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Radioactive Waste Update- March 2015

In June 2014 the Australian federal government abandoned plans to build the first national nuclear waste facility on Aboriginal land at Muckaty in the Northern Territory. The decision came half way through a federal court case challenging the nomination of the site and is a testament to the determined eight year campaign by Traditional Owners and their supporters around the country and world.

Australian non-government and civil society organisations, including environment groups, public health organisations and trade unions, have consistently requested the Minister halt the search for a single remote site in favour of a process based on an audit of all radioactive waste materials in parallel with an independent Inquiry that considered the full range of waste management options.

However, in November 2014 federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane instead announced intention to open a nationwide site nomination and selection process for locating a national radioactive waste facility. The National Radioactive Waste Management Project (NRWMP) was officially launched on Monday March 2 and aims to shortlist nominations, assess preferred sites and declare a final location by the middle of 2016.

The Beyond Nuclear Initiative considers this timeframe to be unnecessarily compressed and constrained, especially given that the first shipment of long-lived intermediate level waste returning to Australia from overseas reprocessing in December 2015 will be returning to a purpose built storage facility at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor complex just south of Sydney.

Waste currently stored in Australia is concentrated at two secure federal facilities; the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation campus at Lucas Heights and the CSIRO facility at Woomera in South Australia. There is little opportunity for public input and consultation built into the NRWMP, especially in the early stages.

Once preferred sites are shortlisted and field assessments begin, we understand that public input will include submissions to the Environmental Impact Assessment in accordance with the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) and Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act (ARPANS).

Essentially, there is still an underlying assumption – and a continuing push – that we need a single remote facility. However, Minister Macfarlane’s public statement that the Muckaty process was a ‘disaster’ has clearly influenced the approach to the revised NRWMP. After decades of top down decision-making based on a Decide-Announce-Defend model, this new process does at least contain some degree of transparency, clarity and a stated commitment to volunteerism.

Two committees have been convened to assist the government developing criteria to select a site; a Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) and Public Interest Panel (PIP). The Australian Conservation Foundation was the only civil society organisation engaged with radioactive waste issues during the Muckaty/Northern Territory waste dump proposal that was offered a position on the PIP. According to the government website (radioactivewaste.gov.au), each shortlisted site will be assessed against three facility design options, two of which only have low level waste being transported to the facility and intermediate level waste managed ‘under current arrangements’.

Looking at a broader range of options in collaboration with the two advisory panels – even if just on paper – is far better than the single-minded pursuit of a solo site for all radioactive waste located on remote Aboriginal Land. The Minister has taken a welcome half step back, but there are still many unanswered questions regarding this process, which we maintain would be far better addressed through an independent Inquiry.

The Beyond Nuclear Initiative will continue to monitor progress of the NRWMP and inform stakeholders and interested parties of key developments and opportunities for input into the process. That this process is happening at all is a tribute to the tenacity of the Muckaty Traditional Owners who took such sustained action to protect their country and culture. It is also a tribute to all who supported them. Now we need to maintain our vigilance and efforts to advance radioactive waste management in Australia in a more socially and environmentally responsible way.

Regards, Natalie Wasley Beyond Nuclear Initiative coordinator.

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