Public demonstrations in October suggested that opposition to the establishment of new nuclear waste storage facilities in South Australia was growing. The delivery of the Nuclear Citizen's Jury's final report to Premier Weatherill on November 6 confirms the trend. The Jury's report states that 82% of jurors concluded that economic risks were too great to accept the proposition of importing and disposing of high-level nuclear waste from other countries. So what then of the prospect of an expanded nuclear future for the state, championed by the 2015-16 Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission?
The Weatherill Government has a bumpy road ahead. Cabinet sits confronted by 'no' vote from a strong majority of Citizens Jury members. While given evidence, power to select witnesses and shared authorship of their final report to Government, the 350-strong Citizens Jury's decision is not binding. Cabinet will consider this result along with thousands of lines of written feedback collected online and off during its statewide 'Get to Know Nuclear' public relations campaign, and the findings of a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's recommendations, delivered to Government in May 2016, generally sought to improve conditions for nuclear industrial expansion domestically, with additional benefits for existing and aspiring nuclear nations. Its key recommendation, and the subject central to heated debate is to explore establishing facilities to import and manage spent nuclear fuel. If successful, this could lead to further nuclear fuel cycle activities, including a nuclear fuel leasing scheme, and less tangible prospects of enrichment, fuel fabrication or reprocessing.
Promoted as an economic bonanza, the Government's attempt to build and demonstrate support for nuclear waste storage facilities have proven increasingly fraught, as opponents have challenged economic and environmental uncertainties and the integrity of the Royal Commission's process. Some of those critics found formal audiences with the Citzens' Jury, and informed their deliberations. Jurors' critical thinking skills were rigorously tested in a controversial space in which contradictory evidence, opinion and extreme prejudice are commonplace.
In the end, the jurors' doubts overwhelmed their limited faith in the South Australian government's ability to deliver its promised El Dorado. Historic economic and social disasters were raised as examples of state governments' track record, including the State Bank collapse of 1991, the Hindmarsh Island controversy, the human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons testing at Maralinga and the compromised clean-up attempts made at former nuclear industrial sites, including Cold War period mines and processing plants. The jurors also acknowledged that Traditional Owners had rejected the prospect of nuclear industrial development during the Royal Commission process, and that past injustices and inequity are remain to be remedied.
If support for future high-level nuclear waste storage had been demonstrated by the Citizens Jury, or granted by Traditional Owners, repealing legislative barriers would have been the necessary next step before opening the gate for further investment. The Jury's report recommends against such reforms, casting doubt on the nature and content of the policy announcement expected later this month.
The Jury has also called for the State Government to draw no more from the public purse. To date the State has committed $13 million dollars to the Royal Commission, Citizens' Jury and 'Get to Know Nuclear' public relations campaigns combined.
The jury's objections have no doubt stolen some wind from the sails of supporters. The Premier now risks compounding the identified problem of a lack of trust in government, if he is to announce any further financial commitment to explore the Commission's proposal. Meanwhile, dissenting voices within the South Australian Labor party will likely draw confidence from this as the party heads towards a contentious Special Convention on the topic.
Whatever the decision, the announcement will likely be shaped by the final report of the Citizens' Jury, the persistence of public demonstrations, monitoring of online debate and the resolution of conflicting views within the Labor party. The only verdict received thus far already rubs against some strongly held views within Government, resources, engineering and defence sectors.
Few (if any) conflicts of opinion are likely to be resolved before Simplify Day: November 15. This day has been set aside by the Government of South Australia to “remove outdated legislation” without specifying which Acts or regulations.
With no demonstrable social license from the citizenry and no clear consensus within the Labor party, repealing nuclear prohibitions or advancing many of the Royal Commission's recommendations could prove self-destructive. In some cases, it might also be illegal. Some suggest that the Government may have already broken the law during its public relations campaign by failing to provide a balanced view of both opportunities and risks associated with nuclear industrial development. To deny risk, they argue, is to promote- and to promote certain activities is currently illegal under the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000.
The Jury's conclusions aside, nuclear industrialists remain eternal optimists. Also on Simplify Day, they will converge on Adelaide for the first ever Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle conference. Its speaking program includes former Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce, Madeline Richardson (the Chief Executive of CARA, the South Australian government agency responsible for community consultation) and a range of international nuclear industry and government representatives.
The event's convenor James W. Voss has had a long term interest in the prospect of nuclear waste storage in Australia, and was involved in a push to establish such a facility back in the late 1990s. The ANFC16 event is supported by the University of South Australia, University College London (UCL) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). In his conference overview, Voss describes the event as “potentially a game-changing event for the nuclear industry” and notes that “apolicy announcement is anticipated at the time of ANFC16.“
With citizens dissenting, Labor party members preparing for internal debate and anticipation building among nuclear industrialists, the Weatherill government has waded into a political quagmire, in which it now stands waste-deep. Whether emerging nuclear policy and legislative reforms sink or swim will likely be a question of critical mass.