There's No Nuclear Power Without Waste


It should come as no surprise that federal resources minister Martin Ferguson is now openly backing a debate on nuclear power — and his handling of Australia’s existing radioactive waste management problems should give pause for thought.

How much radioactive waste would be generated by a nuclear power industry in Australia? Obviously it depends on the number of reactors. Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), has been promoting the construction of 50 power reactors in Australia.

Over a 50 year lifespan, 50 reactors would be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of low level radioactive tailings waste — that’s assuming the uranium came from the Olympic Dam mine in SA. The Olympic Dam expansion Environmental Impact Statement estimates 68 million tonnes of tailings waste from production of 19,000 tonnes of uranium. This is sufficient for 95 reactors, equating to 716,000 tonnes of waste per reactor per year. 50 reactors for 50 years is 2500 reactor-years. Multiply that by 716,000 tonnes and you get 1.8 billion tonnes of waste. The reactors would be responsible for a further 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process. (This enrichment would most likely take place overseas.) The reactors would directly produce 75,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste and 750,000 cubic metres of low level and intermediate level waste.

As the 2006 Switkowski Report notes: "Establishing a nuclear power industry would substantially increase the volume of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia and require management of significant quantities of high level waste." 

The Switkowski Report states that a repository will be required for the more voluminous low level wastes soon after the first reactors begin operating. The smaller volumes of high level waste could be managed initially through interim storage, followed by deep geological disposal. All of that is easier said than done, of course: there isn’t a repository for high level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.

Repositories for lower level wastes exist but there have been numerous problems. In Asse, Germany, for example, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over a period of two decades. 

Ideally, sound science and democratic principles will guide decisions on how to manage the radioactive waste. In practice, industry and governments throw science and democratic principles out the window and look to dump the waste on politically soft targets. This has been the experience with radioactive wastes generated at the Lucas Heights research reactor.

You’d think that Martin Ferguson, as the minister responsible for managing the waste generated at Lucas Heights, would have thoroughly assessed all the available options before deciding to establish a remote dump for radioactive waste. You’d be wrong. The viability of ongoing waste storage at Lucas Heights has been acknowledged by ANSTO, by the federal nuclear regulator, and even by Ferguson’s department — but the minister dismisses that option out of hand.

You’d think that Ferguson would insist on a rigorous site selection process for a remote repository.  You’d be wrong. Mr Ferguson’s preferred dump site, at Muckaty, 120 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, didn’t even make the short list as a ”suitable” site when a preliminary site selection study, based on scientific and environmental criteria, was carried out in the 1990s by the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences.

And you might even hope that Ferguson would stick to ALP policy to handle this controversial issue in an open, transparent and fair manner. But again, you’d be wrong. Ferguson has put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (NRWMB) before Parliament. This draft legislation is draconian and will override all state/territory laws including NT legislation which seeks to ban the imposition of radioactive waste dumps.

The NRWMB limits the application of federal environmental protection legislation, Aboriginal heritage protection legislation, and appeal rights. It limits rights to procedural fairness. It entrenches Muckaty as the only radioactive waste site under active consideration.

Ferguson claims that Muckaty Traditional Owners support the nomination of the site. But he well knows that many oppose the dump — he has received a letter opposing the dump signed by 25 Ngapa Traditional Owners and 32 Traditional Owners from other Muckaty groups. Senior Traditional Owners have initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site. Yet Ferguson persists with the fiction the nomination of the Muckaty site has the support of Traditional Owners.

There is growing opposition to the government’s handling of this issue, such as concerted union activity culminating in the unanimous endorsement of a strong resolution by the national congress of the ACTU in 2009. Councils and communities along potential transport routes have begun to voice their opposition. Thousands have attended public meetings around Australia to listen to Muckaty Traditional Owners voice their concerns. A legal team is working on the case pro bono.

Former Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin was one of a succession of Howard government ministers in charge of the failed attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia from 1998-2004. He got it right when he said: "My experience with dealing with just low level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around the management of the high level waste a nuclear reactor would produce."

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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.