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We can't afford to bury our heads in the sand over nuclear waste disposal

By Ian Duncan - posted Thursday, 27 February 2003

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 this".

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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This article was first published in The Canberra Times.

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About the Author

Dr Ian Duncan's 2002 thesis was called Radioactive Waste: Risk, Reward, Space and Time Dynamics and examined the interface between society and the disposal of radioactive waste. He was General Manager of Western Mining Corporation 'scopper and uranium operations at Olympic Dam in South Australia. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, and Institution of Engineers, Australia. He is a past Chairman of the Uranium Institute; the London-based international association for nuclear energy (now World Nuclear Association).

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