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Australia's nuclear waste policy shambles

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The Lucas Heights nuclear power plant has been facing problems as to what to do with its radioactive waste (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Government is scrambling to figure out a solution to Australia's nuclear waste problem with a new bill being passed before the Senate, writes Noel Wauchope.

TO BE FAIR, Australia is not alone in having a shambolic policy on nuclear wastes. Russia, China, India and even France and the UK are secretive about all aspects of the nuclear fuel chain. But the USA, the first and biggest of the nuclear countries, has openly described its struggles with this problem.

I've always thought that America summed up its nuclear waste policy best in its Nuclear Waste Confidence Rule — first promulgated in 1984 and upgraded several times since. This rule, charmingly optimistic, stated that a permanent nuclear waste disposal solution would be found (no details, they didn't know where, didn't know when). But therefore, the nuclear industry could confidently continue to make radioactive trash.

It's no surprise that Australia, too, is struggling with its relatively small amount of nuclear waste.

Indeed, as Griffith University Professor Ian Lowe has pointed out, Australia dodged a bullet in not having nuclear power:

“We were just lucky to avoid having nuclear power stations with mountains of accumulated waste, for which there is no effective permanent solution.”

Still, Australia's one nuclear reactor, run by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, Sydney, is now mired in problems about what to do with its nuclear waste.  

The added problem is that by its licence for this storage facility, ANSTO was required to ‘submit a plan, by no later than June 2020, for removal of the waste stored in the facility’. This has resulted in the Federal Government's rather frenzied efforts over recent years to draw up a plan for a “permanent” nuclear waste facility, culminating in its present bill before the Senate.

The National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020  (NRWMA) specifies a farming property, Napandee, near Kimba, South Australia as the site for this still “interim” nuclear waste facility. The bill is cunningly devised so that when it's passed, there can be no judicial review of it, nor of the selected location.

Another impetus for this bill is consideration of the local community at Barden Ridge (formerly called Lucas Heights). When the original High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) nuclear research reactor started operations in 1958, Lucas Heights was then a remote bushland site well outside the suburban area of Sydney. Nuclear development was meshed in secrecy and controlled by influential experts Philip Baxter and Ernest Titterton, without much understanding by the Parliament or the public. It was the time of British atomic weapons tests in Australia and heightened fears about the cold war. Little attention was paid to the subject of radioactive wastes.   

As Sydney grew, Lucas Heights became more of a suburb and public awareness of the danger of ionising radiation grew. In 1992, local residents voted to rename the suburb of Lucas Heights and in 1996 it officially became Barden Ridge. It is widely accepted that this was done to increase the real estate value of the area, as it would no longer be instantly associated with the original reactor, the HIFAR nuclear reactor.

The local community supports the present Open Pool Australian Lightwater (O.P.A.L.) nuclear reactor but doesn't want its radioactive wastes. The Sutherland Shire Council in 2013 said that they liked having the nuclear reactor, but not the radioactive wastes. The presence of nuclear wastes is an issue. Local people and Council were relieved to learn of the Federal Government's plan to set up a waste facility in another state.

Nevertheless, this nuclear waste bill is contentious. Over 1,700 kilometres away from Barden Ridge, a Kimba community ballot resulted in 452 voters, out of 824 eligible voters, supported hosting the waste facility — hardly an overwhelming endorsement. And the Barngarla Aboriginal Traditional Owners, who were excluded from this ballot, held their own ballot, unanimously opposing the plan.

Local farmers opposing the facility set up their own group to lobby the Government — “No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land in Kimba or SA”. There is also significant opposition to the plan from the wider Australian community. Of the 105 submissions listed on the Parliamentary website, the majority were opposed to the NRWMA Bill. (A breakdown of the submissions is here.) 

The situation with the NRWMA Bill, passed in the House of Representatives but now before the Senate, is tricky and complicated. To start with, the proposed facility is in no way a permanent disposal. It is an “interim” storage, with the reactor wastes to be in big canisters just as at the Lucas Heights facility. If the Senate votes against it, the Government's nuclear waste plan is in disarray. Resources Minister Keith Pitt has the power to formally designate the Napandee site, but then the Government might be faced with a legal challenge against this.

The background of the nuclear waste management is that ANSTO contracted with the French company Areva, to send the first (HIFAR) reactor's spent fuel rods to France for processing and to take back the processed wastes. Later, in 2017, a similar treaty ensured that the O.P.A.L. reactor's wastes would go to France until 31 December 2030, with Australia accepting the return of radioactive waste arising from that reprocessing, with final return by 31 December 2040. So, a final resting place will be needed for this material.

In developing this plan, ANSTO had the option of choosing a different process.

They had the option of disposing of the wastes from O.P.A.L. to the USA, providing a cheaper alternative for ANSTO:

‘These wastes were [to] be retained in the U.S. without any associated return of equivalent wastes to Australia and the financial cost involved was only for the one-way shipment to the U.S. — significantly less than the now additional cost in reprocessing and in required in-perpetuity management and final disposal of this first decade of O.P.A.L.’

By now, this option looks like ancient history. Too late now? Probably so. 

Yet, in a puzzling development, we learn that approximately 2,000 tonnes of radioactive material are to be excavated from the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill and shipped to Idaho, USA. The radioactive soil is to be sealed in bags, loaded into shipping containers and taken to a secure facility in the Eastern Sydney suburb of Matraville before shipping overseas in scheduled consignments. ANSTO will oversee the process over an18-month-long mission.  

Permanent export of radioactive wastes from a Sydney suburb can happen. There is very little information made public on how this latest decision was reached.

In the meantime, while everyone seems focused on the pandemic, the Senate is in no hurry to vote on the NRWMA Bill. Perhaps that is a hot potato best left for after the Federal Election. Labor is opposed to the bill and the votes of the cross-benchers will be critical. One of them, Senator Rex Patrick, is unearthing details of the negotiations between the Kimba District Council and the Federal and South Australian Governments. The South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal has ruled that this information should not be kept secret.

Minister Keith Pitt has redoubled efforts to ensure the support of the Kimba community for the waste dump, announcing an extra $2 million to bring a new Community Benefit Program round up to $6 million.

Both the previous Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, and ANSTO's previous CEO, Adi Paterson, were forceful and enthusiastic promoters of the nuclear industry and the Kimba waste facility plan. In these uncertain times of pandemic, it's not easy to tell if their replacements can push this project along with the same fervour. 

Meanwhile, the Kimba town community, the Barngarla people, the farmers and quite a few others wait in limbo.

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

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