If you sit in the one place long enough the whole world passes by. So goes one Buddhist saying. The same could apply to the news, especially stories with a long shelf life. And few things on earth have a shelf life like nuclear waste. The notion of Australia hosting the world’s growing stockpile of radioactive waste has been revisited, this time in a report by Deloitte Access Economics.
It’s an idea that has had many promoters over the years. Bob Hawke, Alexander Downer, Warren Mundine and the secretive Dr John White, a former energy adviser to John Howard, have all made the case for Australia making a dump for nuclear waste.
The idea has also been actively advanced in desktop and field studies with a consortium called Pangea Resources, largely funded by the US, UK and Swiss nuclear industries, targeting two areas in regional WA in the 1990’s as possible sites for a global dump. Pangea’s plan was derailed when a leaked copy of their slick promotional video was obtained by Friends of the Earth and made available to politicians and journalists ahead of the company’s timeline.
The resulting publicity saw much ducking, dodging and denial and subsequent legislation banning international waste dumping in Australia.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to legislate nuclear waste out of existence. Its management remains the nuclear industry’s Achilles heel. The Deloitte report acknowledges as much, stating “many proposals to make greater use of nuclear power ultimately flounder on the issue of how to deal with the resultant waste. That’s eminently understandable”.
All nuclear processes create radioactive wastes that pose a direct hazard and need to be isolated from people and the environment for extremely long periods of time. We are now in the seventh decade of the nuclear age and, despite industry assurances, political promises and spending multiple billions in research and development, not one country on Earth has a final disposal facility for high level radioactive waste.
Radioactive waste management remains a complex, costly and unresolved issue and one that Australia, as a major global provider of nuclear fuel, has a responsibility to consider and address. Australia is home to around 35 per cent of the world’s uranium and our exports out of Darwin and Adelaide are the start of an increasingly contaminating industrial process.
After use in a reactor, Australian uranium becomes high-level radioactive waste. That's on a good day. On a bad day it becomes radioactive fallout; let’s never forget that Australian uranium was fuelling the failed Fukushima nuclear complex when it melted down.
Closer to home Australia’s approach to radioactive waste management has been a case study in how not to approach complex policy development. For seven years now a community at Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek in Central Australia, has been in the government's sights as the nation’s radioactive waste dump site.
The majority of Traditional Aboriginal owners and custodians have never been asked, let alone given consent and the dump plan is in direct conflict with international industry best practice and Australia’s obligations under the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The dump plan remains secretive and hidden by "commercial in confidence" provisions. It's far removed from Deloitte's call for “a mature debate that weighs safety, cost, environmental impact, community sentiment and other dimensions of the issue”.
In June, the Federal Court will hear a case bought by Traditional Owners opposed to the dump plan who seek to get the Muckaty site nomination ruled invalid. That they would have to go to the courts is evidence of profound policy failure on the part of government. It is a failure that bodes poorly for any future moves or backroom agreements that seek to take Australia further down the nuclear road.
If we cannot get our own nuclear house in order it hardly inspires confidence in Australia as a solution to a global problem — a point again noted in Deloitte’s report, which acknowledges that domestic resistance and concern would make the idea unlikely to proceed.
Hopefully the Deloitte report might give a long overdue initiative some attention. Australia needs an independent, public and credible review of how best to manage our existing domestic radioactive waste — such as a national commission into responsible radioactive waste management.
We need to move away from short term political fixes based on legislative overrides and carrot and stick politics with disadvantaged communities and instead embrace and enact an approach based on transparency, credible community engagement, proper process and sound science.
Radioactive waste lasts longer than any economic advisor, community campaigner or federal politician. We have a shared responsibility to manage it maturely and securely.
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