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.