The Nuclear Waste Dump: South Australia Does A Brexit


The decision by a Citizen’s Jury to reject ‘under any circumstances’ a nuclear waste dump might make political sense, but what about the science, writes Geoff Russell.

It seems to be viral. Letting fear trump fact. In the case of Brexit it was fear conjoined with the holy trinity of racism, patriotism and perceived self-interest.

As I start writing this article, Fear may well be Trumping more than just fact in the US and “Make America great again” might end up on our collective tombstone as the slogan that screwed the planet [Ed’s note: Good tip Geoff].

Here in South Australia we are having our own brush with trying to empower people with random and therefore mostly irrelevant backgrounds trying to make decisions on technically complicated issues in a highly politicised environment.

This is a perfect Brexit recipe.

The South Australian Government thought it could gain a social license for a nuclear waste repository by forming what is called a Citizen’s Jury using a random sample of 350 of the population and exposing them to information. I thought so too.

Either we were both wrong or there was some kind of fundamental implementation flaw. Alternatively, the Royal Commission screwed up; or all three.

Why don’t we form a Citizen’s Jury to make decisions about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme? Why don’t we vote on how our electric power grid is structured? After all, it only takes four years to train an engineer, so a group of randomly chosen people should be able to knock it over in a couple of days.

If two thirds of the Citizen’s Jury really did support the final report, then two thirds have very poor analytical skills. Which sounds about right, given that 60 percent of small businesses go broke within 3 years; and more after that!

But, perhaps small business operators aren’t as representative as the Citizen’s Jury. Perhaps small business owners aren’t representative of the general population but are a particularly stupid and innumerate bunch. I doubt that.

So let’s look at the stated reasons given not merely for rejecting the repository but rejecting it “under any circumstances”.

If the Jury thought the business case didn’t stack up, we’d best hope there weren’t too many small business owners involved in the analysis. But regardless of the business prowess of the Jury, such a judgement would support a rejection, but not the kind of rejection given. It would only support a “send it back and try again” kind of response. A change in size, scheduling or discount rate could make all the difference.

But distrust of the business case wasn’t the only reason for the rejection. Another stated reason was a failure to trust the Government to manage large projects. Did the Jury know and cite the percentage of large projects screwed up by this Government? They just listed a few things that made headlines and totally ignored the zillion things that Governments do which just work and fly under the news radar.

The only people who expect large projects, like our new hospital, to proceed without some serious hiccups are people whose large project experience is limited to a backyard pergola.

Then we come to the religious objections which comprised a veto from a combined alliance of the Jews, Muslims and Christians. Yes, I know, it wasn’t really them, but let’s pretend it was for a minute to see how the arguments play out.

The Jews reckoned that 237 appears in the Book of Numbers in the Torah indicating that 237Np (Neptunium) must never be made, let alone buried anywhere on the planet. To do so would invite a plague of fiery flying serpents similar to those that plagued the Israelites during their treck to the Promised Land.

The Muslims joined the opposition on account of 241Am (americium) being a heathen element that wasn’t halal.

Lastly, the Christians argued that the division of the atomic nucleus during fission was evidence of life which was therefore sacred shouldn’t be buried alive.

They all agreed that nuclear waste was in defiance of God’s laws even if they couldn’t quite agree on which God or what laws.

Could it have gone this way? Of course. Happily, due to some very messy history, western democracies generally have a separation of church and state, which, while not perfect, protects us from most such debates.

We are happy to treat religious people with a modicum of respect and civility regardless of what they believe, but if mumbo-jumbo starts impacting sensible decision-making, then at some point we say enough. Particularly when these beliefs cause harm. How do we assess harm? Using everything in our scientific and rational toolbox.

As Peter Singer pointed out in his book on George W Bush, we don’t allow police prosecution on the basis of an officer merely having faith in who committed the crime. Nor do we want policy made by people claiming divine revelation. We don’t want climate policy determined by religious people who just know that God wouldn’t allow the planet to fry, nor by those who are equally certain that he would; with lashings of brimstone.

Hundreds of years of this separation have smoothed over most of the sharp and ugly edges of most Christian sects. We don’t have women burned at the stake anymore as witches, but abortion clinics need good security. A similar process is underway with Islam and Judaism, but there are still areas needing considerable work; kosher slaughter practices and ISIS, for example.

Have Aboriginals given any reasons for opposing a waste repository that are other than religious? If so, then they belong with other objections. If not, then they deserve the same treatment as any other religious objections. Listen politely and move on.

Calling them spiritual rather than religious makes no difference. To give such objections standing in the debate over a repository is a fundamental violation of the separation of church and state, or as I prefer to put it, the separation of mumbo-jumbo and evidence based reasoning.

Aboriginals have native title over various parts of Australia and their right to determine what happens on that land is and should be quite different from rights with regard to other land. This isn’t about their rights on that land.

Suppose somebody wants to build a large intensive piggery. Should we consult Aboriginals in some other part of the country? Should those in the Kimberley perhaps be consulted? No.

They may object to it in the same way I would, but they have no special rights in the matter. They have no right to spiritual veto.

But a piggery is, of course, very different from a nuclear waste repository.

Unlike a waste repository, the piggery will cause a vast amount of suffering over its lifespan. And not only for the pigs. There will also be human implications; cancer, diabetes, and more. There will be substantial risks of groundwater contamination, antibiotic resistance development, and various old and new zoonoses. Nobody should forget that swine flu killed 284,000 people during its first 12 months.

So how is a radioactive waste repository different? It won’t cause suffering in the short term. It isn’t associated with zoonoses, or the loss of valuable antibiotics and can be readily designed to have zero risk of any possibility of contaminating ground water in a way that can cause anything more serious than trivial amounts of radiation.

Science isn’t a democratic process. There are facts and theories and reinterpretations and new evidence and constant shifts of focus and sometimes long held theories are overturned. At its core is the attempt to follow the evidence and to reject irrationality.

The flaws in the Citizen’s Jury decision are shown not so much by its rejection of the repository proposal, but the nature of that rejection.

Geoff Russell is a regular contributor to New Matilda. He has qualifications in mathematics and has written software all of his working life, but in the past decade has devoted increasing time to writing non-fiction with a simple goal... make the world a better place. A three-decade vegan and member of the Animal Justice Party, his first book in 2009 was 'CSIRO Perfidy', a critique of the high-red-meat CSIRO 'Total Wellbeing diet'; the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet. His concerns about climate change and the ineffectiveness of renewables led to a re-examination of his lifelong opposition to nuclear power. After considerable research he realised that the reasons people fear nuclear are built on obsolete knowledge about DNA and cancer. Geoff's second book 'GreenJacked! Derailing environmental action on climate change' is an e-book available on Amazon. He has been a regular contributor to since 2008 and has had pieces published in The Monthly, Australasian Science and a number of Australian newspapers.