Exhuming South Australia's nuclear waste import dump

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The SA nuclear waste dump may be dead in the water, but a nuclear waste import plan may now be a Federal affair, writes Noel Wauchope.

POLITICAL SUPPORT for South Australia's nuclear waste import project has collapsed.

On 10 November, South Australian Liberal Opposition Leader Steven Marshall declared

"Jay Weatherill’s dream of turning South Australia into a nuclear waste dump is now dead. That death knell was sounded on Sunday when the citizens’ jury handed their final report to the Premier."

Senator Nick Xenophon said nuclear waste storage in SA is “a stinker of an idea”, which should be “buried for eternity”. Labor Premier Weatherill fumed, accusing the Opposition Leader of withdrawing his support for a nuclear waste dump before the consultation process had been completed.

But the damage was done. A Parliamentary Inquiry into the plan has heard some damning economic evidence. Even nuclear enthusiast Business SA chief Nigel McBride pronounced that the plan was now “dead”. The beleaguered Weatherill now faces mutiny in his own party. The Advertiser reported a strong push within Labor to roll the nuclear policy and increased opposition from the union movement to the waste import plan. 

You would think that, with an election coming up in 2018, Jay Weatherill might ponder on the advantages of making a gracious retreat, respecting the remarkably strong recommendation from his own Citizens' Jury, that the international nuclear dump was not to go ahead "under any circumstances".

But Jay Weatherill is persisting with the plan, even though it is a bell tolling his political suicide. We can only suspect that Weatherill has some very poor advisers, or that he is beholden to the nuclear lobby.

Let not the anti-nuclear movement rejoice 

The plan for importing nuclear waste to South Australia has been several decades in the making and this recent government push has cost at least $13 million. The nuclear lobby is not giving up so easily. The focus now shifts to the plan for a Federal Government nuclear waste dump in Barndioota.

It would be naive to think that these two plans are not connected.

Australia has a relatively small but enthusiastic pro-nuclear lobby, led by Ben Heard and Barry Brook. Ben Heard – who has just started a pro-nuclear group seeking charity status – made the connection between the two waste dump plans, explaining why South Australia could take not only Australia's but also the world's nuclear waste. 

It is a simple and, in a way, logical idea to say that once a place is radioactively polluted, well, why not choose that place to dump more radioactive pollution? That logic was expected to work for South Australia, seeing that widespread pollution had occurred as a result of the British atomic bomb tests. However, it backfired badly, when the Aboriginal communities and their doughty supporters, Sisters of St Joseph, produced compelling arguments against that idea.

That idea didn't work at first, but what if we got a nuclear waste dump in South Australia? One that started out storing "low level medical" nuclear waste but then got "intermediate level" nuclear waste originally derived from Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear reactor? Especially as medical nuclear wastes are so short-lived — radioactivity lasting generally for just hours, or a few days, it would be pretty silly to have a great big repository site, with not enough wastes to fill it. 

The Federal Government has been secretive about its current plan for a national nuclear waste dump. The publicity about it has been downright duplicitous. They say that the purpose for the dump is to dispose of medical radioactive wastes. 

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) itself points out the brief period of radioactivity of medical isotopes: 

'Nuclear medicines typically have a half-life of several hours or days. This means they rapidly lose their radioactivity level within the predetermined half-life.' 

Medical waste only radioactive for short periods

Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) is the most in demand medical isotope. It can be shipped from a nuclear reactor where it is created as a fission product, to the point of use as it has a reasonably long half-life of 66 hours. Its decay product, technetium 99m, with a six-hour half-life, is used as a tracer. 

Now, if medical wastes are radioactive for only hours, or a few days, why would they need to be transported for thousands of miles across the continent? They are produced in very small quantities and currently stored near the point of use — in hospitals. (There's actually a strong argument for the use of non-nuclear cyclotrons to produce these isotopes close to the hospitals, rather than at the centralised nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.)

So, an underground nuclear waste facility for medical wastes, at remote Barndioota, in South Australia, doesn't seem necessary.

But then there's the processed nuclear waste returning to Lucas Heights from France and the UK. The Australian Government describes this as intermediate-level waste that isn’t harmful unless mismanaged. The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) has classified it as high-level (long-life) waste according to standards set by ANDRA, the French national radioactive waste management agency. High-level waste is ANDRA’s most severe nuclear waste classification.

It is pretty clear that the purpose of the proposed Barndioota nuclear waste dump is the disposal of Australia's intermediate to high-level waste returning from overseas. There are strong arguments for closing Australia's Lucas Heights reactor. However, that is not the subject here. I concede that ANSTO needs to decide what to do with this nuclear waste presently kept at the Lucas Heights facility

ANSTO was asked by the Federal Government to site, store and manage the return of reprocessed waste until the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is in place. ANSTO has applied to ARPANSA for licences to construct and operate an interim waste store. 

Nobody is suggesting that the proposed Federal waste dump would develop into a site to receive international nuclear waste and there are significant reasons why that would almost certainly be impossible. One important reason is that Australia's "returning" nuclear wastes are very small — currently estimated at 680 cubic metres. The site is rumoured to have a capacity of about 10,000 cubic metres. The government is very cagey about the planned capacity, but I am assuming that it would be much smaller than Finland's Onkalo nuclear waste repository, which has a planned capacity of 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes. 

It seems there is no way that the federal plan could develop into that grandiose project.

Federal nuclear waste project to start the process 

But the federal nuclear waste project starts the process in some important ways.

First, the plan must navigate several legal difficulties. In 2010, former premier Mike Rann brought in laws to prevent a national nuclear waste dump being placed in South Australia — laws which would have to be repealed before the Federal Government could proceed. Federally, the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 did water down prohibitions on nuclear waste dumping but there are still provisions that have to be overcome, particularly in relation to Aboriginal rights. 

Secondly, there is that Aboriginal question. I think that the State and Federal governments are justifiably wary of the opposition they might meet from Indigenous communities — and they are working on that problem. The South Australian Government recently imposed Aboriginal Regional Authorities upon the State's Indigenous communities. These are being used to fast-track and rubber stamp development over much of the land. They would be integral to Jay Weatherill's strategy of manufacturing consent.

Premier Weatherill is still bent on the grand plan to make South Australia a hub for commercial importation of nuclear wastes. He promises a plebiscite on the matter at some unspecified time in the future, to be held "at the end of the process, after everything has been worked out”.

An unspoken part of the process must surely be the development of the Federal Government's nuclear waste facility in South Australia, which would conveniently overcome some big hurdles and would make that State look like an attractive place for a nuclear hub. 

Environmentalists had better stop rejoicing and start examining the machinations behind the Federal Government plan. 

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

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