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  • Debate escalates over controversial nuclear waste storage site

Debate escalates over controversial nuclear waste storage site


The long conflict between the federal government plan for a national radioactive waste facility in South Australia and the opponents of the plan has continued to escalate in the past months. On 19 November, Kimba on SA’s Eyre Peninsula was declared South Australia’s Agricultural Town of the Year. Notwithstanding this significant honour, on 29 November the federal Minister for Resources Keith Pitt finally made the formal declaration that Napandee in the Kimba district was the chosen site for the proposed federal radioactive waste dump.

With just 4.5 per cent of South Australia as arable farming, the Napandee site is on premier farming country. The Barngarla peoples are the Traditional Owners of the area.

The federal government plan is for two adjacent facilities: one for low-level radioactive waste and the other for long-lived intermediate waste (ILW) from Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). It was quite extraordinary that when interviewed then by SA ABC radio Minister Pitt said only that the facility would be used ‘for low level waste.’

In addition to the ILW already at ANSTO will be the latest shipment of two tonnes of reprocessed nuclear waste from the United Kingdom to Australia. The shipment consists of four 500kg canisters held inside a forged steel container called a TN-81.

Since the late 1990s, the supposed needs of nuclear medicine have always been promoted as key in successive government claims for hosting the nation’s radioactive waste in what understandably might be an otherwise unpalatable addition to any community. Throughout 2021, in the face of opposition, Resources Minister Keith Pitt occasionally emerged to make exaggerated claims of the necessity of the dump for the future of nuclear medicine in Australia.

In this debate around nuclear medicine, it is essential to present up-to-date facts. Nuclear expert Dr Jim Green addressed relevant facts in his paper, Nuclear waste and nuclear medicine in Australia, ‘…According to Medicare figures, nuclear medicine represents less than three percent of medical imaging. Nuclear medicine should not be confused with X-rays using iodine contrast, radiotherapy or chemotherapy, which are used much more commonly used…Nuclear medicine typically uses short-lived radioisotopes and the waste does not require special handling after a short period of radioactivity…’


'It would be far safer, cheaper and completely possible to keep the long lived intermediate level waste at ANSTO until a required "world’s best practice" underground site is identified and built.'


For decades, ANSTO has presented the argument that there's no more room for the storage of their own nuclear waste manufactured on site at their Lucas Heights facility. This has been supported by various governments as necessitating the creation of a federal waste facility elsewhere.

However in the 2020 Senate Inquiry, the CEO of the federal nuclear regulator ARPANSA confirmed ANSTO has the ability to manage the waste onsite ‘for decades to come.’

The significant 2021-22 federal budget allocation of $59.8m to ANSTO for building expansion provided a forum for nuclear experts to advise government in the resultant September Public Works Committee hearings. Senator Hughes’ request to explain why Sydney is seen as a safer option for storing its nuclear waste ‘than a far less densely populated area’ gave Dr Margaret Beavis from the Medical Association for Prevention of War, a chance to make a crucial point in the debate:

‘I think the expertise and security at ANSTO is far greater. I also think the risks from this waste pale into insignificance compared to the risks of the nuclear reactor. So, if you're going to be keeping one large facility secure, you may as well keep it all there. The regulator has said quite clearly that there's sufficient space at Lucas Heights to store this waste for decades to come. If you've got to look after the reactor-which we absolutely do have to do…’

Throughout the long campaign, Traditional Owners, Barngarla women and men, exhausted by the 25 years it took to successfully establish their native title rights over their traditional areas, have been incredulous at being excluded from the vital site vote.

On 21 December, following the Minister’s official declaration, Chair of the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation Jason Bilney made the official announcement on State Parliament House steps, of the launch of their court appeal against the federal process which had denied them having a say on their own country.

Bilney faced the media flanked by Craig Wilkins and Barry Wakelin, former Member for Grey and implacable local Kimba opponent to the dump plan. Wilkins as the CEO of CCSA, South Australia’s premier conservation body, the Conservation Council of South Australia took the opportunity to announce their latest report which clearly states, ‘the planned facility is not consistent with international best practice, and waste will be placed in temporary storage without a plan for what happens next.’

In January this year, the Kimba district was affected by floods causing widespread damage to roads and infrastructure. And in February the State Greens initiated Legislative Council debate of opposition to the federal plan concluded with the Greens and Labor opposition in a tied vote with vote forcibly resolved by the Liberal Speaker.

The question remains: what are the requirements for this plan to go ahead? An historic hurdle is that the former Olsen Liberal Government passed legislation to prevent radioactive waste being brought into the state. This particular state legislation prohibited the introduction of the higher level waste ILW. Later, the Rann Labor government raised the threshold to prohibit the importation of any national radioactive waste. Thus the State Parliament must conduct a public parliamentary inquiry. 

Overriding this South Australian legislation is another obstacle the federal government must deal with to achieve the planned facility. As well, the Barngarla court case is in train, unlikely to be concluded before the federal election. The strong No Rad Waste opposition continues on many levels in Kimba and with their colleagues throughout Eyre Peninsula. The SA State election (on 19 March) is imminent. The regulator ARPANSA must enter into the licensing process of the project. The federal government has named ARWA Australian Radioactive Waste Agency as the department which has carriage of the nuclear facility plan; legislation must be passed for it to become an independent body.

However more than any of the serious domestic hurdles, recent weeks have brought home quite starkly the dangers of nuclear projects including this one. The Chernobyl site was among the first Ukrainian areas to be captured by invading Russian forces. The Russian seizure of Europe’s largest nuclear plant Zaporizhzhia is another cause for alarm.

The present government plan for Australia’s long-lived intermediate level waste means ongoing transportation for the 1700 kms from its present storage place in Lucas Heights, to be stored above ground for the next one hundred years. There is no dispute that this ILW is toxic and dangerous for an unimaginable 10,000 years. At least two nuclear engineers including Alan Parkinson have pointed out the dangers of this plan open as it is to terrorist attacks in this uncertain world.

It would be far safer, cheaper and completely possible to keep the long lived intermediate level waste at ANSTO until a required ‘world’s best practice’ underground site is identified and built. Whichever party is successful in the coming federal elections, it is to be hoped good sense prevails in this crucial national issue.

For further information, visit Nuclear Free Campaign.



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: Radiation sign. (Ryan McGinnis / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, South Australia, nuclear waste, Kimba, ANSTO, South Australia



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Existing comments

Thank you for writing
with such clarity on this important topic.
The recent vision on news services showing nuclear waste arriving from the UK and being transported across the country juxtaposed by the war in Ukraine was enough to have any sane person decide that to set up a repository here is South Australia has no merit whatsoever.
I will be sharing this article widely.

Kerry Heysen | 16 March 2022  

In the news today, Australia is to capitalise as a major exporter of grain due to the Russian and Ukraine war.
However, Australia is building a nuclear waste dump in its most productive grain-growing region.
With over 94% of roads deemed unroadworthy for freight trucks and no trains, a reminder that nuclear waste trucking accidents can happen anywhere on roads between Sydney and Kimba.

PS The last time a truck carrying nuclear material tipped over, I am told SES workers and Police attending all died within two years.

Patricia Boylan | 16 March 2022  

Michele's commitment, persistence and knowledge have supported the call for integrity and justice by First Nations peoples and general members of the farming community who will be severely disadvantaged by the establishment of a nuclear plant at this site. The dangers associated with transport, with the management of nuclear waste, with the impact on limited agricultural land in SA, and with the dangers caused by natural events such as the recent floods in that very area, have been powerfully described by Michele. It is hoped that the common good, more than economic and political benefits for a few individuals, will be the determinant of the decision taken by the Government. Thanks for your tenacity and determination, Michele.

Jan Barnett | 16 March 2022  

The approval today of the $60 million expanded interim storage facility at Lucas Heights for Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) means building the ILW facility at Kimba is a waste of money. We need to plan properly for a long term disposal facility - not a short term cheap option at Kimba that just kicks the disposal option down the road.

This waste should stay at Lucas Heights and be dealt with properly- moved only when a final disposal site is chosen.

Margaret Beavis | 16 March 2022  

A very timely article. With South Australians heading to the polls, this should surely be an election issue. The world media is right now warning on the dangers of nuclear installations, nuclear waste dumps, in the turmoil in Ukraine. Clearly, not only the Bangarla people, but a strong and well-informed group of farmers and conservationists are speaking out for the safety and protection of South Australia's precious rural land. Thanks to Eureka Street and Michele Madigan for setting this issue out so clearly. This is not a matter just for a small country Council to decide, but for the State of South Australia,and indeed for Australia as a nation.

Noel Wauchope | 17 March 2022  

A concise summary, Thanks Michele.
For further info see 2 page Briefer:
"Why impose indefinite storage of ANSTO nuclear waste onto SA when its already in secure Extended Storage at Lucas Heights?" (August 2021)
ciao David N

David Noonan | 17 March 2022  

Thanks Michele for another well researched article on the attempt by the federal government to foist a waste nuclear dump on the town of Kimba in SA.

It has to be said that to choose this site on arable land in a state where only 4.5% of its land can be used for arable farming is extremely derelict and the height of irresponsibility.

The problem of using prime farming land for this purpose is further exacerbated by the problem of flooding that is referred to in the article. Flooding of a radioactive waste dam could lead to radioactive materials being spread long distances across farming land with the high probability of the food grown there being contaminated with chemicals that remain radioactive for thousands of years.

Then we have the situation where the federal government has made this decision without consulting the Barngarla people - the traditional owners of the land.

The Morrison Government often preaches to others about the importance of democracy and the rule of law and yet has prevented the traditional owners from having a say and attempting to overthrow SA law. These principles are conveniently forgotten when this government wants to introduce unpopular policies.

While it is true as Michele has stated, Lucas Heights has a great storage capacity for nuclear medical wastes , so why is there the urgent push to put this nuclear dump in Kimba? many people I know think that the federal government has decided that this would be a good place to put the waste from its ill-considered AUKUS nuclear submarine project.

We need to stand alongside traditional owners to protect as much land as possible from dangerous polluting materials. like nuclear wastes to ensure viable environments for future generations.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 March 2022  

Thank you again Michele for delivering long known and new facts of the danger of nuclear production and waste. Food security will be at further risk. We could become the universal dumping ground of nuclear waste for those who still see Australia as terra nullius.

Kay McPadden | 19 March 2022  

It is helpful Michele to be given the facts of the SA history of the storage of nuclear waste. How ironic and sad it is that the chosen site for the proposed federal radioactive waste dump is at Kimba on SA’s agricultural town of the year! What an injustice that the traditional owners of the land, the Barngaria women and men have been excluded from a vote on the issue. Your word “exhausted” is telling! Exhausted original owners spent years establishing native title rights only to be excluded from the vital site vote. What an injustice! If only we understood the words “The truth will set you free!”

Therese Quinn | 19 March 2022  

Perhaps our Australian governments believe that crops will grow better next to nuclear waste? Or new industry. And want future generations to find out, if it is so. I think it is time to ban uranium mining and export. There would be enough out there, to blow up the planet.

Claudia Tregoning | 30 April 2022  

Another young friend died today from auto immune disease and another from cancer on Eyre Peninsula.

Fifty years ago, British Scientists treated the people living on the west coast of South Australia and east coast of Western Australia as lab rats. Politicians sacrificed their own constituents, servicemen and scientists to allow British to test nuclear bombs.

As Frank Walker stated in his book, ‘Maralinga: The chilling exposure of our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country’

‘The facts are shocking.
The treachery is chilling.
The fallout is ongoing.’

A nuclear dump will contaminate prime gaming land and what else?

P Boylan

Patricia Boylan | 09 May 2022