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Nuclear waste danger knows no state borders


The South Australia Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle will give its interim report at the Adelaide Town Hall at 6pm next Monday 15 February.

Map of Australia with green blotch spreading from South Australia to other statesIt is likely the Commission will recommend that the South Australian Premier's plan to import international high-level radioactive waste proceed, despite obvious risks and clear dangers.

At the same time, federal plans for a national dump — likely to be located at a remote site in South Australia, NSW, Queensland or the Northern Territory — continue, with comments due on 11 March 2016.

It would be a mistake for anyone living outside of South Australia to think that the premier's plan is just a South Australian problem. Transport and containment risks are hugely significant. State boundaries are no guarantees of safety. 

Professor John Veevers of Macquarie University notes the 'tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000km from its destined dump in Australia … must remain intact for at least 10,000 years.

'These magnitudes — of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport and time — entail great inherent risk.'

In 1998 when the federal government identified the central northern area of South Australia to be site for a proposed national radioactive waste dump, it was not only South Australians who were concerned.

In 2003 the mayors of Sutherland, Bathurst, Blue Mountains, Broken Hill, Dubbo, Griffith, Lithgow, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Auburn, Bankstown, Blacktown, Fairfield, Holroyd, Liverpool, Parramatta and Penrith — communities along potential transport routes — opposed 'any increase in nuclear waste production until a satisfactory resolution occurs to the waste repository question'.

The NSW parliamentary inquiry into radioactive waste found 'there is no doubt that the transportation of radioactive waste increases the risk of accident or incident — including some form of terrorist intervention'.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation itself acknowledges there are one to two 'incidents' every year involving the transportation of radioactive materials to and from its Lucas Heights reactor plant.  

In a post Fukushima world, the dangers of radioactivity seem self-evident. However it seems that the ever-active pro nuclear lobby continues to do all possible to deny or conceal the following simple facts:

Radioactive waste gives off energy that is dangerous to humans, animals and plants. It can cause cancer, which may only grow many years after exposure. If such waste gets into the soil, air or underground water then it can get into our bodies, so even communities not living near the waste dump can be affected.

It is not medical waste, which decays quickly, that is the problem, but other types, such high-level international waste, which take tens of thousands of years.

The environmentalist Dr Jim Green advised one community shortlisted for the proposed national dump: 'the long lived intermediate waste would ... be sitting in an above-ground shed ... for an 'interim' period likely to last for many decades since absolutely no effort is being made to find a disposal site for it ...

'The risks ... pretty much anything you can imagine has happened at one or another radioactive waste repository around the world: fires, leaks, water infiltration and corrosion of waste drums, a chemical explosion ...'

With the federal government seemingly having no intention of building a suitable underground site, it's certain that just one state government, intent on making supposedly huge profits out of importing high-level waste, is not envisaging spending the billions required to build such a facility either.

These problems of transport and containment are extremely serious and remain unaddressed. Just one state premier is intent on importing high-level waste from other countries, but it's not just one state or territory being put at risk.

Clearly federal and state governments of both persuasions continue to see Australia's vast expanses as simply a commodity to be exploited, whatever the enormous risks involved.


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.

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, South Australia, nuclear waste



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Existing comments

The author clearly doesn't understand how much natural radioactivity is in the environment. The present nuclear waste is 95% Actinides and recyclable. The 7 long-lived isotopes remaining, 79Se, 93Zr, 99Tc, 107Pd, 126Sn, 129I & 135Cs would add 16 parts per million to natural radioactivity in South Australia. Farts don't stop at borders either, but before you get your knickers in a knot about Hydrogen Sulphide, you need to quantify the amount, relative to natural background. Even Fukushima at its worst, was only releasing 1/30000th of the natural radioactivity in the oceans, 520 PBq vs 16 million PBq. It's absurd to worry about 0.00001% of natural radioactivity.

Bill Schutt | 09 February 2016  

The world vitally needs nuclear material, and it needs to be handled and cared for. Australia is in an ideal position to do this for the world community, and certainly needs to contain our own nuclear waste as a bare minimum. Once we have a repository and recycling site then we can have a remote port and direct rail line. There is no reason that this cannot be safe and a great boon for our economy and that of remote Australia.

Eugenew | 10 February 2016  

Like most readers I am not a nuclear physicist, nor an insurance actuary, nor in fact anything that helps me come to a well reasoned position on this. But one thing I am confident of is that we should take great care in considering the advice of those who want to charge ahead, because it will be "a boon for our economy". Financial needs come and go, but radioactivity, so I have read (there is my ignorance showing again) can last for thousands of years. If I was an actuary I would be calculate risk by a formula that would take into account the level of damage that could be done, multiplied by the perceived riskiness of the activity, by the length of time the activity will be occupy. It is this length of time factor that seems to be the killer (so to speak) in this debate. Ten thousand years (or even five thousand) is a very long time - far longer than recorded history. But who cares - we'll all be dead in 100 years time.

Vin Victory | 10 February 2016  

In reply to correspondents - I don't think anyone needs to be a nuclear physicist to realise that high level radioactive waste is extremely dangerous to humankind and the natural environment. But it was pleasing physicist Monica Oliphant AO was recognised for her contribution to renewable energy as SA Senior of the Year. It seems that my first respondent makes no distinction between ionising and non-ionising radiation as his first sentence refers to non-ionising radiation. The government promoters of the 1998-2004 campaign to establish the radioactive dump in SA often failed to make this distinction. He may be helped by viewing the current documentary Containment by Harvard professor Rob Moss. Filmed over 5 years, it shows the extraordinary concern, effort and expense government officials and regulator personnel are going to in the US to deal with their own high level radioactive waste stockpiles. Fukushima has almost destroyed the Japanese fishing industry. No, the world doesn't need nuclear material. Sadly so many accidents and nuclear disasters world-wide give every reason why and why many countries like Germany are turning from things nuclear. SA has already 40% renewable energy. Australia could have a safe future for our future generations.

Michele Madigan | 10 February 2016  

I write an article weekly in the Tirconaill Tribune, a local Donegal (Ireland) newspaper, and I regularly consider nuclear energy, the setting up costs, the costs of dealing with spent fuel, as well as the dangers to the environment if, and when earthquakes, volcanic activity combine to create doomsday scenarios

Brian Smeaton | 11 February 2016  

Perhaps we are being too insular about this. Yes, there is always risk associated with radioactive waste, but with waste stored in all sorts of conditions around the world it probably poses more risk for Australia than stored in a well constructed facility in a remote SA place such as Maralinga. This is already highly compromised, on stable land, has no underground water and is close to low population port facilities. Also, securing waste so it cannot be used for weapons is another reason for having it here. Australia has adequate renewable resources, but less so other countries and nuclear power may well be the best option for them. There will be waste to dispose of and the NIMBY syndrome may not serve us well. Australia best option is for us to only export uranium enriched to power production levels on condition that it not be enriched further, and that all the waste returns to Australia for storage. This would reduce the possibilities of misuse. Of course there are problems, I think the danger of mishandling can addresses and is overstated, but the possibility that high royalty income could destroy local indigenous communities also exists.

John | 12 February 2016  

I can understand the need for national nuclear waste dump, but not international especially very long term waste. Because Aboriginal peoples claim some parts all over Australia they may need to negotiate giving up some lands for this purpose. I'm sure when they realise that medical technology which they too need is part of this. Bill Schutt's comment is very helpful.

Mary | 16 February 2016  

The first sentence of the first respondent, Bill Schutt, was ‘The author clearly doesn't understand how much natural radioactivity is in the environment.’. Michele Madigan’s response to this statement on 10 February was ‘It seems that my first respondent makes no distinction between ionising and non-ionising radiation as his first sentence refers to non-ionising radiation.’ Bill Schutt’s first sentence is not referring to non-ionising radiation. It is referring to the ionising radiation emitted by naturally occurring radioactive materials. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear and Safety Agency (ARPANSA) website has the following to say about natural background radiation: Natural background radiation is the ionising radiation in the environment that all living species are exposed to every day. The largest source of radiation exposure comes from external exposure to natural radioactivity in rocks and soil (terrestrial radiation) and inhalation of radon gas that seeps from the ground into all buildings. There are also significant contributions from cosmic radiation and naturally occurring radioactivity in food and in the body. http://www.arpansa.gov.au/radiationprotection/FactSheets/is_ionising.cfm

Graham Day | 24 February 2016  

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