Australian news, and some related international items

Australia’s radioactive trash, and the history of failed attempts to set up a nuclear waste dump

Submission Appendix Anna Niepraschk   Wasting Time?  International lessons for managing Australia’s radioactive waste, Anica Niepraschk Discussion Paper July 2015 from

In her paper Wasting time? International lessons for managing Australia’s radioactive waste, researcher Anica Niepraschk looks at how other countries  have approached this challenge and what lessons might help Australia move away from a search for an ‘out of sight –out of mind’ dump site in favour of a responsible and effective management regime

Overview: For over two decades successive Australian governments have floundered when faced with how best to handle Australia’s radioactive waste.  They consistently tried – and consistently failed to impose a!national dump site on unwilling communities in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Now the federal government has a revised approached based on a foundation principle of volunteerism. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has called for  nominations from around the country and is soon to release a short=list of  possible sites where Australia’s low level waste can be buried and longer=lived  material stored above ground.

1 Introduction

Finding technically, geologically and socially accepted sites for the storage or disposal of all forms of radioactive wastes has proven an international challenge for decades. Many countries have chosen to engage in various voluntary siting processes after having failed to site facilities on solely technical and/or political grounds due to community opposition and public contest. Australia is the most recent country to develop a voluntary approach after the failure of earlier approaches to realise a site.

For two decades Australia has been trying to find a solution to the disposal and storage of its low and intermediate-level radioactive waste (LILW). Attempts to impose a national repository on communities in South Australia (from 1998 to 2004) and subsequently the Northern Territory (2005 to 2014) have failed amid Federal Court trials, leaving the Australian government needing to engage in a different approach to the challenge of siting a repository. The federal Department of Industry and Science has therefore started looking into alternatives to the previous approach of imposing a facility. In December 2014 it opted for a voluntary process, as this is currently the most common and successful international approach.

There are differences in how countries go about implementing such an approach, particularly in relation to timeframes and participatory components. After exploring previous siting attempts in Australia this paper outlines the current Australian National Radioactive Waste Management Project (NRWMP). It further looks at other international siting processes for radioactive waste facilities, providing an insight into how they can be staged and implemented and which of their features are most relevant in the Australian context.

Belgium, Sweden, the UK and Canada were chosen since they are all democratic countries with a long nuclear history and, as is the case in Australia, they all initially failed to find suitable and accepted sites to host repositories before engaging in a voluntary process. These examples highlight some lessons learnt during these often very lengthy processes and offer insights into key features of effective siting processes. These will be synthesised in a summarising chapter where the findings are applied to the Australian context to inform the NRWMP to improve the current process to increase its chance of succeeding and live up to its promised – and welcome – commitment to a voluntary process.

As this paper is going to focus on the inclusion of socio-economic aspects for the siting of radioactive waste facilities, it is not going to judge any technical features of the repository designs. Finding the technically safest and most suitable design is sitespecific and a matter to be resolved by expert engineers in the context of the highest level of public accountability and scrutiny. This paper solely focuses on the different strategies pursued in finding suitable and accepted sites for radioactive waste management facilities in relation to aspects of good governance and participatory democracy.

2 The Australian National Radioactive Waste Management Project  The issue High-level radioactive waste (HLW) in the form of spent (used fuel) from nuclear reactors or waste materials remaining from reprocessing, generates a lot of heat and ionising radiation for extremely long periods. It requires specialised and sophisticated management and this has been a very controversial and challenging issue in most countries that produce HLW.

Australia does not produce any HLW – or rather – it does in the form of spent fuel from the ANSTO Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor in southern Sydney, but this is not classified as waste as it is sent oversees for reprocessing, which counts as an economic activity. The reprocessed materials return as intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW), with return shipments from France (and later the UK) starting in 2015.

The returning waste adds to the moderate amounts (4906m2) of radioactive waste, primarily produced though the manufacture of radioisotopes in medicine, research and industry.The vast majority of this is low-level waste (LLW). This is planned to be disposed of in a shallow burial site designed to be monitored for one hundred years.There are further small amounts of long-lived ILW that will need to be carefully managed for much longer periods. This involves the stabilisation of the radioactive materials followed by packaging in steel drums and storage in purpose-built concrete and steel chamber facilities, which can be either below or above ground.3

Australia’s radioactive waste is currently managed and stored, mainly above ground or near surface, in over one hundred centralised and decentralised storage facilities near the sites that produce or use it. However over 90% of the waste is stored at two secured federal sites at Lucas Heights in NSW and Woomera in South Australia.

Historical background  The attempts to find suitable sites for a centralised national facility have been a series of failures for over twenty years. In 1992 the Australian government first initiated a nation-wide survey to site a LLW repository, starting off the National Repository Project.A number of social, technical and environmental factors were considered equally (as opposed to being weighted according to their importance) by a specifically designed geographic information system to find suitable sites. Eight regions across Australia were shortlisted in 1994.5

Resource restraints on the ability to further investigate all of these areas resulted in a focus on just one. Billa Kalina in South Australia’s (SA) north was chosen as the preferred region to host the National Repository.Eighteen sites in the region were selected for test drilling to identify the most suitable final site, which was then to host  not just the shallow LLW repository but also an above ground storage facility for intermediate long-lived waste.7

An important group of Aboriginal women with cultural connections and responsibilities, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjutas, strongly opposed the siting of any facility on their lands. They recalled the history of nuclear testing in SA during the 1950s and 1960s, which had serious negative health impacts involving blindness, cancers, asthma and many other impacts on a significant number of people. The Kungkas also feared health impacts caused by a radioactive waste facility, mainly through the possible contamination of ground water, a precious water source in the dry lands of northern SA. 8

The Coober Pedy Committee against the Radioactive Waste Repository was formed and a number of activities were organised to oppose the government plans. These included public meetings, petitions, media briefings, the distribution of information, partnering with anti-dump groups, the production of a film, walks and presences at key events. They also tried to engage with the then responsible government Department of Industry, Science and Resources but felt that their concerns were not taken seriously. After continued pressure on the District Council and a very successful petition among the local residents, Coober Pedy was declared a Nuclear Free Zone in 2000 

At the end of the same year, the SA Liberal government split from their federal party’s position on the radioactive waste facility and passed legislation prohibiting the importation and dumping of ILW and HLW in SA. However, they did not pass a law against the LLW repository. In January 2001 the federal government announced Commonwealth Defence land in the Woomera Prohibited Area to be the preferred site for the facility. It claimed to have consulted extensively with regional stakeholders, although the local Elders had not been consulted on the issue. 10

The first wins for the community came with the announcement that co-location of a LLW repository and an ILW storage facility was to be ruled out due to community pressure, thereby concentrating the project efforts on the LLW repository. In 2002 the newly elected Rann Labor state government legislated against any dump to be situated in SA.11

This development did not stop the federal government from pursuing their objective and although several hundred submissions in opposition to the site were made following the release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the final document still recommended approval of the site. Additionally, the government announced $300,000 funding to (re-) educate the public about the issue to quieten their concerns. At this stage even the federal Environment Minister’s advisors urged the siting be reconsidered on the ground that the project faced opposition from Traditional Owners, who had not been adequately consulted. The Defence Department also publicly spoke out against hosting the site, as they were not  adequately consulted during the EIS either. It stated that the EIS misjudged the risks of hosting a facility so close to a military target range. 12 The objection from the Defence Department saw the final EIS recommend a site on a nearby pastoral property rather than the military land. Along with wide opposition, the then Minister for Environment stated that his decision followed ‘a rigorous and transparent assessment process with full public involvement.’ 13 The federal government furthermore stopped an attempt by the SA state government to prevent the dump by declaring it a public park thereby making it impossible for the Commonwealth to acquire the land without state consent. In response to this the Commonwealth urgently removed all native title, state and pastoral rights on the site in July 2003. The SA government subsequently challenged this compulsory land acquisition on urgent grounds in the Federal Court in 2004. The Court unanimously found the Commonwealth action to be unlawful. Despite this, the government still declared that it would proceed with the repository at Woomera. However, in the face of sustained opposition and in the context of the 2004 federal election, the federal government reconsidered the siting and finally announced the abandonment of its SA radioactive waste plans in July 2004.14

The NT government and federal Labor party together quickly opposed this approach and called for a return to a consensus-driven and consultative process based on the already established scientific parameters. Concerns over the implications of the federal government’s overpowering approach for democratic representation were expressed and the higher chances for success of a transparent and consultative process.

At the request of the Northern Land Council (NLC) to allow for further site nominations apart from the three proposed sites, the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act of 2005 was amended a year later to provide for Aboriginal land nominations from Land Councils. It set out a two-stage process, where nominations to host the NRWF were sought in the first phase and a final site was to be selected in the second phase. Muckaty Station in Central Australia, nominated in 2007 by the NLC, was the only nomination received. An upfront payment of $200,000 was issued, with a promised further compensation of $11 million in cash payments and increased service provision should the land be declared the final site.18

In 2010 a local Aboriginal elder initiated legal proceedings against the nomination on the grounds of issues of ownership, consultation and consent. The nomination builds on the assumption that just ‘one sub-group of the Ngapa dreaming group is the exclusive Traditional Owner of the proposed site’.19 It therefore concluded that consent to the nomination would only be required from this group, which had indeed granted its support. Their decision was based on economic reasons including the hope of the promised funds enabling health and education programs in the area, as other funding was severely limited.20 However, a land claim resolved in 1997 found that there are actually seven groups with different dreamings of this particular land and it therefore cannot be attributed to a single group. The proceedings were directed against the NLC, the Muckaty Land Trust (MLT), the Commonwealth and the Minister for Resources and was soon supported by other elders representing different dreaming groups, seeking the invalidation of the nomination.21 

The then responsible Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, refused to meet with the Traditional Owners of the MLT to discuss the issue and did not even provide them with details of a contested deed of agreement, which allegedly was signed by the MLT. Instead, he announced that community engagement would only take place after the site selection.22

Besides the group of Traditional Owners, a strong popular movement developed in opposition to the Muckaty site. This included the local community in Tennant Creek, trade unions, environment, anti-nuclear and social justice groups and wider Aboriginal organisations. Public rallies and meetings were organised, conferences held, submissions made and films, songs and exhibitions produced to further highlight the issues and concerns. This broad alliance began and continues to call for a comprehensive and independent inquiry into radioactive waste management that explores all available options to manage Australia’s radioactive waste, including decentralised management.23

The long conflict around a possible NRWF in Muckaty was finally resolved in June 2014. Two weeks into a Federal Court trial, the NLC and the federal government agreed with the applicants not to further pursue the Muckaty nomination. Traditional Owners announced they would oppose any possible future site nominations within the MLT and keep fighting for a nuclear-free Muckaty.24 Once again, the top-down approach pursued by the Australian government failed to deliver a site.

After these convoluted, contested and ultimately failed attempts to impose a NRWF on communities in South Australia and the Northern Territory, the federal government appears to have finally accepted that a matter of such importance cannot be imposed on communities but rather has to be the result of a voluntary and transparent process.


April 30, 2018 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, Federal nuclear waste dump

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