentous victory to make Article 41, which bans the import of toxic and radioactive waste, part of the national constitution.

Thus the law against nuclear waste imports is crystal clear, grounded in Argentina's very strongest legislation. This constitutional ban also serves to close Argentina´s South Atlantic waters to nuclear waste shipments.

So it soon became very clear that without violating the constitution, the Australia-Argentina project could not go forward. This is why the proponents of the proposed dumping deal see it as only the first of two steps toward nuclear imports. The second step, being prepared by some Argentinean MPs (members of parliament), is an effort to wipe Article 41 from Argentina's national constitution.

But this key piece of environmental protection for Argentineans must never be lost.

Doublespeak: when deadly waste is not waste at all

A treaty was signed during 2001 between Australia and Argentina which clearly states that the waste from Lucas Heights will be imported into Argentina. Once it was signed, the job of sneaking around the law began. The Argentinean government commissioned three of its highly respected jurists to report on whether the treaty violates Article 41.

Strangely, although they never even saw the secret contract between INVAP and its Australian government counterpart ANSTO, the jurists still found ways to sanitise the dirty deal and make it fit within the clean sweep of the constitution. They said the treaty was legal because the waste was not waste(!?), just irradiated nuclear fuel, and because its entrance was "temporary" for reprocessing and not permanent.

Pressure and protest build

In response, Greenpeace and 70 other activist groups country-wide kicked up a storm of protest starting mid-2001 and continuing today. Protest is especially strong in the town of Ezeiza, where the waste would be reprocessed.

The pressure is mounting as the government moves to vote on the treaty at the next congressional session in Argentina's Lower House, which could happen anytime now. The Australian embassy, the Argentinean ministry for foreign affairs and Argentinean federal government itself have put strenuous pressure on MPs to approve the treaty. On October 31 in a very unusual session, two parliamentary commissions signed a resolution in favour of approving the treaty.

Rough treatment

But Greenpeace and other activist groups are determined to show how the treaty defiles national law. On November 2, sitting upon toilets labelled "national constitution", thirty Greenpeace activists dressed up as MPs and wore tags naming those who had signed the above resolution. All thirty activists were arrested and given very rough treatment by the police.

Destructive influence

And on November 5 Greenpeace climbers surprised Australian embassy officials in Buenos Aires when they managed to scale the embassy building to hang a banner from its balconies which read: "Australia: Argentina rejects your nuclear waste". Australian Ambassador Sharyn Minahan must be denounced for the political pressure she is applying to push the deal forward as the matter heads to a vote.