Royal Commission should examine SA's shameful nuclear legacy

Jim Green

In February, the South Australian Labor government initiated a Royal Commission to consider expanding the state's role in the nuclear fuel cycle beyond uranium mining. It seems that the main focus is whether SA could get billions of dollars by establishing an international high-level nuclear waste dump. Uranium enrichment and nuclear power are also on the agenda.

The first test with the Royal Commission comes with SA Premier Jay Weatherill's statement that it will be carried out by independent experts. Is that what he really intends?

The early signs are not good. Former SA Governor Kevin Scarce has been appointed to head the Royal Commission. Scarce put his views on the public record last November. His only specific comments about nuclear power were to promote discredited claims made by Lockheed Martin last year about its proposed 'compact fusion reactor'.

A quick web-search would have set Scarce straight. Lockheed Martin's claims were greeted with the same scepticism and derision that we now associate with the 1989 'discovery' of cold fusion. Daniel Clery, a news editor with Science magazine, said: "With no hard information about its performance, fusion researchers are taking Lockheed's claims with a pinch of salt. Many fusion approaches have appeared promising at small scale or in simulation only to become much more complicated once they are scaled up."

Likewise, Matthew Hole, Australia's representative on the International Fusion Research Council of the International Atomic Energy Agency, noted that physicists "aren't getting their hopes up just yet" and that Lockheed Martin's "lack of willingness to engage with the scientific community suggests that it may be more interested in media attention than scientific development."

Next comes the terms of reference. The Premier wants to avoid scrutiny of the uranium mining industry, saying the Royal Commission "will concentrate on the other elements of the fuel cycle − enriching, power and the storing of nuclear waste".

But the uranium industry needs serious scrutiny. For example, the contentious choice of uranium customer countries needs scrutiny. Australia sells uranium to nuclear weapons states, dictatorships, and countries refusing to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Now the major parties want to sell uranium to India, a country that is actively expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

If Premier Weatherill believes he has nothing to hide, he will include uranium mining in the Royal Commission's terms of reference. Yet the only reference to uranium mining in the draft terms of reference is for the Royal Commission to consider "whether there is any potential for the expansion" of the uranium mining industry.

Uranium enrichment is included in the terms of reference. The hope is that the pitiful revenue from uranium exports (0.2 per cent of national export revenue) could be boosted by a value-adding enrichment industry. But the Royal Commission will soon learn that there is surplus enrichment capacity globally and it is a non-starter in Australia.

Nuclear power

For the past 10 years we've been fed endless rhetoric about the global nuclear power renaissance. So how's the nuclear renaissance going? The number of power reactors has actually declined over the past decade, from 443 to 437.

The nuclear renaissance is going backwards − and nuclear lobbyists are starting to grapple with that reality. Steve Kidd, who worked for the World Nuclear Association for 17 years, states that the "picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth given the recent trends."

Nuclear power is likely to continue to stagnate in North America − and if there is any movement it will be downwards. Nuclear Engineering International recently reported: "The US nuclear power industry geared up a decade ago for a nuclear renaissance that did not happen and is not likely to happen."

A pattern of slow decline in Europe will almost certainly play out. The European Commission forecasts that nuclear capacity in the European Union will decline from 131 gigawatts in 2010 to 97 gigawatts in 2025. Germany's conservative government announced a phase-out of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, with the last reactor to be shut down in 2022. In France, the lower house of Parliament voted last year to cut nuclear's share of power generation from 75% to 50% by 2025.

Japan's nuclear power industry is in a sad and sorry state in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, with all 48 reactors currently shut down. India's nuclear program is in a "deep freeze" according to a November 2014 article in the Hindustan Times. South Korea's nuclear industry is slowly recovering from a safety data falsification scandal that led to 100 arrests.

The most that the nuclear industry (and uranium mining companies) can hope for is that growth in China will offset patterns of stagnation and decline elsewhere.

Nuclear power is the one power source subject to a 'negative learning curve' − it is becoming increasingly expensive over time. The UK illustrates the problem. Capital cost estimates for two planned reactors in the UK range from A$31.3 billion up to the European Commission's estimate of A$47.9 billion.

Premier Jay Weatherill doesn't seem much interested in nuclear power, saying on ABC radio: "I think that's the least likely outcome of the royal commission. I think what's most likely is that it will be regarded as not viable for either the state or the nation. There is no doubt that there are some technological changes that are occurring which are bringing small reactors into play ... (but) these are highly speculative matters."

Nuclear waste

Weatherill says that the "storing of nuclear waste" will be on the Royal Commission's agenda. Presumably he means an international high-level nuclear waste dump. The Premier must have a short memory ... or a political death-wish. South Australians fought tooth and nail from 1998−2004 to defeat Canberra's proposal for a national dump for low- to medium-level waste.

An international high-level nuclear waste dump is a political non-starter and the proposal is already generating strong reactions. Yami Lester, who lost his sight when the British tested atomic bombs at Maralinga, told The Australian: "A few years ago they cleaned up Maralinga from the waste that was left over from the bomb tests ... and now they're going to put more waste back there? That's not fair because it's Anangu land and they won't be able to use that land. Members from the APY, Maralinga-Tjarutja and Arabunna, Kokatha lands say we don't want nuclear waste on our land."

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said Australia could end the disadvantage endured by its Indigenous population by opening up traditional lands as dumping sites for nuclear waste from around the world. This would "finally eliminate these disgraceful gaps in well-being and lifetime opportunities”, Hawke said.


But the revenue from accepting nuclear waste wouldn't come close to closing the gap. There are simpler and safer methods to close the gap, if only partially. For starters, the federal government could reverse planned cuts of $500 million from Indigenous spending over the next five years. Hawke has been silent about those funding cuts. Likewise, Warren Mundine − head of the federal government's Indigenous Advisory Council and another supporter of dumping nuclear waste on Aboriginal land − has not protested the funding cuts.


SA's shameful nuclear legacy

The Premier says the Royal Commission will not be used to "look backwards at things that have gone wrong." But failing to learn from the mistakes of the past makes it all the more likely that they will be repeated.

There have been four 'clean ups' of the Maralinga nuclear test site. Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the latest 'clean up': "What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land." Just 15 years after the latest 'clean up', 19 of the 85 waste burial pits have been subject to erosion or subsidence. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years.

At Radium Hill in the far east of the state, maintenance of 400,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings is required due to ongoing erosion. Radium Hill has also been used as a radioactive waste dump even though the SA government itself concedes that "the site is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice."

The contaminated Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex was closed in 1962 and the site still hasn't been cleaned up. Over 50 years later, the SA government is still pondering "the ongoing development of management plans and potential remediation." Due to the lack of fencing, the contaminated Port Pirie site was used as a playground by children for many years. The situation was rectified only after a six-year community campaign which Friends of the Earth was proud to have been part of.

South Australia has a shameful nuclear history and the Royal Commission must be allowed to investigate it. But once again, the early signs are not good − there is no mention of contaminated sites in the draft terms of reference, even though a business group is actively promoting its plan to site a high-level nuclear waste dump at Maralinga.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.

From Chain Reaction #123, April 2015, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia,