In recent press articles the Premiers of Western Australia and
South Australia voice their opposition to the siting of a National
Radioactive Waste Repository in their States. This type of response
is quite normal and comes under the heading of 'political expediency',
and does not necessarily align with their, or their colleagues',
private opinion. All politicians will need to keep an eye on public
opinion as there may well be a majority of people in a community,
a region or even a State that comes to the conclusion that the benefits
of such a project are greater than any possible risk.
Australia is fortunate in several ways when it comes to the disposal of
nuclear waste. When compared to countries that have nuclear power and
nuclear weapons, such as the UK, France, Russia and USA, our wastes are
small in quantity and at the mid and lower end of the range of
radioactivity. The normal annual generation of nuclear waste in the UK is
about 300 times the volume of that in Australia. At the same time, if
geological disposal is accepted, Australia has 30 times the land area of
the UK but only 40 per cent of the population.
The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering has
recently published a paper on this topic in Focus
(ATSE Focus No 125, page 6-10) based on my research at the University of
Oxford and elsewhere.
The paper concludes that "… the public's preferred option is
for, not against, an acceptable final disposal for all existing and future
hazardous waste, including nuclear. Of all of the sciences employed so far
in the research for an acceptable regime for nuclear waste disposal,
sociology seems to have been practically omitted, but this can be put
right. We should start by identifying the disposal regimes acceptable to
the public, and then develop the technologies and processes to achieve
When debating the moral issues of waste disposal I believe that each
generation should put in place the regime necessary to dispose of the
wastes that have been generated by their use of energy and materials. It
should not be left in a shed somewhere for future generations. This
differs from the view of some organisations that are more interested in
keeping the public aware of their presence than actually improving the
environment. Nuclear waste does exist and we have had the benefits of the
goods that generated it. It will also continue to accumulate, irrespective
of whether we have nuclear power, as we continue with radiotherapy,
radio-pharmaceuticals, industrial applications and scientific research.
As in all countries, Australia is grappling with siting issues for
waste repositories. But resistance to siting is not limited to waste
repositories. It occurs whenever a democratic society needs to site an
incinerator, gaol, motorway, drug-rehabilitation centre, airport extension
and so on. There is, however, a growing incidence of communities making
their own risk assessment and determining what it is that would offset any
possible disability. They would participate in the assessment process and
retain involvement in the health and environmental aspects of such a
project. Communities might value an increase in construction and permanent
jobs, an increase in population and improvements in education, health or
transport, provided that any possible disability is small.
Technical aspects for the disposal of low-level waste are known and not
complex. The wastes are all solid materials such as safety clothing,
laboratory equipment, tools, building materials and mineral residues. The
Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training has adequately
described the waste and the intended disposal method in various
publications on the National Radioactive Waste Repository. The processes
for the consolidation and containment of the various wastes have also been
described. The diligence that is applied to radioactive waste should also
be applied to the disposal of all hazardous waste. Perhaps if this had
been done, Western Australia could have avoided the environmental and
health problems associated with the Bellevue fire and the airborne
chemical discharge from the Brookdale waste plant.
The Premier that supports the siting of a national repository will
probably be remembered as the statesman who cleaned up Australia!
The community that is first to accept a repository in its region stands
to gain in ways that it can determine, whether it is jobs, investment,
population, health, education or tourism. Tourism will get a boost, as all
passers-by will want to see the project. And quite frankly, they will then
wonder what all the fuss was about.
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