Nuclear waste importing: The taboo election topic

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An international nuclear waste dump is planned for South Australia but it is hardly mentioned in the lead up to the federal election. Noel Wauchope approached the candidates to see where they stand.

THE MAJOR PARTIES have each shrunk their thinking down to a couple of themes.

Occasionally, there's a little burst from Labor about climate change, to which Turnbull might respond with a few motherhood statements on that subject.

But the one that nobody touches is nuclear waste importing.

The South Australian Labor Government is spending an enormous amount of money, time and effort, towards starting the world's first commercial nuclear waste importing business. They plan to make a decision on this later this year — a decision that will impact the whole of Australia.

Whether you think about ports for receiving radioactive wastes or road or rail transport to the South Australian waste facility, or other issues, such as safety, the terrorism risk, Australian agriculture's clean green reputation, it is pretty clear that this is a matter of national importance.

I've now found that Australian federal politicians, outside of South Australia, are pretty much oblivious of this extraordinary plan, unprecedented in the world, to invite in global nuclear waste. 

I've been writing to every Labor, Liberal and Xenophon candidate for the coming election, asking what they think about the idea of Australia setting up shop as the radioactive waste toilet for the world. Well, no, I didn't express it quite that way. I followed this up with phone calls to some of the electoral offices. Of some 350 candidates that I contacted, most did not reply. 

However, over 30 Labor candidates did reply. Some of them clearly said that, in the event of a move coming up to weaken Labor's nuclear-free policy, they would vote to keep it unchanged. Most Labor respondents sent me a statement that explained that they did not oppose the return and disposal of reprocessed nuclear waste that had originated at the Lucas Heights research reactor in Sydney, but did oppose the importation of foreign waste.

Labor is strongly opposed to the importation and storage of nuclear waste that is sourced from overseas in Australia. Labor is committed to finding a solution for storage of Australia’s nuclear waste. We will continue to oppose the importation of nuclear waste from other countries.

Finally, I received that same message from ALP Information Services, though I hadn't actually written to them. 

I received just one answer from a Liberal candidate. I rather admire this person for spelling out clearly his support for the waste import proposal.

The smaller parties? From the Xenophon Team came three diplomatically worded replies that amounted to cautiously neutral opinions and two who clearly oppose a commercial nuclear waste import scheme. And, surprisingly, two replies from National Party candidates clearly opposed the scheme. 

The Greens? They have a lengthy anti-nuclear policy, which includes rejection of importing foreign nuclear waste.

Was my querying a complete waste of time, seeing that I received so few replies? I don't think so. In my follow-up calls to candidates, I found that many of them seemed to not understand the difference between the Federal Government's search for a site to bury the Lucas Heights returning wastes and the South Australian Government's plan for a commercial waste import industry. If the exercise merely raised awareness of this difference, it was probably worthwhile.

Meanwhile, I was not alone in my campaign. Some worried South Australians have also written to their federal candidates, getting back similar responses. They found that Xenophon Team candidates responded with replies ranging from anxiety to clear opposition to the dump plan.

Environmentalists might feel reassured that Labor is keeping to its nuclear policy. Their "standard" reply and those few personal replies and conversations with their offices do indicate that Labor politicians don't want nuclear waste importing. However, it is early days. Last year's ALP National Conference unanimously reaffirmed their nuclear policy. This was not necessarily because they all agreed but was more of a political move to avoid a national fuss, for the time being, while the pro-nuclear individuals continued their quiet machinations. 

Several individual Labor present and past heavies have a pro-nuclear track record. For example, Bob Hawke, Bob Carr, Martin Ferguson and yes, Bill Shorten. The Labor Party's traditional loyalty to policy has served them well but can also be problematic, if some of the heavy hitters work to change things. 

If Jay Weatherill's South Australian Labor Government does decide to pursue the nuclear waste goal, it will be interesting to see where the federal politicians stand. At least we know what Labor's policy platform is. The Liberals don't seem to have a formal policy on matters nuclear but their history is all too clearly pro-nuclear.

It would be useful to have this issue put before the voters.

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

You can sign the change.org petition to Prime Minister Turnbull, 'No Nuclear Waste Dump in South Australia' here

Read more about the history behind the Coalition's nuclear waste dump plan here

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