11 May 2012

Our Radioactive Headache

By Calliste Weitenberg
What to do with our nuclear waste? As the debate over a proposed dump at Muckaty Station rages, a new interim storage facility at Lucas Heights has angered the residents of Sydney's Sutherland Shire. Calliste Weitenberg reports
It's the ultimate in unwanted gifts. Approximately 13.2 cubic metres of radioactive waste wrapped in steel and cement. In the 1990s, we sent it to France. Now they're sending it back.

After 30 years of failed attempts to find a place to dispose of nuclear waste, come 2015 the Federal Government — whether Labor or Liberal — is to be left with a neat political headache.

Last week the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) — a statutory body of the Australian government — announced its application for a licence to build a $30 million, 800 square metre warehouse to store the waste on the site of its research reactor at Lucas Heights just outside of Sydney.

Under contracts signed by the Australian Government in the 90s, Australia is obliged to take back its waste, which was produced by ANSTO's research reactor, from France and the UK by the end of 2015.

ANSTO insists the facility will only provide "interim" storage for the waste, stipulating it can only be kept "for up to five years, until establishment of the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility".

For those working alongside Australia's nuclear industry, it highlights what they've known for years. "The management of radioactive waste in this country has been ham-fisted at best and poorly done," Peter Karamoskos, a nuclear radiologist and public representative on the Radiation Health Committee at the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), told New Matilda.

"The only reason [this waste] is being housed at Lucas Heights is because we're just not ready with the national repository. The radioactive waste was meant to go straight there."

Successive governments' attempts to solve the problem of where to bury the waste have been characterised by failed negotiations and buck-passing.

In March this year the Federal Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, announced the Government's National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 had passed the Senate.

The legislation provides for a national facility to manage and dispose of both the long-lived "intermediate" grade waste returning from overseas as well as the low-grade waste currently held at over 100 "temporary" sites at Australian universities, hospitals, offices and laboratories.

However, the Bill only nominates one dump site — Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory. And that site is controversial.

Despite provisions that enable further nominations, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation the government has not received any other formal proposals and is not soliciting any.

The Muckaty site is currently the subject of a Federal Court challenge by local Aborigines who claim the Land Council — who nominated the site — did not properly consult traditional landowners who oppose the deal.

A mediation held last year failed to reach any agreement over the land and lawyers involved in the case say key evidence makes the site's nomination "untenable".

"There's certainly a Damoclean sword over whether [Muckaty] is going to go ahead," says Peter Karamoskos.

Nuclear spokesperson for the Australian Conservation Foundation, Dave Sweeney, agrees.

"It's increasingly unlikely that it will be a national site for dumping radioactive waste," Sweeney told NM.

"What we are seeing is a growing political campaign and deadlock and strong legal pressure with a Federal Court case. It's really bogging down the government."

During Parliamentary debate on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill in February this year, Greens Senator and nuclear spokesperson Scott Ludlam slammed the Muckaty proposal.

"If the applicants to the Federal Court action are successful it will completely rip the rug out from under the government's strategy of targeting the Muckaty site, and... if that happens, an enormous amount of... the parliament's time will have been wasted," he said.

In this context it's entirely possible that ANSTO will have nowhere to shift its parcel of radioactive waste come 2020.

"Council is concerned that in the absence of a national repository, not only will the 2015 shipment be returned to ANSTO, but subsequent shipments will also be sent to Lucas Heights for storage," said Carol Provan, the Mayor of Sutherland Shire where Lucas Heights is located, during a council meeting on Monday night.

Provan told New Matilda her local community is frustrated and angry at "becoming the country's de facto waste storage for spent fuel rods".

Asked if it was possible the waste from France and the UK could remain at Lucas Heights beyond 2020, a spokeswoman for ANSTO simply said it was "operating on the premise that a national repository will be in place".

"Indeed all the signals that we are getting, including the passing of the [National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010], indicate that to be the case."

"It's fortunate that the legislation enabling [a national repository] passed [in March]. Our act doesn't allow us to be a national waste repository," she said.

ANSTO's own report makes clear that "while the site is suitable for interim storage of limited quantities of radioactive waste, it does not meet the geographical and geological criteria for a disposal facility".

ANSTO also says it expects further waste to be returned from the UK in the second half of this decade will be transported directly to the as yet unidentified national repository.

According to Karamoskos, the Department of Energy and Resources has not yet submitted any licensing application with the regulator ARPANSA, whose responsibility it is to approve the proposed Muckaty site.

New Matilda contacted the office of the Minister for Energy and Resources, Martin Ferguson, for comment. At the time of publication we had not received a response.
Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

David Grayling
Posted Friday, May 11, 2012 - 13:04

Yeah, we export not only huge amounts of fossil fuels that damage the world's climate but we have huge deposits of radio-active materials which we sell like there is no tomorrow.

The reason why we do this? Simple, because there is money to be made from exporting especially for Twiggy, Gina and Clive and their shareholders and we (sorry, the Government) don't care if we become the radioactive waste dump for the world.

Getting hold of the 'quick-quid' is alive and well in Australia. Who care about tomorrow?

Certainly not the Politicians or the Oligarchs!


This user is a New Matilda supporter. ErikH
Posted Friday, May 11, 2012 - 17:16

Um, David, we are only getting back what we ourselves produced at Lucas Heights, some of which was produced for research but much of it because we were producing materials for medical treatments and the like.

We are not under any obligation to take anyone else's nuclear waste even if it was produced from uranium we exported.

Nevertheless, I agree with your argument that we are selling everything out from under us. Pity about our grandkids.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Friday, May 11, 2012 - 22:14

Apart from the latest generation of nuclear reactors, we have a (shelved) Australian technique for dealing with long-term waste. It is called 'Synroc'. What became of that?

Posted Saturday, May 12, 2012 - 11:34

Check out walkingforcountry.com that will happen between 20th August to 14th September where you can walk country with Aboriginal Elders, all or part of the way from Yeelirree to Leonora in remote WA.

Erik H - I think David is referring to uranium deposits themselves which taken up from the ground have a low radiation level that unfortunately is making some parts of Australia uninhabitable. In addition what is reported as low level incidents effect remote communities - I believe the Ranger mine in NT has had over a hundred of these and one of them involved a tailings dam overflowing into a local drinking water supply - also mining is often lowering the water table in remote Australia and water holes are drying up which is significantly affecting wildlife, in particular Kangaroo which is still a mainstay in the diet of aboriginal people who live remotely, given poor access to nutrition and reasonably priced food this has impacted some communities.

Posted Saturday, May 12, 2012 - 21:23

The anti-nuke folks appear determined to cut their own throats, loudly opposing any safe storage solution and forcing the govt. to store the waste unsafely in Sydney. No doubt when this unsafe storage results in nuclear contamination of Sydney they will tell us how right they were for opposing everything nuclear (including safe storage of nuclear waste, of course).

-In other news, the federal govt. seems determined to waste tens of billions building new, untested and impractical long-range diesel-electric subs, rather than buying cheaper, more reliable and more capable nuclear-powered subs off the shelf.

It seems that the moment the word "nuclear" is mentioned in any public debate in this country rationality flies out the window.

K Brown
Posted Sunday, May 13, 2012 - 23:57

Australia is one of the World's most geologically stable continents with many sparsely populated locations that are perfect sites for the storage of radioactive waste. It is not only nonsensical but also an indictment on the Green movement that we do not have a safe National storage site nor a proper National plan for the storage of radioactive waste.

Australia has a moral reponsibility to ensure the uranium we export is used for peaceful purposes and handled safely throughout its life cycle. With a safe National storage site, Australia could insist that our uranium was only exported in an appropriately enriched "fingerprinted" fuel rod that once expended would have to be returned and stored under our supervision thus ensuring it was not diverted into other uses such as depleted uranium munitions or stored somewhere unsafely as they were in Fukushima where they were retained on site. Just being a signatory to the nuclear NPT is not good enough! Australia should exert more control over our uranium exports. A National storage site be it Muckaty Station or elswhere is integral to properly managing this resource.

Posted Monday, May 14, 2012 - 12:53

Given the northern hemisphere is well toxic already I think Australia has responsibility's to next generation to not risk turning our nation into an uninhabitable zone as is becoming the case for Japan via Fukushima ongoing unfixable mess.


You made your bed now lay in it applies. All that safe clean nuke energy seems to have messed up the reason gene in allowing such an industry to take hold.

Beware mission creep. A Halliburton sponsored railway to site does not sound like some thing a corporate would do lest faster profit, more profit, better profit is in mind.


Australia is not a waste dump. We take back waste is ours then no more.