Can Australia learn from international experience in managing radioactive waste?

Anica Niepraschk

For over 20 years the Australian government has been trying to find sites to host our radioactive waste in a centralised facility: first in South Australia and then the Northern Territory. All of these attempts were flawed and ultimately failed – most recently the attempt to dispose of Australia's low-level radioactive waste and store the intermediate level waste in Muckaty, NT. In 2014 the sustained opposition by Traditional Owners and a broad alliance of civil society organisations finally resulted in the Commonwealth abandoning its aggressive pursuit of the site.

With it came the conclusion that imposing nuclear dumps on communities does not work and that a shift is needed towards a voluntarist approach. This is current international best practise and indeed a very welcome change in attitude.

In March, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane called on landowners across Australia to nominate their land to host a radioactive waste management facility. The two-month nomination period ended in May. It is currently followed by a desk-study to evaluate the nominated sites' suitability to host the facility according to a number of social, environmental and economic factors. The resulting shortlist of sites, as well as a complete list of all nominations received, is expected to be released shortly.

It is therefore timely to have a look at what a voluntarist siting process should actually encompass and how Australia's new approach rates against that.

In a new report titled 'Wasting time? International lessons for managing Australia's radioactive waste', commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation, I analyse international experience in siting radioactive waste facilities. The lessons that can be drawn from this experience are of direct relevance to the ongoing Australian National Radioactive Waste Management Project.

Apart from other critical factors, the key characteristics of a successful and truly voluntarist siting process are community consent, continuous engagement with the local community throughout the duration of the project, and a flexible timeframe.

Community consent refers to a site not being declared for hosting a radioactive waste facility before the community has fully agreed to it. This could be established, among others, by a local referendum or a council decision and requires that the community can withdraw from the process at any point of time, until the final decision is taken. This factor is the true core of a voluntarist approach to avoid imposing a facility on an unwilling community.

The community should furthermore be continuously engaged, meaning that the engagement continues beyond the siting stage into the construction, operational and closing phases of the project to ensure ongoing attention is paid to community wellbeing and ownership.

Additionally, a voluntarist siting process should not set out a rigid timeframe for a decision to be taken but rather leave the community to engage in ways it finds meaningful and helpful until it feels ready to take an informed decision.

Looking at Australia, none of these factors is prominent in the current approach laid out by the Department of Industry and Science. Not only does it propose a very limited timeframe for the shortlisting of nominated sites, conducting site characterisation studies and a detailed business case to inform the final selection of a site, but it also leaves almost no room for community participation during this process. Beyond a 60-day commentary period following the announcement of shortlisted sites, most planned engagement with communities seems to be providing information rather than engaging in consultations.

Landholders can only withdraw from the process until site characterisation begins and communities as a whole seem to have no expressed right at all to withdraw or veto. In fact, community consent is not a precondition for a final site to be declared and will not have to be established at any point during the process. This entirely contradicts voluntarism and deeply undermines not only the project's character but also its likely success.

If the federal government's intention of following a voluntarist approach is sincere, it will have to take these factors into account – plus a number of other points that have proven essential and are outlined in the report. The next 12 months will show if we will once again witness a forceful attempt to deal with Australia's radioactive waste or if the government is taking its promise of voluntarism serious – and how willing it is to learn from others and its own past.

The report, 'Wasting time? International lessons for managing Australia's radioactive waste', is posted at: www.acfonline.org.au/resources/wasting-time-international-lessons-managi...–-discussion

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction