Should a remote farming community in South Australia be charged with the momentous decision of storing radioactive waste? Noel Wauchope reports.
THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT'S drive for a national radioactive trash dump continues.
It is being depicted by the Federal Government and the media as not a national matter. Indeed, it's now not even a State matter concerning South Australia. It is now portrayed as just a local matter for small rural areas such as Kimba — population 1,100.
However, an opinion poll in Adelaide Now showed strong rejection of the plan for a nuclear waste dump at Kimba.
At the moment, Kimba is well in the running to host the national radioactive trash dump. In 2017, a Kimba town vote favouring this was 396 to 294 in favour. Not an overwhelming endorsement from this small community, but enough to keep enthusiasm for the project going, seeing as the matter is apparently of little concern to the rest of the State or the nation.
How come that Kimba is such a likely place for the dump?
Australia's nuclear lobby has for decades been pursuing its plan for importing nuclear waste. In more recent years, this nuclear push has also turned its focus towards a dump for Australia's own nuclear waste. The Australian Government, directed by its statutory body Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), joined in this because ANSTO is obligated by contract to deal with the high-level waste returning to Australia from processing in France and the UK. This waste is currently stored in containers at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
South Australia was the first choice, in 1998, with a Howard Government plan for a low-level waste facility at Woomera. But this was resisted by the South Australian Government in 2003, which had passed a law banning the establishment of nuclear waste dumps. In 2004, the Federal Government abandoned its South Australian plan.
So the Federal Government started this push in the Northern Territory — the best choice, seeing that it cannot easily override State legislation against establishing a nuclear waste dump. Section 122 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act allows the Parliament to override a Territory law at any time.
In 2015, the nuclear lobby seemed to have quite a coup, winning South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill over to an ambitious proposal for nuclear waste importing. A very pro-nuclear Royal Commission was set up, recommending that plan, only to meet with public opposition, including from the Liberal Party and, again, especially from Aboriginal groups. Weatherill backed down completely and the plan to import nuclear waste was dead — for the time being.
Now, in 2018, ANSTO and the ever-persistent nuclear lobby are going for what appears to be a moderate aim — the same old “low level” nuclear waste dump that Howard sought in 1998. The National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 stressed the idea that the selection of a site should be “consent-driven” — though, in fact, it gives the Federal Government extraordinary powers to override state/territory governments, councils, communities, traditional owners and, indeed, anyone else.
With the emphasis on landowners volunteering sites – and with financial inducements offered – rural South Australians were encouraged to come forward.
The Turnbull Government claimed it had:
' ... widespread support from direct neighbours of the nominated properties.'
Farmer Jeff Baldock nominated his property – and will be paid four times its value – if his offer is successful. Wallerberdina Station, near Hawke, has volunteered. Both communities can expect $2 million in government grants plus a $10 million fund for community development for the chosen site.
No wonder that there's enthusiasm for the project in this somewhat economically stressed area. However, strong opposition to the dump continues from traditional owners the Adnyamathanha people and from 204 paid-up members of the Kimba local group, No Radioactive Waste Facility for Kimba District.
The process has been fraught with problems, starting with the problem of overriding South Australia's law against setting up nuclear waste facilities.
Because the discussion has been confined to communities in the region, there is little input from experts other than those provided by ANSTO. Farming community members have been transported to Lucas Heights at ANSTO's expense and given reassuring technical information on nuclear waste storage in canisters. ANSTO medical and nuclear experts have been running science lessons in schools and offering hopes of scholarships to ANSTO.
A very problematic area, indeed, is the fraudulent story about storage of “low-level medical wastes” being the purpose of the facility. The practice of nuclear medicine has in no way been adversely affected by the absence of a national repository and it won't in any way benefit from the establishment of a repository thousands of kilometres away from Lucas Heights. The real need is to store the processed spent fuel rod waste returning to Lucas Heights from France and the UK. This is classified by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) as "high level" waste.
An equally problematic area is in the temporary nature of the planned waste storage. This long-lasting radioactive trash will require burial for its thousands of years of toxicity. Kimba – or whichever area ends up with this facility – is facing the risk of “stranded” nuclear waste.
An Adelaide Now article (no longer available online) quoted a local teacher, Meagan Lienert, assuring us that she has done the research and that the waste facility would not affect the local farming environment. This illustrates a major problem with the way that this issue is being pitched to the locals.
As food produce marketing expert Kristen Jelk discussed in community discussions last year on the South Australian Government site, 'Your Say' the perception of clean, green South Australia is all-important. The presence of a nearby nuclear waste dump would ruin that market.
While some in Kimba, including its Mayor, are keen for further investigation of the project as a promising boost for the local economy, are they aware of the irony in that Kimba was, in 2017 State winner of KESAB’s Sustainable Communities top town? This award honours the community that does the most to protect the environment and embrace sustainability.
They hope to go on to win the Australian title.
The Federal Government has set up consultative committees at the local level to advise on the radioactive waste facility proposal. Perhaps it is time for the rest of Australia to have a say.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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