NT Dump - the thin edge of the wedge

Jim Green
September 2011

1.      The proposed dump site would take an ever-increasing amount of waste; not just low-level radioactive waste but also long-lived intermediate-level waste.

2.      'Extended interim storage' of unprocessed spent nuclear fuel at a dump site has previously been canvassed by Canberra.

3.      A spent nuclear fuel processing plant could be built in the NT.

4.      If nuclear power plants are built in Australia, there is every likelihood that Muckaty / NT would be targeted for high-level nuclear waste disposal.

5.      There is a small possibility that the above-mentioned developments will pave the way for a deep underground dump for tens of thousands of tonnes of high-level waste from nuclear power plants overseas.

 

1. The proposed dump site would take an ever-increasing amount of waste; not just low-level radioactive waste but also long-lived intermediate-level waste.

·         The claim that the proposed dump is for low-level waste is false. Measured by radioactivity, most of the waste is long-lived intermediate-level (LLIL) waste which will be stored above-ground as an 'interim' measure until a suitable site for a deep geological LLIL waste repository is established. Since no effort is being made to establish a deep geological repository for LLIL waste, 'interim' storage at Muckaty would likely last for decades or centuries.

·         Alternatively, the government may bury the LLIL waste at Muckaty regardless of the site's suitability on scientific and environmental criteria.

·         In addition to the current stockpile of around 4000 cubic metres of waste, the proposed dump (and above-ground LLIL waste store) would accept ongoing waste production for decades or centuries including, for example, large volumes of waste from decommissioned nuclear reactors from Lucas Heights. The shut-down HIFAR reactor will generate at least 500 cubic metres of waste; a smaller reactor has been shut-down; and the operating 'OPAL' reactor will eventually be shut-down and decommissioned.

 

2. “Extended interim storage” of spent nuclear fuel.

·         In addition to the above-ground 'interim' storage of spent fuel reprocessing waste, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), operator of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor site south of Sydney, has said that unprocessed spent nuclear fuel could be sent to a LLIL waste store for “extended interim storage” if overseas reprocessing plans fall through. ANSTO said in 1998: "In the unlikely event that the overseas options [for reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel] should become unavailable, it would be possible at short notice to take advantage of off-the-shelf dry-storage casks for extended interim storage at the national storage facility". (Draft EIS, p.10-18)

 

3. A spent nuclear fuel processing plant could be built in the NT.

·         A confidential July 4, 1997 Department of Industry, Science and Tourism paper, obtained under freedom of information legislation, short-listed Darwin as one of the possible sites for a nuclear reprocessing plant. (Department of Industry, Science and Tourism, July 1997, "Siting Cabinet Submission".)

·         An April 1998 Department of Industry, Science and Tourism internal briefing paper, obtained under freedom of information legislation, revealed that the government did not want to close off the option of building a domestic reprocessing plant: "We may look at new technologies to deal with spent fuel at a later date. ... Do not mention a reprocessing plant."

·         A senior Canberra bureaucrat said in  March 29, 1998: "Cabinet considered reprocessing, but decided it was an issue for another generation. ... 2015 they've got to worry about their spent fuel rods. Someone else can worry about it. And reprocessing is a possibility then ..." (www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing/stories/1998/10730.htm)

 

4. If nuclear power plants are built in Australia, there is every likelihood that Muckaty / NT would be targeted for high-level nuclear waste disposal.

·         This could happen regardless of the suitability of Muckaty for the storage or disposal of such waste (Muckaty did not make the short-list on scientific or environmental criteria for the current dump proposal, but that clearly hasn't stopped Canberra). Liberal Senator Judith Troeth has argued that Australia should build nuclear power plants and that the high-level nuclear waste should be dumped at Muckaty.

·         Sites in the NT would be vulnerable for precisely the same reasons that the NT has been targeted for Australia's, namely:

i) the relatively small population in the NT (and hence the Territory's lack of political clout in the national context)

ii) the limited legal powers of territories compared to states, and

iii) the willingness of the NLC to cut deals with the federal government including support for legislation which makes the nomination of a nuclear dump site legally valid even in the absence of any consultation with, or support from, Traditional Owners.

 

5. There is a small possibility that the above-mentioned developments will pave the way for a deep underground dump for tens of thousands of tonnes of high-level waste from nuclear power plants overseas.

·         A decade ago, a leaked corporate video revealed that an international consortium called Pangea Resources had secretly developed plans to dump 75,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste in Australia. Pangea Resources now calls itself ARIUS and it is still lobbying to build a nuclear dump here.

·         The head of the World Nuclear Association, John Ritch, is one of the many 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. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, repeatedly call for foreign high-level nuclear waste to be dumped in Australia.