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Transporting nuclear wastes across Australia in the age of bushfires

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Nuclear waste being transported from the Lucas Heights facility (Screenshot via YouTube)

Considering Australia's current bushfire crisis, Noel Wauchope questions the logic in transporting dangerous nuclear waste close to affected areas.

IN 2020, the final decision on a site for Australia's interim National Radioactive Waste Facility will be announced, said Resources Minister Matt Canavan on 13 December.

He added:

“I will make a formal announcement early next year on the site-selection process.”

With bushfires raging, it might seem insensitive and non-topical to be worrying now about this coming announcement on a temporary nuclear waste site and the transport of nuclear wastes to it. But this is relevant and all too serious in the light of Australia's climate crisis.

The U.S. National Academies Press compiled a lengthy and comprehensive report on risks of transporting nuclear wastes — they concluded that among various risks, the most serious and significant is fire:

The radiological risks associated with the transportation of spent fuel and high-level waste are well understood and are generally low, with the possible exception of risks from releases in extreme accidents involving very long duration, fully engulfing fires. While the likelihood of such extreme accidents appears to be very small, their occurrence cannot be ruled out.

 

Transportation planners and managers should undertake detailed surveys of transportation routes to identify potential hazards that could lead to or exacerbate extreme accidents involving very long duration, fully engulfing fires.

Current bushfire danger areas include much of New South Wales, including the Lucas Heights area, North and coastal East Victoria and in South Australia the lower Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas. If nuclear wastes were to be transported across the continent, whether by land or by sea, from the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney to Kimba in South Australia, they'd be travelling through much of these areas. Today, they'd be confronting very long duration, fully engulfing fires. 

Do we know what route the nuclear wastes would be taking to Kimba, which is now presumed to be the Government's choice for the waste dump? Does the Department of Industry Innovation and Science know? Does the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) know? Well, they might, but they're not going to tell us.

The transport route between Lucas Heights and Kimba (Image supplied)

We can depend on ANSTO's consistent line on this :

‘In line with standard operational and security requirements, ANSTO will not comment on the port, routes or timing until after the transport is complete.’

That line is understandable of course, due to security considerations, including the danger of terrorism.

Spent nuclear fuel rods have been transported several times, from Lucas Heights to ports – mainly Port Kembla – in great secrecy and security. The reprocessed wastes are later returned from France or the UK with similar caution. Those secret late-night operations are worrying enough, but their risks seem almost insignificant when compared with the marathon journey envisaged in what is increasingly looking like a crackpot ANSTO scheme for the proposed distant Kimba interim nuclear dump. It is accepted that these temporary dumps are best located as near as practical to the point of production, as in the case of USA’s sites.

Australians, beset by the horror of extreme bushfires, can still perhaps count themselves as lucky in that, compared with wildfire regions in some countries, they do not yet have the compounding horror of radioactive contamination spread along with the ashes and smoke. 

Fires in Russia have threatened its secret nuclear areas.

Several American nuclear analysts have concluded about the fire dangers in Russia's waste transport and temporary storage:

“These risks could pose serious security implications not just for Russia but for the U.S. and for the world.”

Similarly, Ukraine has had catastrophic wildfires, endangering nuclear waste facilities and transport.

In the USA, the Hanford Nuclear Waste Reservation, always a dangerous place, had its dangers magnified by wildfires. In 2018, California's Woolsey wildfire spread radioactive particles from the Santa Susana nuclear waste area. Famously, Kim Kardashian, not previously known for environmental activism, took up the struggle to expose this scandal and agitate for a clean-up. In Idaho, a nuclear research facility just like Lucas Heights one aroused much anxiety about its wastes and waste transport as wildfires invaded the area. 

Many in America have long been aware of the transport danger:

The state of Nevada released a report in 2003 concluding that a steel-lead-steel cask would have failed after about six hours in the fire and a solid steel cask would have failed after about 11 to 12.5 hours. There would have been contamination over 32 square miles of the city and the contamination would have killed up to 28,000 people over 50 years.

The State of Wyoming is resisting hosting a nuclear waste dump, largely because of transportation risks as well as economic risks. In the UK, Somerset County Council rejects plans for transport of wastes through Somerset. 

In the years 2016–2019, proposals for nuclear waste dumping in South Australia have been discussed by government and media as solely a South Australian concern. The present discussion about Kimba is being portrayed as just a Kimba community concern. 

Yet, when the same kind of proposal was put forward in previous years, it was recognised as an issue for other states, too. 

Eureka Street reported:

In 2003 the mayors of Sutherland, Bathurst, Blue Mountains, Broken Hill, Dubbo, Griffith, Lithgow, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Auburn, Bankstown, Blacktown, Fairfield, Holroyd, Liverpool, Parramatta and Penrith – communities along potential transport routes – opposed “any increase in nuclear waste production until a satisfactory resolution occurs to the waste repository question”.

 

The NSW parliamentary inquiry into radioactive waste found “there is no doubt that the transportation of radioactive waste increases the risk of accident or incident — including some form of terrorist intervention”.

Most reporting on Australia's bushfires has been excellent, with the exception of Murdoch media trying to downplay their seriousness. However, there has been no mention of the proximity of bushfires to Lucas Heights. As happened with the fires in 2018, this seems to be a taboo subject in the Australian media. 

While it has never been a good idea to trek the Lucas Heights nuclear waste for thousands of kilometres across the continent – or halfway around it by sea – Australia's new climate crisis has made it that much more dangerous. Is the bushfire apocalypse just a one-off? Or, more likely, is this nationwide danger the new normal?

Australia has no choice but to adapt to this globally heating world and to do what we can to stall the heating process by becoming part of a global climate action movement. And fast. In this new and scary scenario, nuclear power has no place. If nuclear power actually were an effective method of combatting climate change, it would still have no place because the reactors would never be up and running in time.

It is ludicrous, as well as dangerous, for Australia's nuclear lobby to pretend that nuclear power is any part of a solution to climate change. Ben Heard, in his nuclear front “environmental” site Bright New World, proposes this and actually uses the bushfire risk as an argument for nuclear power. Mark Ho of the Australian Nuclear Association uses the bushfire risk as the reason why Australia should remove the ban on nuclear power, though he doesn't explain the connection. 

From the point of view of Matt Canavan and the nuclear lobby, the bushfires are probably a timely distraction. The whole bizarre plan for a Kimba nuclear waste dump might just be able to proceed, quietly, as a local matter only.

On the other hand, the Australian public in all states, those “quiet” people who go along with this government's lack of any real policies, is now stirring, waking up to the painful realisation that climate change is upon us. Bushfires are now the national horror. They won't want the horror of nuclear waste transport dangers added to the mix. 

Read more by Noel Wauchope at antinuclear.net and nuclear-news.net and follow her on Twitter @ChristinaMac1.

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