New nuclear legislation set to provide toxic dumping ground in South Australia

The Australian Government is eager to pass legislation which will turn a South Australian property into a radioactive waste dump, writes Noel Wauchope.

UNDER THE PRESSURE of The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), The Australian Government is in a hurry to get a new bill passed. It’s not really a new bill, it’s actually a new bit tacked on to an existing one. It’s called the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020.

The amendment does two important things: it selects a definite place in South Australia, a farmer’s property called Napandee, as a radioactive waste dump and it removes the possibility of a judicial review of that selection.

The existing law allows for the Minister for Resources to select a site, but his or her decision can be questioned and opposed. The amendment will prevent that.

How a planned nuclear waste dump in the tiny SA town of Kimba impacts us all

The proposed dump is an “interim” radioactive waste facility.

It would consist of two parts:

  1. Temporary above-ground storage for what is known as low-level waste (LLW). LLW is a general term for a range of objects that are radioactively contaminated, but not considered to be highly radioactive nor toxic for thousands of years.
  2. A “temporary” above-ground storage for intermediate-level waste (ILW). ILW is a term for a mix of wastes that contains some very long-lived highly toxic radioactive matter, that does require isolation for thousands of years. While this amount would be smaller in volume, it would be far more significant. 95 per cent of this radioactive content would be spent nuclear fuel rods from ANSTO’s nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, Sydney.

At present, these highly radioactive wastes are stored in giant canisters at Lucas Heights, where there is ample space for further canisters and experienced and skilled staff to monitor them and provide security.

ANSTO has plans to expand its operation and CEO Dr Adi Paterson’s dream of a world-leading business in exporting radionuclides for medicine and industry. Meanwhile, international nuclear security obligations demand that Australia develop a plan for the permanent disposal of nuclear wastes.

Unfortunately, this Napandee plan does nothing towards meeting these obligations. All that it does is to take highly radioactive wastes from very secure temporary storage at Lucas Heights, transport them by road, rail, or sea, for at least 1,700 kilometres to be placed in another temporary storage on agricultural land.

There is no plan whatsoever for the permanent disposal of this highly radioactive trash.

There’s a vague story that these wastes will later be moved from Napandee to a permanent disposal — anything from 40 to 300 years. They are most likely to suffer the fate of other such facilities in the USA and other countries and become stranded wastes.

Some, but not all, people in the Kimba area, where the Napandee farm is sited, look forward to the $31 million to be granted to the community when the facility is up and running. Napandee farmer Jeff Baldock was paid four times the value of his 160-hectare parcel of land. Community benefit amounts up to $3 million were offered to Kimba for considering the plan.

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ANSTO and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science backed the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility Taskforce (NRWMFT) in supplying information to the community. There was a heavy emphasis on “medical” wastes. But the reality is that the vast majority of wastes from nuclear medicine are very short-lived radioisotopes, that have no need to be transported thousands of miles and are routinely disposed of close to places such as hospitals where they are used.

A ballot was held in the area, of ratepayers only, on whether or not to support the project. Some residents close to the property were excluded, as were the Native Title holders, the Barngarla Aboriginal community. The vote result, from 824 voters, was 452 “yes”. The Barngarla held their own vote — 209 unanimously voted “no”.

The whole issue of the transport of the nuclear wastes and their “temporary” dumping does concern also the region, the state of South Australia and the nation. The decision should not be made solely by 452 ratepayers in one small rural area.

That area, Kimba, has been split apart as many in the community oppose the plan. It will cast a blight on the perception of local and indeed state agricultural produce as clean and green.

Non-ratepayers did not get a look-in. In this modern, almost Trumpian paradigm, outsiders such as economists, environmentalists, medical experts, sociologists and independent radiation experts are seen as “the elites” that can’t be trusted. Unfortunately, independent overseas experts on nuclear waste management have been excluded, too. Apart from the problems raised for the town and region of Kimba itself, there are serious questions about the appropriateness of the planned system, the area environmentally and geologically.

The decision to set up this “temporary” nuclear waste dump follows decades of efforts by the nuclear lobby, both Australian and global, to set up such a dump, or better, a permanent site for importing nuclear wastes.

Of course, this plan is confined to nuclear wastes produced in Australia. For now.

The plan is obviously helpful to ANSTO. They can pass this uncomfortable buck of 10,000 year-lasting radioactive wastes on to a distant South Australian rural community. It will then be managed and funded by whom? The South Australian and Australian tax-payers.

This will take the pressure of ANSTO, make it look as if they’re doing something about their radioactive trash and avoid any Lucas Heights, or rather Barden Ridge fuss, as they expand their operations. (The residential area previously part of Lucas Heights was renamed Barden Ridge to increase the real estate value of the area, as it would no longer be instantly associated with the nuclear reactor.)

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It’s not so helpful to South Australia, or to Australia. The best solution is to leave those nuclear reactor wastes safely stored at Lucas Heights for the time being and to develop a national discussion and plan for what to do with those wastes for permanent disposal. Under this present, rather rushed scheme, Resources Minister Keith Pitt, Dr Paterson and the whole crew of the NRWMF will be dead and gone, long before the stranded wastes at Napandee will be properly dealt with.

A solution for the common good is what’s needed, not just a solution that suits ANSTO. ANSTO is a statutory body — a case of the tail wagging the dog, perhaps?

The National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020 has been passed by the House of Representatives. It will be debated in the Senate later this year.

Meanwhile the Senate Economics Legislation Committee is holding an Inquiry into this bill. They were due to report on 31 August, but I understand that this may have been postponed. They have held three public hearings, but at the third one, the Department of Industry requested that the discussion be continued later, in confidence via a telelink.

This where it gets interesting. Suddenly, a public hearing becomes private. The topic for this new secrecy was the discussion of some documents from the NRWMFT that had been requested by the Committee and received only a very short time before the hearing. The documents were heavily redacted. They relate to the process by which the Napandee site was selected. How spontaneous was the farmer’s offer of his land? What roles did the NRWMFT, ANSTO and the Industry Department, play in instigating this offer?

So many questions surround this plan:

  • Is the new amendment being pushed because Minister Keith Pitt fears the opposition of Aboriginals, or indeed of the public in general?
  • The exclusion of the Barngarla from the decision — how does this square with Indigenous rights?     
  • Why did the Government not provide any independent advice to the Kimba community? 
  • Why are the South Australian and Australian public excluded from decision-making?
  • Why is this Senate Committee public hearing to be held in secret? 
  • Why is this all happening in such a hurry?    
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Read more by Noel Wauchope at antinuclear.net and nuclear-news.net and follow her on Twitter @ChristinaMac1.

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