Australia as the world's nuclear waste dump?

Information on proposals to build an international high level nuclear waste dump in Australia
 

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

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."

RADIOACTIVE RACISM

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.

HAZARDS

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.

OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE

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.]


More information on plans to build an international nuclear dump in Australia