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Fears and fictions in SA's nuclear waste tussle

Michele Madigan |  10 December 2015

The long anticipated arrival of reprocessed nuclear fuel rods in the first week of December has thrown the spotlight again on Australia's nuclear industry.

Apocalyptic promotional artwork from ContainmentGreenpeace's highlighting of the deficiencies of transport gives little hope that government plans will fit with the usual assurances of 'world's best practice' in this, the world's most dangerous industry.

Greenpeace reported that the BBC Shanghai is currently banned from government cargo by the US and has been detained on safety issues by three countries — including Australia in the last five years.

The spent nuclear fuel rods (termed high level in France and US) were escorted to Lucas Heights in southern Sydney, the nuclear reactor facility run by ANSTO, Australia's national research and development organisation. As former long term Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner David Noonan points out, Lucas Heights' second nuclear reactor was built to last 20 years. 

Built with the containment available for onsite storage, with the advantages of onsite expertise, secure space and avoidance of the risks and expense of hazardous further travel, it remains the safest place.

At a screening last month of his film Containment, Harvard Professor Robb Moss agreed with me regarding the 'providence' of its timely showing to Australian audiences. Five years in the making, Containment shows, among other sequences, how the US is attempting to tackle the massive problem of dealing with their own high level radioactive waste.

It includes interviews with government officials and regulator personnel amid their attempts to contain the radioactivity for the expected 10,000 years — a time frame that will embrace 'people who will not share our language, our nation and even our civilisation'. It's unsurprising that the oft repeated phrase from those from the nuclear industry was that 'the hardest thing is to get the community onside'.

During the successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national nuclear dump in South Australia, we noted that Yucca Mountain community, Nevada, was the preferred site in the US. Apparently there is renewed pressure to locate a dump here, but the state of Nevada continues to show its resolve by its longterm refusal, currently led by Nevada's Harry Reid, the US Senate Democratic Leader. Such is their success that President Barack Obama has continued to back their opposition.

It would certainly be beyond their comprehension that any community, any government, would actually volunteer to take other countries' nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. Yet in Australia, this is what nuclear proponents, the SA premier, and now the prime minister are backing.

Pope Francis has the measure of such reality: 'In conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power [is found] the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one's own immediate interests,' he writes in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si'.

'There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed one another, leading to environmental degradation and decay.'

On 2 December, Dr Margaret Beavis, GP and national president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald that the oft-cited medical science argument for both national and international dump proposals does not stack up.

'When it comes to justifying new nuclear waste storage, a lot has been said about it being essential for medical diagnostics and cancer treatment,' wrote Beavis.

'This is misleading ... the vast majority of isotopes used for medical tests are very short-lived. They decay on the medical facilities' premises until their radioactivity is negligible. They can then be disposed of in the normal waste stream (sewers, landfill etc.) according to set standards ...

'Most cancer radiotherapy uses x-rays,' she said, 'which does not produce any waste at all. A very small proportion of cancer treatments need radioactive materials, which also are too short-lived to require a remote repository, or are legally required to be sent back to the (overseas) supplier once used up.'

South Australia's Royal Commission has refused Australian environmental movement experts ACF and Friends of the Earth permission to appear. On 8 December Rose Lester, a second-generation Yankunyjatjara nuclear survivor, found her own plea blocked by Commissioner Scarce.

Lester argues 'that the Inquiry must investigate and consider Maralinga [site of British atomic tests in the South Australian desert in the 1950s and 1960sas a major incident of radiation exposure ... that affected all Australians, especially remote Indigenous communities living across the Maralinga Tjarutja region, and that irreversible contamination continues to degrade the environment'. She describes this as a form of 'nuclear racism' and suggests that the proposed new dump is a continuation of this.

We can all ask, alongside the 71 per cent of Australians who remain opposed to importing international nuclear waste: Where is the duty of care?


Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.



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Submitted comments

Thanks for this thoughtful and important contribution Michele. Nothing about the nuclear industry, especially nuclear waste, is clean or uncomplicated. Many environment, public health, Indigenous and trade union groups maintain that extended interim storage at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisations Lucas Heights reactor site is currently the ‘least worst’ management option - pending an expert and open examination of all future management options. ANSTO currently produces and stores most of Australia’s radioactive waste and is an actively managed and secured facility with the nation’s highest concentration of nuclear expertise and response capacity. ANSTO recently opened a purpose-built storage facility with the capacity to host radioactive waste for decades. Extended storage at ANSTO would allow the federal government to do what has never been done in Australia – examine all the options for managing this material in the long term Only time can take the heat out of radioactive waste, but a wide ranging, transparent and inclusive examination can help take the heat out of the radioactive waste debate. We now have an opportunity to advance responsible radioactive waste management in Australia – and this is a chance we literally cannot afford to waste.

Dave Sweeney 10 December 2015

Thank you for highlighting an important issue which is not seeing very much light for the very reasons you have outlined here with a very good quote from Laudato Si'.

Anne Lanyon 11 December 2015

The Sun seems to be the logical destination for radio-active waste. If we can send rockets to Pluto, the Sun should be much easier on account of its huge gravity. Is the problem the sheer bulk of the waste, or are there other problems?

Robert Liddy 11 December 2015

On Feb 9th this year Premier Weatherill 'surprised' Australians with this royal commission, currently looking into SA’s future role in a nuclear industry. This fly’s in the face of a battle lost years ago. Nuclear is not wanted. But what of transparency and ethics? Premier Weatherill also said at the time "We believe South Australians should be given the opportunity to explore the practical, financial and ethical issues raised by a deeper involvement in the nuclear industries." So why not hear the practical and ethical concerns? Why exclude Rose Lester- Yankunyjatjara nuclear survivor- in appearing before this committee? If Premier Weatherill is true to his words he MUST allow Rose and others including the ACF and FOE to appear before this commission. A nuclear Industry in SA will impact on ‘all’ Australians. If their requests are denied this process becomes a sham and simply a means to an end. I find this process abhorrent, lacking of transparency and ethics. As Michele says what of Duty Of Care and I ask further what of democracy and common sense? Nuclear is destructive, as we have seen across the world and its waste damage irreversible go no further than SA’s Maralinga Tjarutja region.

Name 11 December 2015

The population at large has a well known major distortion of its concepts of "risk". I suggest that you are just manipulating this Michele, essentially through NIMBI fear-mongering. Who gains? Australia could provide a huge and safe service to the world in nuclear waste storage and do well economically in the process.

Eugene 11 December 2015

Sister It seems extraordinary that the Royal Commission would refuse permission for ACF, FOE and Rose Lester to appear. Can you give us some details?

Prosopon 11 December 2015

Spot on, Eugene. The 10,000 year radioactive life is also a complete furphy, evincing a level of pessimism about humans that would make Thomas Malthus blush. Given that over a mere hundred years or so we've come from horses and quill pens to cars, planes, rockets to the moon and beyond, and computers, I daresay we'll come up with feasible ways to relocate our nuclear waste dumps more securely within a couple of hundred years, if not less. Meantime let's store it here, at the appropriate rent. And let's not forget the brilliant and unjustly maligned "robber baron" John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. He saw the sludge of waste product churned out from his oil refineries and wondered if anything useful could be made from it. In the end, from this gloop, he invented more than 200 brilliant useful derivatives, creating the entire plastics industry - the stuff I'm sitting on and typing with right now, etc etc. One man's waste is another man's opportunity, if we permit creativity to be rewarded.

HH 11 December 2015

436 reactors around the world currently produce 12%of the world's electricity. 32 countries generate nuclear power and they and 17 other countries are building 70 reactors at present, 174 reactors are firmly planned and 301 proposed for the future. With current waste largely reprocessed with a much bigger energy payback, quantities of waste will continue to reduce. Once the developing IFR's are on line quantities of waste will reduce further. Such high level waste has been shipped between Europe and Japan since the early 60's with never an accident that leaked nuclear materials into the environment. The waste has been handled safely and securely in facilities attached to power stations since power was first generated. The IAEA has wanted to get the waste off the surface and into underground deep storage. Pangea Resources investigated the Officer Basin 20 years ago because it was seen as the best of just a few suitable sites on the planet. The small amounts of future waste have to be disposed of, safely. Australia should offer the growing world nuclear industry the Officer Basin for the disposal of its high level waste. It is not as dangerous as we've always been led to believe.

Terry Krieg 12 December 2015

HH:" I daresay we'll come up with feasible ways to relocate our nuclear waste dumps more securely within a couple of hundred years, if not less. Meantime let's store it here, at the appropriate rent." This seems to have been the thinking of mining officials who opted to store their 'sludge' in tailing dams, out of mind, until the various dams burst with unforeseen and disastrous results.

Robert Liddy 12 December 2015

Thankyou. Hopefully Dr Margaret Beavis’s facts helped those with opposing views to understand the medical radioactive waste situation in Australia. As in previous campaigns, medical waste seems again being used as cover by proponents. It’s puzzling that respondents’ opposing views presented on various problems of nuclear waste seem be couched mainly in broad generalisations suggesting eg ‘fear-mongering’ rather than presenting opposing facts. The film Containment contains many on-site visuals as well as interviews with US government officials and regulators - unequivocal that dealing with their own immense amount of nuclear waste is a gigantic problem requiring high scientific and engineering expertise and expense. 10,000 years –‘far from a distortion of risk’- is the low end estimation of the known radioactivity for LLIW (known as high level in the US). The consequences and acceptance of the facts of transport accidents and ground leaks, extremely long term caring for highly dangerous material are a problem for all Australians. See Information: www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc/power? Ultra optimistic hopes of scientific breakthrough have proved just that in the past- even the only high level waste repository in the world has been closed for 4 years. Only Royal Commissioners would have any details on ACF and FoE exclusions.

Michele Madigan 12 December 2015

Thanks Sr Michelle, for your very informative and well researched article. I agree wholeheartedly and am totally against importing international nuclear waste to Australia.

PRadman 14 December 2015

If nuclear is a viable energy option do we not, as global citizens, have a moral obligation to take the waste if our site is the most stable and geologically stable ? i.e. It might be proximate to our citizens but we are all a part of one global family and this is an energy source that has significant current advantages over fossil fuels.

luke 14 December 2015

The nuclear waste situation in the U.S. is due to its imprudent decision 30 years back not to allow its nuclear waste to be reprocessed - in contrast, say, to France and Russia. Nuclear "waste" is in fact a repository of valuable material and reprocessing it would actually decrease the need to mine more uranium. [See my comment on John D Rockefeller and "waste" above.] If Australia had the common sense to allow nuclear power, we could actually import "waste" from the U.S. and use it productively. As it is, we can store it underground - paying whatever consenting owners of the land an agreed rent, of course - and wait till some future government comes round to its senses, and draw on this stockpile. In saying this, as a free market advocate, I am by no means asking that the government subsidize a nuclear industry, or privilege it legally. Nor am I opposed to cyclotron-produced medical isotopes, if it's the winner on a level playing field.* The key thing is to stop all subsidies, government-created externalities, and other market distortions throughout the energy sector and allow the market to determine the mix. [*Note: the Beavis quote above is not quite to the point. It's not so much the leftovers from medical isotopes, but the necessity to produce many of them in a nuclear reactor, that is substantively connected with the issue nuclear waste. Now, as Beavis points out in her article: cyclotron production for an increasing range of isotopes is approaching economic viability. But it's not there yet, even in Canada, which is leading the way.]

HH 18 December 2015

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