Australian nuclear waste import plan dead, revived, dead again ... hopefully.

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

We reported in the last issue of Nuclear Monitor that plans to use South Australia (SA) as a dumping ground for around one-third of the world's spent nuclear fuel was all but dead and buried.1 Since then, the project has been revived by the SA government then buried again (hopefully) by opposition parties.

The first indication of major opposition to the dump plan was on October 15, when 3,000 people participated in a protest at Parliament House in Adelaide, the capital of SA. Then, on November 6, two-thirds of the 350 members of a South Australian government-initiated Citizens' Jury rejected "under any circumstances" the government's plan to import 138,000 tonnes of spent fuel and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level nuclear waste as a money-making venture.

SA Premier Jay Weatherill previously said that he established the Citizens' Jury because he could sense that there is a "massive issue of trust in government". It was expected that when Weatherill called a press conference on November 14, he would announce that no further work would be carried out on the dump plan. But Weatherill instead announced that he wanted to hold a state-wide referendum on the issue, as well as giving affected Aboriginal communities a right of veto over nuclear developments on their land.

However, to hold a referendum enabling legislation would be required and cannot be passed without the support of political parties opposed both to a referendum and also to the nuclear waste import project. Those parties are the main opposition Liberal Party (favored to win the next state election in early 2018), the Nick Xenophon Team and the SA Greens. The conservative Liberal Party and the Nick Xenophon Team had not opposed the nuclear waste import proposal before the Citizens' Jury, and their opposition fundamentally alters the political dynamics of the debate.

Then the Labor Party government announced that it would not seek to repeal or amend the SA Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000, which imposes major constraints on the ability of the government to move forward with the nuclear waste import proposal.2 (Nor will the state government encourage the federal government to repeal laws banning nuclear power, "recognising that in the short-to-medium term, nuclear power is not a cost-effective source of low-carbon electricity for South Australia").

So we're back where we started ‒ the waste import proposal seems to be dead in the water. Nevertheless the state government and SA's Murdoch tabloid, The Advertiser, along with some other supporters are fighting a furious rear-guard battle to try to revive the corpse. They are relentlessly attacking and undermining the credibility of the Citizens' Jury. Those voices of those defending the integrity of the Jury3 ‒ or pointing to its pro-nuclear biases4 ‒ are being drowned out by the chorus of criticism in The Advertiser.

Supporters of the proposal are being extraordinarily dishonest. A public opinion poll5 commissioned by the Sunday Mail (the sister paper of The Advertiser), found that 35% of South Australians support the waste import proposal. Instead of reporting that result honestly ‒ by noting that non-supporters outnumber supporters by almost two to one ‒ the Sunday Mail conflated responses to two different questions and claimed: "Majority support for creating a nuclear industry in South Australia is revealed in an extensive Sunday Mail survey of public opinion, in a rebuff to moves to shut down further study of a high-level waste dump."6

Another example of blatant dishonesty concerned a Community Views Report reflecting a state-wide consultation process.7 The Premier cherry-picked and misrepresented that report, claiming that it found a 43:37 margin in favor of further consideration of the waste import proposal. In fact, the consultation process found that 4365 people were opposed to further consideration of the proposal while only 3032 supported further consideration.8

The Premier completely ignored the other findings of the Community Views Report:

  • 53% of respondents opposed the plan to import high-level nuclear waste while just 31% supported the plan;
  • over three-quarters of Aboriginal respondents opposed the plan;
  • only 20% of respondents were confident that nuclear waste could be transported and stored safely, while 70% were not confident;
  • the number of people confident in the government's ability to regulate any new nuclear industry activities in SA (2125 people) was barely half the number who were not confident (4190 people);
  • only 20% of respondents were confident that the government would consider community views while 70% were not confident; and
  • 66% per cent of respondents were not confident that a nuclear waste import project would bring significant economic benefits to SA.

The state government and the Murdoch press have also been lying about an economic report9 commissioned by a Parliamentary committee. The report, written by Nuclear Economics Consulting Group (NECG), was asked to evaluate an earlier study commissioned by a state government-initiated Royal Commission. According to the Sunday Mail, the NECG report "backed Royal Commission findings that a nuclear dump could create A$257 billion [US$190 bn; €180 bn] in revenue for South Australia."10

But the kindest thing the NECG report had to say was that the waste import project could be profitable under certain assumptions, and the NECG report then raises serious questions about most of those assumptions. The NECG report notes that the Royal Commission's economic analysis didn't even consider some important issues which "have significant serious potential to adversely impact the project and its commercial outcomes"; that assumptions about price are "overly optimistic" and if that is the case "project profitability is seriously at risk"; that the 25% cost contingency for delays and blowouts is likely to be a significant underestimate; and that the assumption the project would capture 50% of the available market had "little support or justification".

SA Liberal Party economic spokesperson Rob Lucas said: "This [NECG] report is a severe embarrassment for Mr Weatherill as it makes it clear the Weatherill Government leaks to the media on the weekend were selective, deceptive and an attempt to grossly mislead the public."11

How will this debate unfold? In all probability, nuclear waste proponents will, sooner or later, tire of banging their heads against a brick wall ‒ particularly if, as expected, the Liberal Party wins the state election in early 2018. It seems that there is little or no internal dissent to the Liberal Party's opposition to the dump ‒ most or all Liberal parliamentarians think the project is too much of an economic gamble and/or they see the political advantage in taking a no-dump position to the next state election. That said, the Liberal Party is pro-nuclear and it cannot be assumed that the party will retain its current no-dump policy.

Unnamed 'sources' told the Murdoch press that they plan to approach potential customer countries in an attempt to shore up the economic case (some reports suggest interest from Taiwan).10 The state government cannot engage in negotiations with potential customers because of the constraints imposed by the SA Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000, but private parties can do as they please.

However, potential customer countries will be reluctant to engage in serious discussions given that there is strong public and political opposition in South Australia. As an Advertiser journalist noted in May 2016: "The business model only works if there is long-term stability for countries like Japan and Korea, who would become likely sellers. The chance of political upheaval or legal changes in SA over a dump would spook any responsible country, and lead them to make other arrangements."12

In the event that the Liberal Party backflips on its current no-dump policy, the SA Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000 is amended or repealed, and a credible business case is developed including agreements with potential customer countries, then there is still the issue of the promised right of veto for affected Aboriginal Traditional Owners. Yet the Premier has acknowledged the "overwhelming opposition of Aboriginal people" and he should therefore abandon any further attempts to pressure Aboriginal people into accepting a high-level nuclear waste dump.

Aboriginal people in South Australia are seeking international organizational endorsements for their statement of opposition:


1. 8 Nov 2016, 'South Australian Citizens' Jury rejects nuclear waste dump plan', Nuclear Monitor #833,

2. 15 Nov 2016, 'Government delivers response to Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report',

3. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, 18 Nov 2016, 'The greatest underused asset in politics is people; ignore them at your peril',

4. Tony Webb, 18 Nov 2016, 'One small voice from inside the recent SA Nuclear Citizen's Jury',


6. Paul Starick, 19 Nov 2016, 'Exclusive Sunday Mail Your Say, SA survey reveals majority support for a nuclear industry',

7. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Consultation and Response Agency, November 2016, 'Community Views Report',

8. Jim Green, 15 Nov 2016, 'Jay Weatherill willing to commit political suicide with push to turn South Australia into world's nuclear waste dump',

9. Nuclear Economics Consulting Group, 11 Nov 2016, 'Review of Jacobs MCM Report Commercial Model',

10. Miles Kemp, 13 Nov 2016, 'Study firms up $257bn nuclear dump findings', Sunday Mail,

11. Rob Lucas, 16 Nov 2016, 'New expert report on dump causes major problems for Weatherill',

12. Daniel Wills, 13 May 2016, 'Voters' nuclear reaction can avoid meltdowns in future',

13. Jay Weatherill, ABC SA 891 Radio, 15 November 2016.