Canavan goes: Leaves 10,000-year toxic legacy

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Former Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan signed off on a nuclear waste dump for SA prior to resigning his portfolio (Screenshot via YouTube)

Matt Canavan has resigned the Resources Ministry, but the radioactive waste he signed off on has up to another 10,000 years in office, writes Dave Sweeney.

For over two decades Australian federal governments have played short term politics with long-term radioactive waste and failed. The latest chapter in this sorry saga is no exception.

Former Resources Minister Matt Canavan started February by formally declaring that a patch of ground near Kimba in regional South Australia was slated to become home to Australia’s radioactive waste.  

The contested decision was made on Saturday but by Tuesday, Canavan was off the A team and on the backbench, collateral damage in a failed National Party leadership challenge.

The radioactive waste he signed off on has up to another 10,000 years in office.

The new Federal Minister is Keith Pitt, another Queensland National and a nuclear true believer who promotes domestic reactors and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in Australia. Community and stakeholder concerns over the scope and scrutiny of the waste plan have grown since he gained the portfolio.

The current federal plan would see low-level radioactive waste, which needs to be isolated from people and the environment for around 300 years, interred at the Kimba site.

The more problematic intermediate-level wastes, which need to be isolated for up to 10,000 years, are planned to be stored above ground pending future underground disposal at a separate site.

There is no clear proposal, process, funding or timeline for this pivotal next stage. This is not a proven plan – it’s a political promise.

This unnecessary double handling of long-lived radioactive waste is not consistent with international best practice.

There is no compelling radiological or public health rationale for advancing this deeply irresponsible plan, especially based on the current sub-optimal process.

There is a real risk this waste will become stranded in a place with far fewer institutional assets to manage it than those sites where it is currently housed.

Most of Australia’s radioactive waste is stored at two secured Common­wealth facilities at Lucas Heights in NSW and Woomera in SA.

The Lucas Heights facility has the capacity to continue to store the most problematic intermediate level waste for many years. ARPANSA, the Federal nuclear regulator, has clearly stated there is no urgent need to re-locate this material.

Radioactive waste management is a complex issue, but it need not be an intractable one.

And regardless of the complexity, politics should not be given priority over sound process.

Trust, transparency and evidence are essential preconditions to achieving a credible and lasting radioactive waste management solution.

All are sadly lacking in the Morrison Government’s approach.

Many civil society stakeholders, including national environment, public health, trade union and Aboriginal groups, support a public and independent assessment of the full range of radioactive waste management options in Australia.

This would include, but not be solely restricted to, the Coalition Government’s preferred remote or regional central facility model.

This waste problem was not created by the people of Kimba, nor is it their sole responsibility to solve.

The highly divisive Federal approach has been to shrink the space for a discussion about this waste and to seek to turn a needed national debate into a local infrastructure opportunity and bidding war.

It has failed to consider other options or address existing deficiencies. It has not given a voice to the Barngarla people who were excluded from an earlier constrained community ballot even though they are Native Title holders who neighbour the proposed Kimba site.

People in the wider communities of the Eyre Peninsula and across South Australia have not had a say. The current plan also neglects the interests of the tens of thousands of Australians who live along potential transport corridors.

Further, there is little or no detail about waste acceptance criteria, transport and handling procedures or for the future management of the most contaminating waste.

The Federal move is also in direct conflict with existing South Australian law.

There is a long-standing prohibition on Federal radioactive waste facilities in SA — a bipartisan and popular response to an earlier Howard Government move to impose radioactive waste.

Premier Steven Marshall’s Liberal Government is facing increasing calls to defend this State law and community interests from this unpopular, unnecessary and unlawful Federal push.

Securely managing radioactive waste is a complex and costly challenge that we are not meeting. There is a clear and urgent need to revisit and re-design the current Federal approach.

Irrespective of which minister holds the Mont Blanc, giving Canberra a blank cheque for a bad plan is not a good idea for any of us — now or for the very long future.

Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner and was a member of the Federal advisory panel on radioactive waste. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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