Wasting time


There are two kinds of selfishness: acquisitive and dismissive.

We all know the first: frenzied grasping at grotesquely grandiose houses, and politicians seeking the gaudy limelight. Dismissive selfishness is more insidious, exemplified by governments running down foreign aid programs the way they run down public housing.

This disregard for community-mindedness has characterised the process of trying to deal with Australia’s low-level nuclear waste.

The federal government, with intermittent cooperation from the states, has been running a site selection process for well over a decade, to try and find a location where it can bury the stuff. Just when Canberra thought it had managed to come up with an answer, the South Australian government succeeded in a legal challenge to the Commonwealth’s acquisition of the land for the dump.

This result should come as no surprise. The federal government has done a good job of ignoring the research on what constitutes a good site selection process.

That research tells us that good siting processes do the following:

First, they encourage a voluntary approach to siting, rather than forcing a facility on a community.

Second, they come up with multiple possible locations, not one.

Third, they avoid imposing burdens on the most disadvantaged in the community.

Fourth, they offer incentives or compensation to communities in return for them agreeing to host facilities.

Fifth, they encourage those who benefit most from something (nuclear research and nuclear medicine) to also bear the burdens (nuclear waste).

Sixth, for nuclear materials, they may prefer an above-ground store ahead of ‘disposal’ by burial.

So what did the federal government do?

Its site selection process was based on burial, not storage. It didn’t look for volunteer communities. Then it suggested only one preferred location. This was in a region with a disadvantaged indigenous population that was opposed to the dump, and which has land claims in the area. No matter. Their concerns were dismissed.

There were no offers of incentives or compensation for accepting the site. And the site was in South Australia, the state that has arguably already borne the greatest burden of our nuclear history “ while just next door, New South Wales reaps the (perhaps debatable) benefits of nuclear research. But who cares? South Australia is where most of our nuclear waste is already being stored. Its complaints were ignored as parochial harping.

If you wanted to write a script for a bad site selection process, this was it.

The Coalition has responded to the failure of the site selection process by telling the states they will have to manage their own nuclear wasteloads. But a home will still need to be found for the large amount of existing federal waste. Labor has proposed restarting the site selection process. That might be a good idea, but only if they run it differently.

Federal and state governments should cooperate on a package of incentives and compensation to offer the community that will host the site. There should be a call for state and local governments to put forward expressions of interest in hosting the site. And the site could be a store instead of a dump. We could as a community challenge ourselves to try and learn to live with this exotic-toxic waste, instead of burying it out of sight, out of mind.

Hosting the site would be a profound responsibility. It could be undertaken by a community with a strong sense of civic virtue and selflessness.

A community concerned about the environment. A relatively wealthy, educated community with an enduring commitment to taking a long-term, national view of things. A community that doesn’t weather cyclones, and is geologically stable. A community with good rail access to Sydney, which is the origin of most waste. As a store (rather than a dump) for low-level waste, this community could be a fairly highly populated area.

Sound like anywhere you know?

It sounds exactly like somewhere I know, because I live here. Let’s stop trying selfishly to pass this buck, and host the facility in Canberra.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.