Paper for nuclear Citizens Jury - July 2016

"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." ‒ Prof. John Veevers, Macquarie University

THE ROYAL COMMISSION

The Royal Commission (RC) was biased. The Royal Commissioner and most of the Expert Advisory Committee members are nuclear advocates. The RC report is littered with misinformation and it repeatedly ignores important issues. A detailed critique of the RC's report is available online, as is a detailed critique of the RC process.[1]

Using the RC report as a 'factual' basis for further discussions is highly problematic. The RC report should be read in conjunction with other literature such as the 257-page submission from national environment groups, the remarkable submission by British environmentalist Jean McSorley, the reports by the Australia Institute, and David Noonan's briefing papers. All of that material is posted at www.foe.org.au/import-waste

RC misinformation is now being fed into the Citizens Jury process. Statements made by RC personnel are directly at odds with established scientific knowledge. For example RC personnel told the Citizens Jury that there is disagreement as to whether exposure to low-level radiation is harmful. That's true, but it's important to note that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence holds that there is no threshold below which radiation exposure is harmless. As the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states: "The current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates." Someone else from the RC was promoting a fringe scientist who believes there is a threshold below which radiation exposure is harmless. The RC should promote mainstream science and scientists, not fringe contrarians.

Business-people have also been misleading the Citizens Jury. For example Nigel McBride claimed there have been no fatalities in the nuclear industries in the UK, Canada, France, Germany, India and the US. That is dangerous nonsense. Recent scientific evidence finds that the radiogenic risks of leukemia among nuclear workers to be more than double the risk found in a previous similar study in 2005.[2] And in recent years the International Commission on Radiological Protection has upwardly revised (nearly doubled) its estimate of the carcinogenicity of radon.[3] Someone else told the Citizens Jury that there were only 28 radiation-related deaths from Chernobyl. But estimates of the Chernobyl death toll range from the UN's estimate[4] of 9,000 deaths in the most contaminated parts of Eastern Europe, to estimates of 16,000 to 93,000 deaths across Europe.[5]

INTERNATIONAL EXPERIENCE

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 ‒ but it fails to do 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 (and mismanagement) is clearly relevant.

WIPP is a case study of a sharp decline in safety and regulatory standards over a short space of time (www.foe.org.au/wipp). 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 2.5 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.[6]

At a public meeting in February 2016, Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce said that WIPP was ignored in the RC's 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. WIPP gets one token paragraph in the RC's final report.

Moreover the RC overlooks 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 high-level waste "requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years". How can we be confident that high safety and regulatory standards in SA 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 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, 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.

The RC gives great weight to abstract, theoretical safety assessments while ignoring what is happening in the real world. It ignores examples of the spectacular mismatch between theoretical safety assessments and real-world experience. For example, a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted one radiation release every 200,000 years. Yet WIPP was open for just 15 years before the chemical explosion in February 2014.

The RC had little or nothing to say about other problems overseas, e.g. fires at radioactive waste repositories[7], the current project to exhume 126,000 waste barrels from a dump in Germany following extensive water infiltration and corrosion, the liquid nuclear waste explosion at Mayak in the USSR, and many others.

Politicians are reinforcing the selectivity of the RC. The leaders of the SA Labor and Liberal parties plan to visit the dump under construction in Finland (20 times smaller than that proposed for SA). Why aren't they visiting WIPP, of the German repository, or Mayak? Why aren't they visiting places whose names are synonymous with dangerous and hideously expensive nuclear waste mismanagement ‒ Dounreay, Sellafield, Hanford, etc.? Why aren't they visiting the wine producers in France who took the operator of a nuclear waste dump to court in a failed attempt to have the dump shut down?

The RC notes that most countries that have attempted to establish high-level nuclear waste repositories have failed in those attempts. But it glosses over the implications of those failures. This is highly significant for the SA proposal since the plan is to import large amounts of nuclear waste before a repository is established.[8] This is incredibly irresponsible but it's the only way they can get the economics to work. Australia has not been able to establish a repository for domestic low- and intermediate-level waste, yet the RC proposal assumes that it will be possible to establish a repository for vast amounts of foreign nuclear waste ‒ 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level nuclear waste.

AUSTRALIA'S HISTORY OF MISMANAGING RADIOACTIVE WASTE:

"The disposal of radioactive waste in Australia is ill-considered and irresponsible. Whether it is short-lived waste from Commonwealth facilities, long-lived plutonium waste from an atomic bomb test site on Aboriginal land, or reactor waste from Lucas Heights. The government applies double standards to suit its own agenda; there is no consistency, and little evidence of logic." ‒ Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson[9]

The RC 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.

The Port Pirie uranium treatment plant is still contaminated over 50 years after its closure. It took a six-year community campaign just to get the site fenced off and to carry out a partial rehabilitation. June 2012 correspondence from the SA Department of Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy states: "The [Port Pirie] site assessment works were undertaken to inform the department in developing the long term planning and management of the sites. As a follow on from these works, the sites are actively monitored to provide additional information to assist with the ongoing development of management plans and potential remediation." As of July 2015, the SA government website states that "a long-term management strategy for the former site" is being developed.[10]

Management of mine wastes has also been problematic. For example SA regulators failed to detect Marathon Resource's illegal dumping of low-level radioactive waste in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. If not for the detective work of the managers of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, the illegal activities would likely be continuing to this day. The incident represents a serious failure of SA government regulation. The RC report deals with this scandal in two sentences, noting that the "regulator required the company to undertake rectification works" but without noting that the regulator would know nothing of the illegal radioactive waste dumping if not for the detective work of the Sanctuary managers.

The explosion of nuclear bombs at Maralinga in the 1950s has nothing to do with the current waste import proposal. However aspects of the Maralinga experience are highly relevant. In particular, the 'clean-up' of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s is relevant and it was a fiasco:[11]

  • 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."
  • 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 Maralinga experience is also relevant to current proposals because the racism associated with the bomb tests is just as acute now.[12] The federal government tried but failed to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in SA from 1998‒2004, then tried but failed to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the NT from 2005‒14, and now the federal government is trying to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA. Labor and Coalition parties, at both federal and state levels, are ignoring the near-unanimous opposition of Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners.[13]

Labor and the Coalition both supported the profoundly racist National Radioactive Waste Management Act, which permits the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land without any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal Traditional Owners (to be precise, the nomination of a site is not invalidated by a failure to consult or secure consent).

The RC 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, Port Pirie, Arkaroola, etc.) and no experience managing high-level nuclear waste. 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 therefore on track for 1,200 political revolutions over the 300,000-year lifespan of nuclear waste.

If there was some honesty about the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA, coupled with remediation of contaminated sites, we might have some confidence that lessons have been learnt and that radioactive waste will be managed more responsibly in future. But there is no such honesty from the government or the RC, and there are no plans to remediate contaminated sites. On the contrary, the plan is to make a bad situation much worse with the importation of vast amounts of intermediate- and high-level nuclear waste.

A MORAL RESPONSIBILITY?

Some argue that Australia has a moral responsibility to accept the high-level nuclear waste arising from the use of Australian uranium in power reactors overseas. But there are no precedents for Australia or any other country being morally or legally responsible for managing wastes arising from the use of exported fuels, or from the export of any other products. The responsibility for managing nuclear waste lies with the countries that make use of Australian uranium.

If any moral responsibility lies with Australia, that responsibility arguably rests with the uranium mining companies (which are foreign-owned or majority foreign-owned) rather than with Australian citizens or federal or state governments.

One plausible scenario is uranium being mined on Aboriginal land regardless of Aboriginal opposition, and high level nuclear waste being dumped on Aboriginal land, again without consent. That scenario is immoral twice over.

It is also argued that Australia has a moral responsibility to accept high-level nuclear waste because Australia has more suitable geology than other countries, and/or or a more stable political system. Those arguments rest on questionable assumptions. Australia is less tectonically stable than a number of other continental regions according to Dr Mike Sandiford.[14] And there are social as well as technical dimensions to risk assessment. On the basis of Australia's track record of mismanaging domestic low- and intermediate-level waste, there is no reason to believe that a high-level nuclear repository would be carefully and responsibly managed in Australia, or that regulation would be rigorous and independent.

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. Australia's acceptance of high-level nuclear waste would add to the number of countries with significant stockpiles of fissile material (because it contains plutonium) − in that sense it would contribute to proliferation risks, not to the resolution of those risks.

BHP Billiton's submission to the Switkowski Review stated: "BHP Billiton believes that there is neither a commercial nor a non-proliferation case for it to become involved in front-end processing or for mandating the development of fuel leasing services in Australia. ... There is no evidence that a change to current Australian Government policies to facilitate domestic enrichment, fuel leasing and high level waste disposal would lead to significant economic opportunities or reduce proliferation risks in the foreseeable future."


[3] ICRP, 2010, 'Lung Cancer Risk from Radon and Progeny and Statement on Radon', ICRP Publication 115, Ann. ICRP 40(1), www.icrp.org/publication.asp?id=ICRP%20Publication%20115

[9] Alan Parkinson, 2002, 'Double standards with radioactive waste', Australasian Science, www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/britbombs/clean-up