In February, the Labor Party government of the state of South Australia (SA) established a Royal Commission1 to consider options for an expanded role in the nuclear fuel cycle. Currently, the state has two operating uranium mines (Olympic Dam and Beverley Four Mile) but no other nuclear facilities. As the debate has progressed, it has become clear that the main interest is in the possibility of making billions of dollars by accepting spent fuel / high level waste from overseas.
There is a precedent to current discussions. Pangea Resources was an international consortium that was planning a high level waste repository in Australia.2 Pangea set up an office in Australia in the late 1990s but gave up in 2002 in the face of overwhelming public opposition.
The existence of Pangea Resources was a closely-guarded secret until a corporate video was leaked to Friends of the Earth. Pangea chief Jim Voss denied meeting with federal government ministers when he had in fact met at least one minister. A Pangea spokesperson said: "We would not like to be lying ... we very much regret getting off on the wrong foot." Ironically, the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage (ARIUS), the successor to Pangea, said in its submission to the Royal Commission that an "essential element of any approach is the open and complete flow of information."3
How much money might be made by taking nuclear waste from other countries? There is no precedent to base an estimate on. There may be countries that would be willing to send nuclear waste to Australia for storage and/or disposal but there are many reasons why countries may choose other options:
- About ~160 of the world's 194 countries have never operated power reactors and thus have no spent fuel or high level waste from nuclear power programs (although some have small quantities from the operation of research reactors).
- Some countries are advancing domestic or regional waste disposal plans.
- Some countries (and companies/utilities) would consider it irresponsible to entrust nuclear waste to a country that has very little or no experience or demonstrated competence − and a proven track record of incompetence (discussed below).
- Some countries (and companies/utilities) would consider it unethical to send nuclear waste to Australia given the pattern of Aboriginal land rights and heritage protections being sacrificed in order to advance radioactive waste repository projects (discussed below).
- Some countries are pursuing spent fuel reprocessing programs and would be unlikely candidates to send spent fuel to Australia (although they might pay to rid themselves of the high level waste stream from reprocessing).
- Some countries would be unwilling to rid themselves of spent fuel as they see it as a military asset (as it contains weapons-useable plutonium).
While proponents make absurd claims about the potential income − including claims that the income would allow the provision of free electricity to all South Australians and the abolition of all state taxes − they have had little to say about the costs. Since the volume of waste would presumably be relatively large (as a commercial venture), the cost of deep underground repository would likely be in the tens of billions of dollars. Plans for a high level waste repository in Japan may be comparable: the estimated cost is ¥3,500 billion (€25.2b; US$28.1b).4
Many other significant costs would be incurred. ARIUS proposes transport by purpose-built ships; a dedicated sea port; a dedicated rail system; and support and maintenance facilities for ships, rail locomotives, rolling stock and transport packages.3
Some nuclear proponents believe that spent nuclear fuel is a "multi-trillion dollar asset"5 − because it can be processed for reuse as reactor fuel − and they also believe that countries will pay "tens of billions of dollars"6 to rid themselves of this multi-trillion dollar asset. However, to the extent that countries regard spent fuel as an asset, they will:
- not be willing to send it to Australia;
- offer to sell spent fuel to Australia rather than paying Australia to take it; or
- they may pay Australia to take spent fuel but they will pay less to the extent that spent fuel is considered an asset.
Advocates of the waste-to-fuel plan are particularly keen on the idea of processing spent fuel for use as fuel in 'integral fast reactors' (IFRs). That proposal is unlikely to win support since no country operates IFRs. The UK and the US are considering building IFRs to manage stockpiles of separated plutonium − but both countries are likely to choose other options.
Professor John Veevers from Macquarie University wrote in Australian Geologist about the serious public health and environmental risks associated with a high-level nuclear waste repository: "Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000 kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes − of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk."7
Proponents of Australia becoming the world's waste dump claim that Australia has uniquely suitable geology. However Dr Mike Sandiford from the School of Earth Sciences at University of Melbourne writes: "Australia is relatively stable but not tectonically inert, and appears to be less stable than a number of other continental regions. Some places in Australia are surprisingly geologically active. We occasionally get big earthquakes in Australia (up to about magnitude 7) and the big ones have tended to occur in somewhat unexpected places like Tennant Creek. ... Australia is not the most stable of continental regions, although the levels of earthquake risk are low by global standards. To the extent that past earthquake activity provides a guide to future tectonic activity, Australia would not appear to provide the most tectonically stable environments for long-term waste facilities."8
Australia's track record
There are social as well as technical dimensions to risk assessments. Australia has a history of mismanaging nuclear waste. Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson states: "The disposal of radioactive waste in Australia is ill-considered and irresponsible. Whether it is short-lived waste from Commonwealth facilities, long-lived plutonium waste from an atomic bomb test site on Aboriginal land, or reactor waste from Lucas Heights. The government applies double standards to suit its own agenda; there is no consistency, and little evidence of logic."9
In the late-1990s, the Australian government carried out a 'clean up' of Maralinga, the site in SA where the British government tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s. The 'clean up' was done on the cheap and many tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology − a breach of Australian guidelines for the management of long-lived nuclear waste.9
A number of scientists with inside knowledge of the Maralinga project complained about deficiencies:10
- Alan Parkinson said of the 'clean up': "What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land."
- US scientist Dale Timmons said the government's technical report was littered with "gross misinformation".
- Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said the 'clean up' was beset by a "host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups".
- Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston said there were "very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project by DEST [the Department of Education, Science and Training]."
Barely a decade after the Maralinga 'clean up', a survey revealed that 19 of the 85 contaminated waste pits have been subject to erosion or subsidence.11
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said Australia could end the disadvantage endured by Aboriginal people by opening up traditional lands as dumping sites for nuclear waste. But there are simpler and safer methods to close the gap. For example, the federal government could reverse planned cuts of $500 million from Aboriginal spending over the next five years.
Attempts to establish a national radioactive waste repository in Australia have involved crude racism. From 1998−2004, the federal government attempted to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA. The project came unstuck when the Federal Court ruled that the government had illegally used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump and to annul Aboriginal Native Title rights and interests.10
From 2005−2014, the federal government tried to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, and the racism was even cruder. The government passed legislation overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allowing the imposition of a radioactive waste dump without any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal people. Muckaty Traditional Owners launched a legal challenge against the nomination of the dump site, and the government abandoned the waste dump proposal during the court case.10
Aboriginal people are deeply concerned about the Royal Commission and in particular renewed proposals for nuclear waste dumps on their land. A meeting held in May in SA released the following statement:
South Australian Traditional Owners say NO!
We oppose plans for uranium mining, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our land.
We call on the SA Royal Commission to recommend against any uranium mining and nuclear projects on our lands.
We call on the Australian population to support us in our campaign to prevent dirty and dangerous nuclear projects being imposed on our lands and our lives and future generations.
Endorsed by members from the following groups, present at the Port Augusta meeting: Kokatha, Kokatha-Mirning, Arabunna, Adnyamathanha, Yankunytjatjara-Pitjanjatjara, Antikirinya-Yunkunytjatjara, Kuyani, Aranda, Western Aranda, Dieri, Larrakia, Wiradjuri.
7. J.J. Veevers, 'Disposal of British RADwaste at home and in antipodean Australia', http://web.archive.org/web/20120410062832/http:/eps.mq.edu.au/media/veev...
8. ABC, 'Ask an Expert', www.abc.net.au/science/expert/realexpert/nuclearpower/08.htm
9. Alan Parkinson, 2002, 'Double standards with radioactive waste', Australasian Science, www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/britbombs/clean-up
10. See section 1.9 in joint environment groups' submission to Royal Commission: www.foe.org.au/sites/default/files/NFCRC%20submission%20FoEA%20ACF%20CCS...