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The Business of Green

Money matters in the green world, by Leon Gettler.

Nuclear waste dump politics


Credit: sxc.hu

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It’s time to talk about what we do with radioactive waste.

The big controversy is around the The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) applying for a licence to store the waste in an 800 square metre interim warehouse at Lucas Heights from 2015.

Lucas Heights is in Sutherland Shire, about 20km southwest of the Sydney CBD. Under an international agreement, the waste which will remain toxic for centuries was sent to France several years ago to be reprocessed to remove plutonium and residual uranium. More than 13 cubic metres of waste - equivalent to about one-third of a shipping container - is due to return to Australia in three years. The plan is to ship the waste from France in a custom-built 6.5 metre steel cask with walls more than 20 centimetres thick and capable of withstanding an earthquake or temperatures higher than 800 degrees celcius. It will arrive in Australia at a port yet to be determined. It will then be trucked to Lucas Heights under high security on a special multi-axle trailer.

This has outraged locals. As reported here, councillors whose wards cover the Lucas Heights area, say that while nuclear energy has its place in the medical world, the area should not be used as an international dumping ground.

The problem is that there’s no national waste centre or solution. The government hasn’t even thought about what to do with the stuff so it’s using Lucas Heights as a de facto dumping ground.

A nuclear waste repository is a political hot potato. Originally, there were plans to build a national repository for waste in the remote outback. Such a repository was originally announced in 1992, and a site selected in remote South Australia. But after a successful Federal Court challenge by the government of South Australia, the Howard government announced in 2004 it was abandoning the project.

Last month, the Gillard government passed legislation to establish a national repository for nuclear waste at an unspecified site. Trouble is that’s not expected to be available until at least 2020.

The politics of nuclear waste dumps in Australia can be boiled down to “out of sight, out of mind”. Governments have been acutely aware that no community will tolerate a nuclear waste facility in their backyard. In a 2008 Senate inquiry on why Australian Governments concentrated on remote sites for waste storage, ANSTO executive Steven McIntosh said: “We understand, and I know that you say to leave politics aside, but politics frankly was the determining factor.”

This is why Governments look at remote sites to dump waste. To hell with the environment and Indigenous communities.

Menai MP Melanie Gibbons and Sutherland Shire mayor Carol Provan have declared their disgust to local paper. Provan says that people living in the shire are paying the price for inaction by successive federal governments, which have failed to decide upon a suitable location for permanently storing the waste. Governments have promised but not acted.

Still, ANSTO’s general manager of commercial operations Shaun Jenkinson says there’s no ‘credible risk’ to the community from the waste. ‘‘It is not dangerous waste,’’ Mr Jenkinson said. ‘‘It is hazardous only if it is not shielded.” Jenkinson says properly stored waste would generate no more radiation that that experienced by a passenger on a flight from Australia to Europe.

Maybe, but the issue is that Lucas Heights is only a temporary storage spot. Best practice demands that it eventually be permanently housed in a national repository, and the government is no closer to building that than it was years ago when they struck the agreement with France.

Dave Sweeney, Nuclear Free Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation says putting it in Lucas Heights is better than dumping it in the outback but it’s no long term solution.

“The key point is the need for a credible, robust and public inquiry into Australia's waste management options," said Sweeney. "This has not happened to date and is a big part of why the divisive approach of the former Howard government, which has been enthusiastically followed by the current portfolio Minister Martin Ferguson, has failed to deliver a site or a solution. A public inquiry into Australia's radioactive waste management options would be the long overdue circuit breaker to help restore some sound science, procedural integrity and community confidence. We can't take the heat out of radioactive waste but we can - and must - take the heat out of the debate over its management.”

Australian government policy on nuclear waste however remains 'out of sight, out of mind'. And like the nuclear waste itself, the issue will remain toxic.