Australia as the world's nuclear waste dump?
Information on proposals to build an international high level nuclear waste dump in Australia
Some sources of information ....
- Detailed July 2015 paper written by Jean McSorley, submitted to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.
- Friends of the Earth webpage with lots of articles from lots of sources: www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/import-waste2
- 2015-16 SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (dishonest propaganda): http://nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/
- Summary of 'Tentative Findings' of SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (PDF)
- March 2016: Submission by the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia responding to the Royal Commission's Tentative Findings report (PDF)
- August 2015: Main submission to the Royal Commission by the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia (PDF) ... with a lengthy section on the plan to turn SA into the world's nuclear waste dump.
- Australia Institute, March 2016, 'Digging for Answers', report on economics of plan to import thousands of tonnes of spent fuel / high-level nuclear waste (PDF)
- Australia Institute, February 2016, 'The Impossible Dream', report on the silly plan, rejected by the Royal Commission, for South Australia to build Generation IV reactors (PDF)
- December 2015: A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, written by Dr Jim Green and Dr Philip White on behalf of the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia. To download the report click here (PDF) or to read online click here.
- Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group, Submission to Switkowski/UMPNER, August 2006 (PDF): http://web.archive.org/web/20070830182528/http://www.pmc.gov.au/umpner/submissions/134_sub_umpner.pdf
- J.J. Veevers, Disposal of British RADwaste at home and in antipodean Australia, Australian Geologist, http://web.archive.org/web/20120410062832/http://eps.mq.edu.au/media/vee...
- Association for Regional and International Underground Storage (the successor to Pangea Resrouces) www.arius-world.org
- 2003 submission and article by Australian academic Ian Holland (PDF) www.foe.org.au/sites/default/files/212%20I%20Holland%20on%20Pangea..pdf
Pangea Resources: 1999-2002
There is a precedent to current discussions about establishing an international high-level nuclear waste repository in Australia. Pangea Resources was an international consortium that was planning such a repository in Australia. Pangea set up an office in Australia in the late 1990s but gave up in 2002 in the face of overwhelming public and political opposition. The existence of Pangea Resources was a closely guarded secret until a corporate video was leaked to the media. Pangea chief Jim Voss denied meeting with federal government ministers when he had in fact met at least one minister. A Pangea spokesperson said: "We would not like to be lying ... we very much regret getting off on the wrong foot." Ironically, ARIUS, the successor to Pangea, now states: "An essential element of any approach is the open and complete flow of information."
Here is Pangea Resources' corporate video which was leaked to Friends of the Earth (UK) in the late 1990s. Until this video was leaked, Australians had no idea that we were being targeted as the world's nuclear dump.
Australia as the world's nuclear waste dump?
Some argue that Australia should establish a deep geological repository and accept high level nuclear waste from overseas. A variation of the argument is that Australia should accept high level waste arising from the processing of Australian uranium ('fuel leasing').
It is argued that Australia would be making a contribution to global non-proliferation efforts by accepting nuclear waste from overseas. However it is not clear that non-proliferation efforts would be advanced. It would depend on many factors, not least whether the waste contains weapons-useable plutonium (spent fuel contains plutonium, but the high level waste stream from reprocessing does not).
A few other points regarding proliferation risks:
- There are simpler and better ways to reduce proliferation risks, e.g. banning plutonium separation (reprocessing) and stockpiling, or tightening the safeguards system. Advocates of an Australian dump are generally disinterested in methods of reducing proliferation risks other than establishing a dump in Australia - i.e. their professed concern about proliferation risks appears opportunistic.
- South East Asia is, mainly through good luck and historical accident, free of countries with large-scale fissile (explosive) material stockpiles or with the capacity to produce large quantities of fissile material. That would change if Australia took possession of large quantities of plutonium contained within spent fuel.
- There has been too little consideration of the practicalities and realpolitik of fuel leasing proposals. For example, if India was buying uranium from and returning waste/plutonium to Australia, would that arrangement have survived India's 1998 weapons tests and Australia's response (which included trade sanctions)? Would Australia's response to India's tests have been tempered and compromised in order to protect a nuclear fuel leasing arrangement? Would the arrangement 'free up' other uranium sources for weapons production even if the leasing arrangement provided some confidence that Australian uranium (and its by-products) was not used directly in weapons? Would Australia allow India to reprocess Australian-obligated nuclear material under a leasing arrangement and would India be permitted to use the separated plutonium in its 'advanced' plutonium/thorium nuclear power program (which is outside the scope of IAEA safeguards, strongly suggesting a military dimension)?
It is argued that Australia has a responsibility to accept waste arising from the processing of uranium exports. However the larger share of the responsibility lies with the countries that make use of Australian uranium. Moreover while uranium mining companies arguably ought to take some responsibility for the waste arising from their exports, it is not clear that that responsibility lies with Australia as a whole. One plausible scenario is uranium being mined on Aboriginal land regardless of Aboriginal opposition, and the resulting high level waste being dumped on Aboriginal land, again without consent.
Pressure to dump nuclear waste in Australia will persist:
- There is still no repository for high level nuclear waste anywhere in the world. Only Finland and Sweden are within perhaps 10-20 years of establishing such a repository. There have been many failed attempts to establish dumps, none more spectacular than the Yucca Mountain fiasco in the US - by the time this project was abandoned it was 23 years behind schedule and A$10 billion had been wasted.
- About 290,000 tonnes of high level waste (in the form of spent nuclear fuel) have been produced in power reactors over the decades, of which about 90,000 tonnes have been reprocessed. As at 2012, power reactors are producing an additional 12,000 to 14,000 tonnes of spent fuel annually.
Support for Australia hosting an international nuclear dump
This was written c.2012 ... there are now more supporters and critics as a result of the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's promotion of high-level nuclear waste dumping in SA ...
An international consortium – Pangea Resources – was secretly (then publicly) lobbying to establish a high-level nuclear waste dump in Australia from the late 1990s until 2002. In 2002, Pangea Resources rebranded itself as ARIUS - the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage - and it is still lobbying to build a nuclear dump here.
The head of the World Nuclear Association, John Ritch, is one of numerous foreign corporate voices calling for Australia to accept the world's nuclear garbage.
On June 3, 2007, the Federal Council of the Liberal Party unanimously endorsed a resolution supporting the establishment of a foreign nuclear waste dump in Australia. The resolution stated: “Australia should expand its current nuclear industry to incorporate the entire uranium fuel cycle, the expansion of uranium mining to be combined with nuclear power generation and worldwide nuclear waste storage in the geotechnically stable and remote areas that Australia has to offer.”
The Howard government joined Australia to the US-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a scheme in which 'supplier' nations supply nuclear fuel and take back high-level nuclear waste from 'user' nations which operate reactors.
Politicians / ex-politicians supporting the development of a high level nuclear waste dump in Australia to take waste from overseas include:
- Liberal Senator Judith Troeth called for Australia to build nuclear power reactors and for the high-level waste to be dumped at Muckaty in the NT
- former Prime Minister Bob Hawke
- former foreign minister Alexander Downer
- former foreign minister Gareth Evans
- Liberal/National Coalition Senators refused to support a Senate motion opposing an international nuclear dump in May 2006
- in 2005 Martin Ferguson responded to Bob Hawke's call for Australia to establish a high level waste dump by saying: "In scientific terms Bob Hawke is right. Australia internationally could be regarded as a good place to actually bury it deep in the ground."
Australian groups lobbying for Australia to host an international high-level nuclear waste dump:
- Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group. Head of the NFLG, Dr. John White, has been promoting the group's vision of establishing a uranium enrichment plant, a fuel fabrication plant, and an international nuclear waste repository in Australia.
- Under the Howard government, the government-led Uranium Industry Framework promoted the idea. Specifically, a draft report of the UIF's stewardship working group recommended that Australia acepts international high-level nuclear waste arising from uranium exports.
Why Australia should not become the world's nuclear waste dump
9 August 2014, Jim Green, https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/57065
Former prime minister Bob Hawke is urging Australia to become the world's nuclear waste dump. But he has little hope of succeeding.
Hawke said Australia could end the disadvantage endured by its Indigenous population by opening up traditional lands as dumping sites for nuclear waste from around the world. This would "finally eliminate these disgraceful gaps in well-being and lifetime opportunities”, Hawke said — an echo of his grandiose claim in 1987 that, "By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty."
There are simpler and safer methods to close the gap. For starters, the government could reverse planned cuts of $500 million from Indigenous spending over the next five years. Hawke has been silent about those funding cuts. Likewise, Warren Mundine — head of the federal government's Indigenous Advisory Council and another supporter of dumping nuclear waste on Aboriginal land — has not protested the funding cuts.
In 2005, Hawke promoted Australia as the world's nuclear waste dump, claiming that: "If we were to do that, we would have a source of income — forget about current account deficit. ... We can revolutionise the economics of Australia if we did this." Nuclear utilities would certainly pay handsomely to dump nuclear waste in Australia, but the sums involved would not come close to revolutionising Australia's economy, nor would they fundamentally alter patterns of Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage.
In 2009 Hawke said: "I have spoken to Aboriginal leaders and to people from the environmental movement and they are prepared to consider the proposition." Five years later, no-one from the environment movement supports the proposition and Warren Mundine is the only Aboriginal person publicly supporting it.
Lauren Mellor, nuclear-free campaigner with the Environment Centre NT, said: "It is little wonder that Hawke's efforts at a treaty with Aboriginal Australia failed when the best plan he can envisage for lifting communities out of poverty is to offer a toxic trade-off for access to basic services that all other citizens enjoy. This really demonstrates how bereft of responsible policy ideas some politicians are, both in regards to tackling Aboriginal disadvantage and dealing responsibly with the nation's growing radioactive waste problem."
Hawke appears to be oblivious to debates over Australia's nuclear waste over the past 20 years. From 1998−2004, the Howard government did its best to dump Australia's nuclear waste on Aboriginal land in South Australia but faced fierce resistance from traditional owners and many others. In 2003, the government used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native Title rights and interests were extinguished with the stroke of a pen.
The SA dump plan was abandoned in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Then in 2005 the Howard government targeted potential dump sites in the Northern Territory. The government passed legislation — the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act — overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act, undermining the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allowing the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent.
After the 2007 election, Labor passed new legislation − the National Radioactive Waste Management Act — which was almost as draconian and still permitted the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation of consent. In June 2014, plans to establish a dump in the NT were abandoned, defeated by a determined campaign led by traditional owners.
Given the history of failed dump proposals in SA and the NT, and the crude racism associated with those proposals, does Hawke really imagine winning support from Indigenous people for a high-level nuclear waste dump?
Equally fanciful is the idea that the proposal would win broad public support. A 1999 survey commissioned by Greenpeace found that 85% of respondents believed the federal government should pass legislation banning the importation of foreign nuclear waste into Australia.
Hawke claims: "Australia can make a significant difference to the safety of nuclear generation by agreeing to take waste from nuclear power stations. This would be an important contribution to safety and energy security."
But as Prof. John Veevers from Macquarie University wrote in the Australian Geologist in August 1999, an international high-level nuclear waste dump would pose serious public health and environmental risks: "Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000 kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk."
Dr Mike Sandiford from the School of Earth Sciences at University of Melbourne writes: "Australia is relatively stable but not tectonically inert, and appears to be less stable than a number of other continental regions. Some places in Australia are surprisingly geologically active. ... To the extent that past earthquake activity provides a guide to future tectonic activity, Australia would not appear to provide the most tectonically stable environments for long-term waste facilities."
There are social as well as technical dimensions to risk assessments. The “clean-up” of the Maralinga nuclear bomb test site in the late 1990s provides a test of Australia's capacity to safely manage nuclear waste. The “clean-up” was done on the cheap and many tonnes of debris contaminated with kilograms of plutonium remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology.
Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said: "What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land." An officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator said in a leaked email that the “clean-up” was beset by a "host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups".
Barely a decade after the Maralinga “clean-up”, a survey revealed that 19 of the 85 contaminated debris pits had been subject to erosion or subsidence. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years.
Australia is not the only country where nuclear waste dumping is promoted as the solution to the poverty and disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people. North American indigenous activist Winona LaDuke told the 2006 Indigenous World Uranium Summit: "The greatest minds in the nuclear establishment have been searching for an answer to the radioactive waste problem for fifty years, and they've finally got one: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation".
The US state of New Mexico is host to the world's only deep geological repository − the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which stores long-lived intermediate-level military waste. WIPP is currently closed because of a fire and radiation leaks earlier this year.
On February 5, a truck hauling salt caught fire at WIPP. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated. A March 2014 report by the US Department of Energy (DOE) identified the root cause of the fire as the "failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground."
In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board, reported that WIPP "does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations."
On February 14, radiation leaks were detected and resulted in 22 workers being subjected to internal radiation contamination. A second, smaller radiation release was detected on March 11. A DOE-appointed Accident Investigation Board identified the "root cause" of the accidents to be the many failings of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the WIPP site, and DOE's Carlsbad Field Office.
The report criticised their "failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard. The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed / ineffective recognition and response to the release."
When WIPP opened in 1999, the DOE estimated the risk of a radiological contamination incident to be one chance in 10,000 per year or less. But there has already been a radiological contamination incident in the first 15 years of operation. At the current rate, there will be 670 radiological contamination incidents over a 10,000 year period.
Terry Krieg, one of Australia's nuclear lobbyists, argues that the claim that there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste "is false and always has been, ever since nuclear power was first generated in the late 1950s." One can only wonder what he's been smoking.
[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.]
How a high-level nuclear waste dump could lose money
The economic case for a high level nuclear waste facility in South Australia is far from convincing, writes Prof. Richard Blandy.
InDaily, 7 June 2016
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission delivered its report early in May. I submitted my InDaily article on the Royal Commission’s tentative findings to the inquiry for its consideration. I received no acknowledgement, but I know that the article was discussed within the royal commission’s processes. It does not appear to have had any substantive effect on the report.
Having read the relevant sections of the report, I continue to believe that South Australia should not use part of its land mass as a dump for highly radioactive used fuel from overseas nuclear reactors (sp-called “high level waste”) which, in the royal commission’s own words, “requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years”.
The only reason why most South Australians would give a high level nuclear waste dump even a second’s thought is because it is being sold to them as a financial bonanza – a no-risk economic lifeline to a state down on its luck. Something for nothing.
In the summary of its report, the royal commission says that a high level waste dump “could generate more than $100 billion income in excess of expenditure over the 120-year life of the project (or $51 billion discounted at 4 per cent)”. Note that the report says “could”, not “would”.
But, in Appendix J, the report says that “applying a commercial pre-tax discount rate of 10 per cent the net present value of profits to the State would amount to $11.5 billion”. This is a big reduction from the headline number in the summary of $100 billion.
Also in Appendix J, the report says the commission undertook sensitivity analysis of the value of the dump if less of the world market for used fuel were captured and the price was lower. The royal commission concluded that: “Under these scenarios, the project achieved lower profits than the baseline scenario, but remained highly viable.”
On the page following that statement, Figure J.6 shows that at a price for dumped nuclear fuel equal to Swedish costs of constructing a nuclear waste dump, and assuming half or more of the world’s available high level nuclear waste came to South Australia, the dump would have a net present value of profits of about $5 billion.
At a world price for dumped nuclear fuel equal to Finnish costs of constructing such a dump, the dump would have a net present value of profits of only about $2.5 billion.
In fact, if South Australia’s dump could only attract a quarter of the world’s high level nuclear waste, at prices equal to Swedish or Finnish costs of construction (approximately A$1.13m/tonne of heavy metal and A$0.65m/tonne of heavy metal, respectively), our dump would lose money and would have a negative net present value.
The reason why the royal commission says our dump could make more than $100 billion income in excess of expenditure is because a high price to dump used fuel has been chosen of A$1.75m/tonne of heavy metal.
The commission’s precise thinking on this point is worth quoting:
“Based on detailed analysis, the Commission considers that a reasonable baseline price for the purpose of assessing viability would be A$1.75m/tHM for used fuel. This is based on a reasonable baseline ‘willingness to pay’ estimate of A$1.95/tHM less A$0.2m/tHM to account for costs incurred by customers in preparing and delivering the waste to South Australia.
The financial modelling derived the baseline ‘willingness to pay’ figure of $A1.95m/tHM as a mid-point between the estimated highest and lowest willingness to pay.”
The truth, therefore, is that the price that the royal commission has chosen for its “baseline” analysis is a guess, based on its estimates of the costs that some countries might face to dispose of their waste themselves.
Economics I teaches that price equals marginal cost in a profit maximising competitive market – not “willingness to pay”. “Willingness to pay” is some price above the actual market price that varies from buyer to buyer. Only a perfectly discriminating monopoly supplier could charge each country a price equal to their willingness to pay.
We should not continue to entertain the fantasy that we have been given a “Get Out of Jail” card in the shape of building a high level nuclear waste dump in South Australia.
Is South Australia likely to be a global monopoly provider of high level nuclear waste dump services? This is not plausible.
Many countries are going to build geological disposal sites for high level nuclear waste including, as the report notes, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Four case studies examined by the royal commission itself – Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland – are located in crowded Europe, confront difficult terrain and heavy rainfall. The United States itself has a huge program of nuclear waste disposal. Further, the global “accessible market” for high level nuclear waste (in the commission’s parlance) excludes India and China.
Why are these countries not going to open up their own waste depositories to other countries? They have already decided to build nuclear dumps for their own purposes and have already found locations. The marginal cost of extending their dumps to take in high level nuclear waste from other countries will be low. They will be able to subsidise their own domestic waste disposal programs by taking in nuclear waste from other countries at a price above or equal to their low marginal cost.
The international price for dumping high level nuclear waste in the market that will form is very likely to be well below the average cost of Sweden and Finland, which are, in turn, far below the price used to predict huge profits from a dump in South Australia. In which case South Australia’s high level nuclear waste dump will be unviable, because it will have to cover all of its costs from sales, not just its marginal costs.
As if anticipating this prospect, the royal commission left itself an “out”, when it said: “The facility would not be developed unless the proponent could secure a pre-commitment of used fuel volumes at a price to fully fund the development of the project”.
I hope that the citizen’s jury that is being chosen to consider whether there is a “social licence” to proceed with a high level nuclear waste dump in South Australia will be allowed to read my articles, let alone have me speak to them. We should not continue to entertain the fantasy that we have been given a “Get Out of Jail” card in the shape of building a high level nuclear waste dump in South Australia.
Real juries hear both the Prosecution and Defence cases in open court. What I fear is that my fellow citizens selected for citizen’s jury duty will get to read and hear only what the State Government wants them to read and hear, so that they will give Premier Weatherill the “social licence” he wants in order to proceed with the dump.
South Australians do not need to mortgage their descendants’ future by building a high level nuclear dump in order to make ends meet. The alleged riches that the dump has been claimed to bring are a mirage, but the long-term risks are not.
As the royal commission’s report itself says: “A person standing one metre from an unshielded used fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose of radiation in a few seconds… used fuel requires isolation and containment from the environment for at least 100,000 years.”
This is safe? I don’t think so.
Richard Blandy is an Adjunct Professor in the Business School at the University of South Australia and a weekly contributor to InDaily.
An expanded nuclear industry in South Australia makes no economic sense
Richard Denniss ‒ chief economist at The Australia Institute
18 August 2015
The South Australian government is conducting a royal commission into expanding the nuclear industry in the state. If the pro-nuclear positions taken by the majority of the commission’s advisory committee are anything to go by, this would mean two things: expensive nuclear power, and expensive nuclear waste.
The economic case for nuclear power is already shaky. Respected financial advisory firm Lazard recently gave their assessment of the unsubsidised cost of energy. They found that existing renewable and gas technologies are already cheaper than nuclear power.
And while renewables are getting cheaper, new nuclear builds are getting more expensive. Flagship projects in the US and Europe are suffering from chronic cost overruns, while the UK’s Hinkley Point C project is in doubt, despite the UK government signing a 35-year deal to buy electricity at nearly twice the current market rate.
Some, like Senator Sean Edwards, hope that other countries will pay Australia to take their waste. They then hope to build so-called “fourth generation” reactors which can burn other countries’ waste as fuel. In effect, Senator Edwards thinks we could get fuel for less than nothing.
Fourth generation reactors look great on paper, but on paper is the only place you will see them. Despite industry hopes of greater safety and the ability to reduce waste to more manageable levels, none have been built.
Should Australia be the first? For one of those lucky countries without high level nuclear waste, this seems like an extraordinary step to make. We would give ourselves a waste problem in the hope that we, unlike everyone else, could solve it – like a person who takes up smoking just to prove they can quit.
While fourth generation reactors, if they work, could take existing stockpiles requiring 10,000 years of safe storage, and reduce it to waste requiring only 500 years, this does not eliminate the problem. A solution would still need to be found that lasted 500 years.
Unlike existing nuclear nations, Australia would not be reducing an existing problem. We would be creating a new one.
Can we safely secure waste for centuries? Unfortunately international experience suggests not. Multiple facilities designed to last thousands of years have already failed in mere decades. How certain are we that we can do it better than, for example, Germany and the US?
The spruikers of the idea that the brightest future for South Australia is a nuclear waste dump have suggested it will provide “free electricity”. Like all magic pudding solutions to complicated problems, the idea simply doesn’t stack up.
After 50 years of nuclear power there is no shortage of nuclear waste in the world. Countries with that waste currently spend a lot of money storing it and the magic pudding merchants argue that South Australia could get rich from it. But let’s think this through.
If nuclear waste is actually a “resource” then why would the countries that have piles of the stuff pay us to take it away?
If fourth generation reactors are really so cheap and easy to build then why don’t the people with established nuclear industries and “waste resources” build one themselves?
And if South Australia could succeed from scratch where experienced hands have failed then why wouldn’t the countries with all of the waste build one after South Australia spent a fortune finding out how it is done?
Surely even Senator Edwards can understand that if fourth generation reactors could be built then the obvious place to build them would be right next to existing waste stockpiles. Exporting nuclear waste from most counties is illegal, as well as extremely dangerous and expensive.
The cost of renewable energy is falling as fast today as the cost of mobile phone fell a decade ago. As demand for renewables increases so too does the rate of innovation. But just as the world is reaching a tipping point in which the costs of renewables with storage is lower than the cost of coal some techno-optimists have managed to convince South Australians to instead bet on nuclear technology even as the rest of the world is walking away from its risk and cost.
No one set out to cause climate change. But 100 years ago no one could have imagined that we would build enough coal fired power stations to heat the globe. Giving the fossil fuel industry free “waste disposal” services was the same as giving them a big subsidy. It wasn’t deliberate but it was a mistake.
Today the South Australian government is seriously considering jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. While people a century ago didn’t know about the risks of polluting the atmosphere when burning coal, policy makers today know exactly the risks of storing nuclear waste.
The idea that the South Australian taxpayer should underwrite the cost of a nuclear waste dump, underwrite the cost of a nuclear power station, and then provide both with “free” insurance is as bizarre as it is expensive. Unlike building coal fired power stations in the past, it would be a deliberate mistake.
The Australia Institute’s full submission to the South Australian nuclear fuel cycle royal commission is available here.
SA nuclear Royal Commission is a snow job
Jim Green, 29 April 2016
The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (RC) will release its final report on May 6. It was established to investigate opportunities for SA to expand its role in the nuclear industry beyond uranium mining.
Before his appointment as the Royal Commissioner, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce said little about nuclear issues but what he did say should have excluded him from consideration. Speaking in November 2014 at a Flinders University guest lecture, Scarce acknowledged being an “an advocate for a nuclear industry”. Just four months later, after his appointment as the Royal Commissioner, he said the exact opposite: “I have not been an advocate and never have been an advocate of the nuclear industry.”
Other than generalisations, and his acknowledgement that he is a nuclear advocate, Scarce’s only comment of substance on nuclear issues in his 2014 lecture was to claim that work is “well underway” on a compact fusion reactor “small enough to fit in a truck”, that it “may be less than a decade away” and could produce power “without the risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns.” Had he done just a little research, Scarce would have learnt that Lockheed Martin’s claims about its proposed compact fusion reactor were met with universal scepticism and ridicule by scientists and even by nuclear industry bodies.
So the SA government appointed Scarce as Royal Commissioner despite knowing that he is a nuclear advocate who has uncritically promoted discredited claims by the nuclear industry. Scarce appointed an Expert Advisory Committee. Despite claiming that he was conducting a “balanced” RC, he appointed three nuclear advocates to the Committee and just one critic. The bias is all too apparent and Scarce’s claim to be conducting a balanced inquiry is demonstrably false.
Given the make-up of the RC, it came as no surprise that numerous questionable claims by the nuclear industry were repeated in the RC’s interim report released in February. A detailed critique of the interim report is available online, as is a critique of the RC process.
The RC’s interim report was actually quite downbeat about the economic prospects for a nuclear industry in SA. It notes that the market for uranium conversion and enrichment services is oversupplied and that a spent fuel reprocessing plant would not be commercially viable. The interim report also states that “it would not be commercially viable to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant in South Australia in the foreseeable future.”
In a nutshell, the RC rejected proposals for SA to play any role in the nuclear fuel cycle beyond uranium mining. But that still leaves the option of SA offering to store and dispose of foreign high-level nuclear waste (HLW) and the RC strongly promotes a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of HLW for storage and deep underground disposal.
SA as the world’s nuclear waste dump
The RC insists that a nuclear waste storage and dumping business could be carried out safely. But would it be carried out safely? The RC ought to have considered evidence that can be drawn upon to help answer the question, especially since Kevin Scarce has repeatedly insisted that he is running an evidence-based inquiry.
So what sort of evidence might be considered? The experience of the world’s one and only deep underground nuclear waste dump ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in the U.S. ‒ is clearly relevant. And Australia’s past experience with nuclear waste management is clearly relevant, with the clean-up of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in SA being an important case study.
But the RC completely ignores all this evidence in its interim report. We can only assume that the evidence is ignored because it raises serious doubts about the environmental and public health risks associated with the proposal to import, store and dispose of HLW.
WIPP is a case study of a sharp decline in safety and regulatory standards over a short space of time. A chemical explosion in a nuclear waste barrel in February 2014 was followed by a failure of the filtration system, resulting in 22 workers receiving small doses of radiation and widespread contamination in the underground caverns. WIPP has been shut down for the two years since the accident. Costs associated with the accident are likely to exceed US$500 million. A U.S. government report details the many failings of the operator and the regulator.
At a public meeting in Adelaide Town Hall in February 2016, Scarce said that WIPP was ignored in the RC interim report because it involved different waste forms (long-lived intermediate-level waste) of military origin. In fact, the waste that the RC recommends that SA import is vastly more hazardous than the waste managed at WIPP, so Scarce’s argument is hard to fathom.
Moreover the RC has overlooked the fundamental lesson from the WIPP fiasco – initially high safety and regulatory standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting in the space of just 10–15 years. The RC notes that HLW “requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years”. How can Scarce be confident that high safety and regulatory standards would be maintained over centuries and millennia when WIPP shows that the half-life of human complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting is measured in years or at most decades?
There is no logical reason to believe that the SA government would perform any better than the U.S. government. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that nuclear waste management would be more difficult here given that the U.S. has vastly more nuclear waste management expertise and experience than Australia.
While completely ignoring the world’s one and only existing deep underground nuclear waste dump, the RC talks at length about deep underground repositories under construction in Finland and Sweden. According to the RC’s interim report, those two countries “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” for nuclear waste. But in fact, neither country has completed construction of a repository let alone demonstrated safe operation over any length of time.
Mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA
The RC has also ignored the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA. A radioactive waste repository at Radium Hill, for example, “is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice” according to a 2003 SA government audit. And the ‘clean-up’ of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s was a fiasco:
- Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.” (See Parkinson’s videos here and here.)
- Scientist Dale Timmons said the government’s technical report was littered with “gross misinformation”.
- Dr Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said that the ‘clean-up’ was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups”.
- Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston (now with ARPANSA) noted that there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project”.
The RC’s interim report claims that “South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel”. But SA has a track record of mismanaging radioactive waste (Radium Hill, Maralinga, etc.) and no experience managing HLW. The RC’s claim that SA has “a mature and stable political, social and economic structure” needs to be considered in the context of the longevity of nuclear waste. Australia has had one profound political revolution in the past 250 years (European invasion) and is on track for 1,200 political revolutions over the 300,000-year lifespan of nuclear waste.
The RC’s interim report presents speculative and implausible figures regarding potential profits from a nuclear waste storage and dumping industry. The Australia Institute crunched the numbers presented in the interim report and wrote a detailed factual rebuttal. Scarce responded on ABC radio on 31 March 2016 by saying that the RC will “take apart” the Australia Institute’s report “piece by piece”. When asked if such an aggressive attitude was appropriate, Scarce said: “I’m a military officer, what would you expect?”
And that says all that anyone needs to know about Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce and his Royal Commission. Critics are taken apart piece by piece, or ignored altogether. On the other hand, Scarce uncritically repeats Lockheed Martin’s discredited claims about its ‘compact fusion reactor’ and the RC’s interim report repeats many other nuclear industry falsehoods. Scarce ignores the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA (Radium Hill, Maralinga etc.) and he ignores the failure of the world’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump while claiming that Sweden and Finland “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” by partially building deep underground dumps.
A year ago the Adelaide Advertiser published a Friends of the Earth letter likening the RC to a circus and Kevin Scarce to a clown. Events over the past year have only confirmed the illegitimacy of the RC. The RC’s bias would be comical if the stakes weren’t so high, particularly for Aboriginal people in the firing line for a HLW dump.
The Aboriginal Congress of South Australia endorsed the following resolution at an August 2015 meeting:
“We, as native title representatives of lands and waters of South Australia, stand firmly in opposition to nuclear developments on our country, including all plans to expand uranium mining, and implement nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our land. We view any further expansion of industry as an imposition on our country, our people, our environment, our culture and our history. We also view it as a blatant disregard for our rights under various legislative instruments, including the founding principles of this state.”
The Aboriginal-led Australian Nuclear Free Alliance is asking organisations in Australia and around the world to endorse a statement opposing the plan to turn SA into the world’s nuclear waste dump. Organisations can endorse the statement online at www.anfa.org.au/sign-the-declaration
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.