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Managing Australia's radioactive waste

By Jim Green - posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014


How should Australia manage radioactive waste? The short answer is that there is no obvious approach − hence the need for an independent Commission of Inquiry.

This discussion primarily concerns waste produced at the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor site south of Sydney, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), as well as much smaller volumes produced and/or stored at numerous medical, scientific and military sites. Radioactive waste produced at Australia's uranium mines, from the use of Australian uranium overseas, and the radioactive contamination of Maralinga and other nuclear bomb test sites, are separate problems.

To date, efforts to find a radioactive waste repository site have been unsuccessful. For the past 15 years, Coalition and Labor governments have attempted a 'crash though or crash' approach, attempting to impose a repository first in South Australia and more recently in the Northern Territory − both attempts failed in the face of opposition from Traditional Owners and the wider community.

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All options should be considered

Much of the debate assumes the 'need' for a central repository. But the option of storing waste where it is produced needs serious consideration. Even if a central repository exists, waste is inevitably stored at the site of production − often for long periods. One government documents suggests that waste stores would be cleared out once every five years if and when a central repository was established, and a government official said waste would be removed from Lucas Heights on an infrequent basis. Thus on-site storage facilities must be adequately monitored and regulated whether or not a central repository exists.

Lucas Heights is a case in point. Measured by radioactivity, well over 90% of the radioactive waste is produced at Lucas Heights and is either stored there already or is at overseas reprocessing plants and destined to be returned to Lucas Heights. Ironically, all of the key proponents of a central repository − including ANSTO itself, the federal government, and the Australian Nuclear Association − have acknowledged that ANSTO can continue to manage its own waste at Lucas Heights, as has the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). ANSTO's Dr Ron Cameron said: "ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time."

Australia's nuclear expertise is heavily concentrated at Lucas Heights. Security at Lucas Heights is far more rigorous than has been proposed for remote repository sites. Storage at Lucas Heights would avoid the risks associated with transportation and double-handling. In particular, one of the most incoherent aspects of the NT proposal was that long-lived intermediate-level waste would be trucked from Lucas Heights to Muckaty for above-ground storage, only to be moved again if and when a deep geological repository is established − deep geological disposal being the designated method of disposal for this type of waste by the nuclear industry.

Successive governments have indulged in scare-mongering, talking up the risks of waste allegedly stored in hospital car parks, basements and the like in order to make the case for a central facility. Yet Canberra has also claimed that existing waste stores are safe and that there has never been a single incident of concern.

Canberra hasn't shown the slightest interest in actually determining whether existing waste stores are adequate and ensuring that any necessary improvements are implemented. Providing an off-site repository option, combined with the federal government's glaring indifference to the status of existing waste stores, can only encourage poor management practices at existing stores.

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That glaring indifference is evident in the following answers (from the federal Department of Education, Science and Tourism (DEST)) to questions (from an environmental NGO) in 2003:

Q: "What plans does the federal government have to upgrade stores since the government repeatedly claims that they are unsafe."

DEST: "This question should be referred to the appropriate state and territory regulators."

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Article edited by Ian Mackay.
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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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