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Mismanaging Australia's nuclear waste

By Mara Bonacci

The federal government has tried and failed to find a site for national radioactive waste management facility (NRWMF), or dump, for decades. This is despite never having bothered to consider if a national facility is the best way to dispose of Australia's most hazardous waste.

The current process has South Australia in its sights, with two sites near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula and one site near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges under consideration. The proposal is for permanent disposal of low-level waste and interim storage of long-lived intermediate-level waste.

Much of the intermediate-level waste is currently stored where it is produced ‒ at ANSTO's Lucas Heights reactor just south of Sydney. This location has the space, the expertise and the security to keep it there for decades. It is hard to understand why the government wants to move it to a remote location for above ground temporary storage prior to even beginning to think about finding a permanent disposal site for it ‒ why move it twice? Why move it at all?

In both regions, communities are distressed and divided over the proposed facility. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), which is driving the process, has attempted to woo community members with trips to Lucas Heights to see how clean and safe the reactor there is. Many community members have come back from these junkets wondering why, if it's so safe there, move it at all?

There's currently a Senate Inquiry into the flawed site selection process. It's due to report on 14 August 2018. Just six days later, on 20 August, the communities are being asked to participate in a non-binding ballot to gauge the level of support for the facility. There are a few issues here. Minister Canavan, who called the ballot, refuses to say what percentage "yes" ballot will indicate "broad community support". He has also not made clear what other factors he will use to determine levels of support.

Another serious issue is the definition of community. In the Kimba region, eligible voters are those on the Kimba district electoral role and non-resident ratepayers. People who live close to the proposed site and shop and participate in the Kimba community but are not within the electoral boundary are ineligible to vote. In the Flinders Ranges region, eligible voters are those who live within the council district and those living within 50 km of the proposed site, as well as non-resident ratepayers.

Traditional Owners who have strong ties to the land but do not live within these boundaries are not eligible to participate in the ballot. The Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) is asking that all members of the Adnyamathanha community, regardless of address, are given the opportunity to have a say.

The entire process has continued the federal government's history of radioactive racism, threatening Country and culture with a toxic dump, inadequate and disrespectful Aboriginal engagement and consultation and a refusal to properly listen to Aboriginal concerns. The Barngala traditional owners of the Kimba region were never contacted by the government at all and instead had to approach them.

The community ballot was announced by Minister just after disbursement of $2 million Community Development Funds in each community. At about the same time, the government announced that the facility would provide 45 jobs. Up until then, the figure was 15 jobs but the proposal has not changed. It is no wonder that many community members are skeptical about the purported employment and economic benefits that a dump may bring. They have very real concerns about the impacts a facility would have on industries such as agriculture and tourism.

A private company has indicated that it would like to establish a radioactive waste dump near Leonora in WA. The Minister is not currently considering this option and says it's a Plan B. Some government figures have stated that there is support for the dump at the Leonora site, including support from Traditional Owners. This is patently untrue and yet another example of government and industry not using their ears.

Minister Canavan wants to make a decision on the site for a radioactive waste dump by the end of the year. It is nothing short of irresponsible to rush the process and the only responsible decision that he can make is to stop the current flawed and divisive site selection process and hold an independent inquiry exploring the full ranges of options to determine the best possible way to dispose of our most hazardous waste.

Radioactive waste management is a national issue and should be treated accordingly. The government should not target remote and regional communities in South Australia or anywhere. Rather than kicking the can down the road from one potential site to the next, it is time the government to stop the process and undertake a comprehensive inquiry into the full suite of options for the responsible radioactive waste management.

Conservation SA has started a postcard petition that will be delivered to Minister Canavan later this year. Please sign and share:

Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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