SA’s Radioactive Royal Commission

There are currently two proposals in Australia for construction of radioactive waste facilities, one for national and one for international waste, operating under separate but parallel processes.

The national facility is proposed for management of domestically produced low and intermediate level waste. The most dangerous of this waste arises from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods that were used in the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor near Sydney. For twenty years there has been a search for a site – the shortlisted areas have always been remote and have always been contested.

A site proposed in SA in 1998 was challenged and finally defeated in 2004 by the ‘Irati Wanti’ campaign, a phrase meaning ‘The poison, leave it’. The NT was then targeted- three Department of Defense sites and one that was nominated by the Northern Land Council against the express wishes of Traditional Owners. This was a place called Manuwangku, or Muckaty, and it was also defeated in June 2014 after an eight-year campaign.

The only area currently under assessment is on Wallerberdina Station on Adnyamathanha Land in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. It is located next to Yappala Indigenous Protected Area, one of only 72 around the country, and has important freshwater springs and many thousands of artefacts on the site. Traditional Owners have spent years documenting the cultural storylines that run right through the nominated site and are deeply disturbed by the proposal.

Clearly we need to address management of existing waste. But this important issue cannot be resolved if the federal government continues trying to impose it on an unwilling remote community.

With small amounts of money being offered in exchange for hosting domestic nuclear waste, we cannot allow this to become the 20th century version of flour, sugar, tea and blankets.

SA Nuclear Royal Commission

An even more ominous cloud is currently overhead South Australia: the plan for an international nuclear waste importation and storage industry, being actively advanced through a Royal Commission. In November the SA Premier will announce how he intends to respond to recommendations that this leap of faith be made. This is not a proposal for a small or trial facility- it is a plan to host up to one third of the world’s high-level radioactive waste.

This is a forever decision that impacts the whole country now and many generations into the future.

Why consider international waste?

One of the major driving factors behind the establishment of the Royal Commission was the crisis in the South Australian economy and the loss of jobs through the manufacturing downturn.

There is however, no established market for trade in international nuclear waste, meaning that costs and income predicted in the report are based on extremely optimistic assumptions. This includes the assumption that Australia, a country with very little nuclear experience, will be able to do something that no other country has ever managed, at a much lower cost than experienced countries estimate.

The modelling also doesn’t include billions of dollars of extra costs like transport, shipping and insurance. Consultants who did the modelling acknowledge the project could cost double their estimates.

An emotive argument often used is that Australia has a ‘moral obligation’ to take back radioactive waste given that we have mined and exported uranium. However this does not consider the ethics of burdening many generations with the cost and risk of managing highly radioactive waste.

Uranium mining is only the first of many stages in the nuclear fuel chain that also involves enrichment, fuel production and ultimately use in nuclear power plants. Companies generating income throughout this process are very happy to take the profits from their activities, but always try to push the costs (financial, environmental and social) back on to the public.

If we accept the logic that we are ultimately responsible for the waste products associated with our exports, shouldn’t we apply it to all our export products, like copper or steel? And shouldn’t other countries be held similarly accountable for the waste produced from their exports?

From a social justice point of view, this proposal is an unacceptable double whammy for Traditional Owners, who have consistently opposed uranium being mined from their land and now also face prospects of the waste products being returned.

Another argument is that Australia should host waste because we are more politically and geologically stable than other places. High-level nuclear waste stays dangerous to humans for tens of thousands of years. To put that into context, the pyramids in Egypt were built around 4,500 years ago. Predicting levels of political stability over such a time period is ridiculous. And with the melting of ice sheets as a result of global warming likely to increase earthquakes and other seismic activity, geological stability is also becoming harder to predict.

Can a facility be ‘safe’?

In all the years since the Hiroshima bomb, not one country in the world has worked out how to store high-level nuclear waste safely for the length of time it remains dangerous to humans. The US spent over $10 billion and invested 20 years planning to store high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, then abandoned the plan due to community opposition.

Finland is building a domestic final disposal waste facility, but this will only start receiving used fuel next decade. Before we know whether the technology will even work, the Royal Commission proposes that South Australia import 20 times their planned volume.

The only real-life experience with a deep underground nuclear waste facility anywhere in the world is the intermediate-level Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico. In 2014 there was a fire closely followed by an unrelated rupture of one of the underground barrels, followed by failure of the filtration system. Workers were exposed to radiation and the WIPP will now be closed down for at least four years and the repair bill will be over $500 million.

Three low and intermediate level repositories in the USA have been closed because of environmental problems. Farmers in the Champagne region of France have taken legal action in relation to a leaking radioactive waste dump. In Asse, Germany, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over two decades.

Transport and waste stockpiling

NT Chief Minister Giles met with Premier Weatherill in May to discuss Darwin Port being used to receive international waste shipments destined for storage in SA. This could see many decades of radioactive transports through the Territory, where truck accidents and train derailments happen all too often.

The Royal Commission recommends we import high-level nuclear waste and place it in above ground storage for at least 17 years while a deep underground repository is built.

A grave concern is that the underground repository doesn’t eventuate. Toxic waste will be stockpiled above ground in Australia and we can’t give it back. What then?

Moving forward on radioactive waste management

We need to urgently slow down production of these intractable materials globally. Processes nationally or internationally looking for locations for radioactive waste repositories must begin to prioritise social considerations to find suitable areas for facilities.

The Royal Commission final report acknowledged that there is opposition from Traditional Owners across SA to expansion of the nuclear industry. Government campaigns to ‘recognise’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution are hollow until they recognise the injustices already suffered at the hands of this industry and recognise the staunch resistance to future nuclear projects.

How to support the campaign

In response to the Royal Commission a group of Traditional Owners, medical professionals, trade unions and other civil society groups formed the No Dump Alliance and have invited individuals and organisations to sign on to a ‘Statement of Concern’.

Yami Lester, Ambassador of the Alliance:

“In 1953, I was just ten years old when the bombs went off at Emu and Maralinga, I didn’t know anything about nuclear issues back then, none of us knew what was happening. I got sick, and went blind from the Totem 1 fallout from those tests, and lots of our people got sick and died also.

Now I’m 74 years old and I know about nuclear issues. Members from the APY, Maralinga-Tjarutja and Arabunna, Kokatha lands say we don’t want nuclear waste on our land. There are big concerns. And I worry because I know it is not safe for South Australia land and the people. Why does the Government keep bringing back nuclear issues when we know the problems last forever?”

It means a lot to me to be in this Alliance. I would like others to listen and join, become a member and fight together.”