Blank Cheque For A Bad Plan: Canberra’s Nuclear Waste Problem Is South Australia’s Nightmare

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The process for establishing a national nuclear waste repository in remote South Australia is deeply flawed on numerous fronts, writes Dave Sweeney.

At the request of federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan, the Kimba District Council in regional South Australia recently posted letters to registered Council voters asking if they supported the area becoming home to Australia’s radioactive waste.

In November the Flinders Ranges Council is set to do the same.

Local communities should certainly have a say in decisions with direct impacts for them – and hosting radioactive waste that lasts 10,000 years is certainly a direct impact.

But to make an informed decision a community needs access to detailed and accurate information and, unacceptably, this is missing.

Estimates of the facility size, design, economics and employment have shifted and remain uncertain. There is little or no detail about waste acceptance criteria, transport and handling procedures or future plans for the management of the most contaminating waste.

Minister Canavan refuses to define what level of community response would constitute “broad community support”.

The community is effectively being asked to give a blanket approval to a concept, not measured consideration of a specific proposal. And not all the local community is invited or involved.

Barngarla people have been excluded from the ballot even though they are Native Title holders who neighbour the proposed Kimba site.

In the Flinders many in the Adnyamathanha community are set to miss having a say, while others with long standing interests don’t meet the arbitrary ballot boundary and will not have a vote.

Successive governments’ approach to radioactive waste management over many years has been divisive and lacked the evidence base required to achieve community consensus and a lasting solution.

The current plan would see low-level waste interred at the site while the more problematic intermediate level wastes would be stored above ground pending future underground disposal at a separate site.

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There is no clear proposal, process, funding or timeline for this pivotal next stage.

This unnecessary double handling of waste that needs to be isolated for up to 10,000 years is not consistent with international best practice.

There is a real risk this waste will become stranded in a place with far fewer institutional assets to manage it than those sites where it is housed now.

At present most of Australia’s radioactive waste is stored at two secured Commonwealth facilities – Lucas Heights in NSW and Woomera in SA.

There is no compelling radiological or public health rationale for prematurely advancing the selection of a new site, especially one based on the current sub-optimal process.

The Lucas Heights facility has the capacity to continue to store the most problematic intermediate level waste for many years. ARPANSA, the federal nuclear regulator, has clearly stated there is no urgent need to re-locate this material.

Radioactive waste management is a complex issue, but it need not be an intractable one.

And regardless of the complexity, politics should not be given priority over sound process.

Trust, transparency and evidence are essential preconditions to achieving a credible and lasting radioactive waste management solution.

All are sadly lacking in the federal government’s approach.

Many civil society stakeholders, including national environment, public health, trade union and Aboriginal groups, support a public and independent assessment of the full range of radioactive waste management options in Australia.

This would include, but not be solely restricted to, the government’s preferred remote or regional central facility model.

This waste problem was not created by the people of Kimba or Hawker, nor is it their sole responsibility to solve.

The federal approach has been to shrink the space for a discussion about this waste and to seek to turn a needed national debate into a local infrastructure opportunity and bidding war.

This approach has been deeply divisive.

It has failed to consider other options or address existing deficiencies. It has not given a voice to people in the wider communities of the Eyre Peninsula, the Flinders Ranges or South Australia. The current plan also neglects the interests of the tens of thousands of Australians who live along potential transport corridors.

This exclusion is even more galling considering that what Canberra is proposing is in direct conflict with existing South Australian law. The waste plan is unpopular, unnecessary and unlawful.

Securely managing radioactive waste is a complex and costly challenge. Giving Canberra a blank cheque for a bad plan is simply not a good idea for any of us – now or for the future.

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Dave Sweeney

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