Picking the postcode for a radioactive wasteland

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Low lever radioactive waste storage, Nevada, USA (image via commons.wikimedia.org).

'The Federal focus on finding a postcode for a [nuclear waste] facility has been at the expense of independently testing the assumptions behind the need for one.' 

~ Dave Sweeney

ACCORDING to the fridge magnets and stickers in the shop beside the ageing Big Galah sculpture, the small farming town of Kimba in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula is the half way point on the east-west journey across Australia.

But right now, the local talk is more about half-lives, following the recent decision by Federal Minister for Resources Matt Canavan to further explore two places in the region as possible sites for a national radioactive waste facility.

The search for a place for Australia’s radioactive waste has been in train – and often off the rails – for more than 20 years. Over that time, successive Federal governments have had multiple fights at multiple sites — mainly across South Australia and the Northern Territory. Currently, there are three South Australian sites under consideration.

For the better part of a year, a site near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges has been under examination. The site, on a pastoral station leased by former Liberal senator and long-time nuclear facility supporter Grant Chapman has been strongly contested by many in the wider community. Critical voices include local Adnyamanthanha Traditional Owners, pastoralists and people concerned about the impacts of the region's steadily growing tourism sector.

Now the inclusion of two parcels of agricultural land at Kimba has seen new tension in a town that has previously been highly divided over the Federal plan.

Last year, two previously nominated Kimba land options were not taken further by then Minister for Resources Josh Frydenberg because of a lack of community support.

However, supporters of a facility have made a new pitch and have found an ear in the new minister.

The planned facility would be in two parts — a repository for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste (LLW) and an above ground store to hold the more serious and problematic long-lived intermediate level waste (ILW). The store would operate for 100 years, at which time a decision would be made about how and where to future manage this long-lived waste, which needs to be isolated from people and the wider environment for thousands of years.

For a project that has had many configurations over many years, there remains considerable uncertainty about the plan.

Part of the series of unanswered questions include:

  • final facility design;
  • acceptance criteria;
  • employment and governance arrangements; and
  • longer term plans for managing Australia’s highest level radioactive waste. 

But the biggest unanswered question is whether the planned facility is the best way to manage Australia’s radioactive waste. Extraordinarily, that question has never been asked.

Radioactive waste management is complex, costly and controversial. But the approach of successive Australian Governments has seen a difficult public policy issue cement itself as a divisive and near intractable one.

The Federal focus on finding a postcode for a facility has been at the expense of independently testing the assumptions behind the need for one. Most of Australia’s radioactive waste – around 95 per cent – is already at two secured Federal sites. The low-level waste is on Department of Defence land at Woomera in South Australia, and nearly all the ILW – the material that poses the most pressing and lasting challenge – is currently stored where it was produced — the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisations (ANSTO) Lucas Heights reactor in southern Sydney.

The case for extending the interim storage capacity at ANSTO pending an open review of future long-term management options is strong and appears more compelling than spending over $100 million, putting intense stress on local communities and trucking large volumes of radioactive material to a regional site, to then make the decision about its long-term management.

ANSTO is better placed than a pastoral station or the back paddock of a wheat farm to house this material.

Advantages of storing it at the ANSTO facility include that

  • it enjoys assured tenure there;
  • has a secured site with a high-level Australian Federal Police presence;
  • is currently building new storage capacity;
  • has already received reprocessed spent nuclear fuel returns from Europe;
  • has the best radiation monitoring and nuclear response capacity in the nation; and
  • the fact that the waste is there now answers double handling and transport concerns.

Importantly, the Federal nuclear regulator – Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) – has confirmed there is no regulatory constraint to the waste continuing to be managed at ANSTO "for decades".

Civil society groups support a circuit breaker in the discourse around radioactive waste management in Australia. This would be best served by what we have never had — an open, comprehensive and credible examination of the full range of management options, and a process to advance the worst.

Enhanced and extended interim storage at the two Federal sites provides the space needed for a measured discussion and increases the chances of a far better outcome for all.

The national radioactive waste plan is not simply an issue for the regions of Kimba or Hawker, or even for South Australia — it is a national issue with national implications and responsibilities.

For 20 years, we have failed to get this issue right. Now we have an important chance – and the clear need – to do things differently and better.

Only time can take the heat out of radioactive waste, but a good process, evidence, rigour and trust can help cool the temperature of the debate.

Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation's nuclear free campaigner. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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