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Matt Canavan's 'urgent' new nuclear waste dump: The devil is in the detail

Dave Sweeney

It is a national problem that has taken 60 years to make and will last 10,000 years, but according to Canberra, it will be soon be sorted.

Radioactive waste management has been a challenge for successive federal governments, with communities across South Australia and the Northern Territory consistently rejecting plans for the dumping and storage of wastes in their region. Now the pressure is right back on regional South Australia, with a concerted federal push to locate a site either near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula, or Hawker in the iconic Flinders Ranges.

The plan sounds straightforward: take radioactive waste from around Australia to a central site, where low-level material would be disposed of and higher-level wastes stored, pending a final management decision.

But, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Or in this case, in the profound lack of detail. Despite two years of promotional newsletters, shopfronts and drop-in centres, and publicly funded visits from pro-nuclear advocates, there remains a disturbing lack of clarity and deep concerns over the federal government's plan and process.

Radioactive waste is a complex policy area. The stuff lasts a long time, poses a real management challenge and, understandably, raises community concerns. Responsible decisions are best based on the "T" factor: talk, time, testing and trust. Sadly, the current federal push has failed to learn from this history and is replicating a failed formula.

Despite plenty of talk about the benefits of the plan, the federal Government has actively refused to debate critics in open forums, key project assumptions have never been independently verified or tested, and many community members, Aboriginal landowners and wider stakeholders do not trust the process. Time is now running out on Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matt Canavan's long stated plan to make a siting decision this year.

This timeline won't be met ‒ largely due to legal action initiated by the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation. The Barngarla Traditional Owners have sought legal redress over their exclusion from the community ballot planned to assess public opinion in the Kimba region, arguing that this breaches the Racial Discrimination Act. Despite this delay the Minister still hopes to push ahead with the plan before the 2019 federal election, expected in May.

The federal Government has been spending big and promising large, with job and community benefit estimates and assurances soaring since the ballot was announced.

The Government is working to localise this issue and present it as an economic opportunity for a small region, but this plan is a national issue with profound and lasting implications.

Around 95 per cent of the material planned to be moved to any new facility is currently managed at two secured federal sites. Low-level waste that needs to be isolated for 300 years is currently at the Woomera defence lands in South Australia's north. The more problematic intermediate level waste, that needs isolation for 10,000 years, is stored where it was made at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's (ANSTO) Lucas Heights facility in southern Sydney.

Both sites have the physical, technical and regulatory capacity to continue to store these wastes for many years, and the current sense of federal urgency and pressure is being driven by politics and ANSTO's corporate preferences, rather than by evidence or need. The federal nuclear regulator the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency has repeatedly confirmed that there is no urgency to move the waste from ANSTO.

In any discussion around radioactive waste management, a lot of airspace is devoted to the question of nuclear medicine. No one disputes either the importance or the need for secure access to nuclear medicine. The planned national radioactive waste facility is not expected to receive nuclear medicine waste from any hospital or medical clinic in Australia.

These wastes would continue to be managed at these multiple sites on the current "store and decay" basis. A national radioactive waste facility would take nuclear reactor waste from the process that generated the nuclear medicine, but not nuclear medical waste. Importantly, this means that a national waste facility is not required to ensure access to nuclear medicine.

Currently, Australia's most serious radioactive waste is stored above ground at ANSTO. This makes sense, as the waste is already on site and Lucas Heights also has clear tenure, high levels of security and policing, the most advanced radioactive monitoring and emergency response capacity in the country, and it is the workplace of around 1,200 people.

The federal Government's plan is to move this material from this facility to one in regional South Australia with far less capacity and institutional assets.

There is no radiological protection rationale to move this material from extended above ground storage in Sydney to extended above ground storage with far fewer checks and balances in regional South Australia. The current federal approach to the intermediate level waste is not consistent with international best practice and is merely kicking the can further down a less travelled road.

The current federal plan is a retreat from responsibility, which is playing short-term politics with a long-term hazard. It is extraordinary that, after over six decades of making waste and two decades of sustained and successful community resistance to federal siting plans, Australia has never had an objective review of management practises and options. We need this now.

Dave Sweeney works on nuclear issues with the Australian Conservation Foundation and was a member of the Federal advisory panel on radioactive waste. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney

Published in Chain Reaction #134, December 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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