With some federal Labor MPs and Senators now openly promoting nuclear power, one important question is how Australia would manage the waste arising from a nuclear power program
How much radioactive waste would be generated by a nuclear power industry in Australia? Obviously it depends on the number of reactors. Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), has been promoting the construction of 50 power reactors in Australia.
Over a 50-year lifespan, 50 reactors would be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of low level radioactive tailings waste, assuming the uranium came from the Olympic Dam mine in SA. The reactors would be responsible for 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process. Enrichment would most likely take place overseas. The reactors would directly produce 75,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste and 750,000 cubic metres of low level and intermediate level waste.
As the 2006 Switkowski Report noted: "Establishing a nuclear power industry would substantially increase the volume of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia and require management of significant quantities of high level waste."
The Switkowski Report stated that a repository would be required for the more voluminous low level wastes soon after the first reactors began operating. The smaller volumes of high level waste could be managed initially through interim storage, followed by deep geological disposal. All of that is easier said than done, of course: there isn't a repository for high level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.
Repositories for lower level wastes exist but there have been numerous problems. In Asse, Germany, for example, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over a period of two decades.
Ideally, sound science and democratic principles would guide decisions on how to manage the radioactive waste. In practice, industry and governments would throw science and democratic principles out the window and look to dump the waste on politically 'soft' targets. This has been the experience with radioactive wastes generated at ANSTO's Lucas Heights research reactor.
You'd think that Martin Ferguson, as the minister responsible for managing the waste generated at Lucas Heights, would have thoroughly assessed all the available options before deciding to establish a remote dump. You'd be wrong. The viability of ongoing waste storage at Lucas Heights has been acknowledged by ANSTO, by the federal nuclear regulator, and even by Mr Ferguson's department - but Mr Ferguson dismisses that option out of hand.
You'd think that Mr Ferguson would insist on a rigorous site selection process for a remote repository. You'd be wrong. Mr Ferguson's preferred dump site, at Muckaty, 120 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, didn't even make the short list as a "suitable" site when a preliminary site selection study, based on scientific and environmental criteria, was carried out in the 1990s by the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences.
And you might even hope that Mr Ferguson would abide by binding Labor Party policy to handle this controversial issue in an open, transparent and fair manner. But again, you'd be wrong. Mr Ferguson has put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (NRWMB) before Parliament. This draft legislation is draconian, overriding all state/territory laws including NT legislation which seeks to ban the imposition of radioactive waste dumps.
The NRWMB limits the application of federal environmental protection legislation, Aboriginal heritage protection legislation, and appeal rights. It limits rights to 'procedural fairness'. It entrenches Muckaty as the only site under active consideration.
Mr Ferguson claims that Muckaty Traditional Owners support the nomination of the site. But he well knows that many oppose the dump - he has received a letter opposing the dump signed by 25 Ngapa Traditional Owners and 32 Traditional Owners from other Muckaty groups. Senior Traditional Owners have initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site. Yet Mr Ferguson persists with the fiction the nomination of the Muckaty site has the support of Traditional Owners. He ought to get his head out of the sand.
There is growing opposition to the government's handling of this issue, such as concerted union activity culminating in the unanimous endorsement of a strong resolution by the national congress of the ACTU in 2009. Councils and communities along potential transport routes have begun to voice their opposition. Thousands have attended public meetings around Australia to listen to Muckaty Traditional Owners voice their concerns. An impressive legal team is working pro bono.
Former Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin was one of a succession of Howard government ministers in charge of the failed attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia from 1998-2004. He said: "My experience with dealing with justlow level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around themanagement of the high level waste a nuclear reactor would produce."