We Still Can’t Manage Nuclear Waste
Jim Green, 16 Feb 2011
If Lucas Heights can’t maintain health and safety standards, what reason is there to believe Martin Ferguson’s planned nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station will be safe, asks Jim Green
It’s a sad truth that whistleblowers have provided the public with more information about accidents at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor site on Sydney’s outskirts than the site’s operator — the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) — ever has.
After a report on ABC’s Lateline last week, it’s clear that this pattern has been repeated. A secret report by Comcare, the federal government’s workplace safety watchdog, finds that ANSTO has under-reported accidents, breached safety standards, and breached health and safety laws.
The Comcare report was produced in response to revelations last year by ANSTO whistleblower David Reid. The report finds that ANSTO did not take all reasonable steps to maintain a safe working environment; failed to take all reasonable steps to train and supervise ANSTO Health employees; failed to comprehensively risk assess its radiopharmaceutical production process; failed to notify Comcare of safety incidents; and that ANSTO’s suspension of David Reid was “somewhat extreme” and that he was denied procedural fairness.
You’d hope that the Federal Government would step in to redress the problems at Lucas Heights and to do so with some urgency.
No such luck. The government has asked for a “review” of the Comcare report. And if that review finds its way into the public arena it will most likely be thanks to a whistleblower. If the review doesn’t produce the answers the government wants to hear, further reviews will likely be commissioned until the government gets the whitewash it wants.
These problems have obvious relevance for ANSTO workers and for the residents of surrounding suburbs, all the more so in light of ANSTO’s approach to emergency planning. Nuclear engineer Tony Wood, former head of ANSTO’s Division of Reactors and Engineering, said (pdf) way back in 2001:
“Another document called the Sutherland Shire Local Disaster Plan is needed to cater for the public. This plan is a most remarkable document. … In the whole document there is no mention of the words ‘iodine’ or ‘nuclear’ or ‘reactor’ and only one mention of ‘ANSTO’. No one would guess from reading this plan that there was a nuclear reactor in the area. … Here is a document presented as a reactor emergency plan that doesn’t mention the words ‘reactor’ or ‘radioactivity” because it doesn’t want to upset people.”
In the event of an accident with off-site consequences, local residents would have to sue ANSTO to achieve redress. On this issue Wood was even more scathing:
“I believe that it is very important that the public be told the truth even if the truth is unpalatable. I have cringed at some of ANSTO’s public statements. Surely there is someone at ANSTO with a practical reactor background and the courage to flag when ANSTO is yet again, about to mislead the public. For example, the claim ANSTO makes for nuclear indemnity is indefensible.”
The problems at ANSTO also have national significance. ANSTO is actively promoting the development of nuclear power in Australia — although the organisation has demonstrably failed to competently and safely run a much smaller nuclear research facility.
More immediately, ANSTO is up to its neck in the plan to establish a national nuclear waste repository in the Northern Territory, both as the main source of the waste and as the operator of the repository (if it proceeds).
Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson plans to put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill before Parliament this month. Mussolini would blush. The Bill gives Ferguson the power to override all state and territory laws that could in any way impede his dump plan — and the power to override almost all Commonwealth laws. Public health laws, occupational heath and safety regulations, road safety laws — all subject to ministerial whim.
Ferguson claims that the Traditional Owners for the proposed dump site at Muckaty Station, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, support the proposal. In truth, some do, but many do not. Letters of protest and petitions from Muckaty Traditional Owners have been ignored. Muckaty Traditional Owners have initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the site, yet Mr Ferguson persists with the fiction that Traditional Owners support the dump.
Ferguson has refused repeated requests from concerned Traditional Owners to meet with them. His latest excuse for ignoring them is that the matter is subject to legal action. He has also said that he will consult Traditional Owners after a decision has been made on the proposed Muckaty dump — a thorough reworking of the traditional of consultation.
Ferguson says he will “respect” the Federal Court’s decision but in fact he is pre-empting it by pushing forward with legislation which entrenches Muckaty as the only site under active consideration for a national repository. Interestingly, Ferguson’s Bill is very similar to Howard-era legislation (pdf) which Labor slammed as being “sordid” and “draconian”.
Ziggy Switkowski, who was until recently the Chair of the ANSTO Board, 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 radioactive tailings waste at uranium mines. The reactors would be responsible for a further 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process (which 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.
The Labor Party promised to address radioactive waste management issues in a manner which is “scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms” and to “ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes”. Every one of those promises has been broken by Martin Ferguson and his Waste Management Bill.
It’s very clear that nuclear power reactors produce vastly more waste than ANSTO’s research reactor. The government needs to demonstrate a capacity to safely and responsibly manage the Lucas Heights research reactor and the waste it produces before trying to sell us on the idea of a nuclear power industry.
Rudd Government dumping election commitments
Jim Green, Online Opinion, 23 December 2008
With a Senate Committee report on Thursday calling for the repeal of draconian laws allowing the imposition of a radioactive waste dump in the absence of any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal Traditional Owners, it is time for resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson to come clean on his plans for managing this contentious issue.
Labor voted against the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act in 2005/06 with senior Labor MPs describing it as ‘extreme’, ‘arrogant’, ‘draconian’, ‘sorry’, ‘sordid’, and ‘profoundly shameful’. At its 2007 national conference, the ALP voted unanimously to repeal the legislation. Over a year later and Martin Ferguson has not budged while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – for all his boasting about keeping election promises – has conspicuously failed to ensure that this commitment is kept.
The Labor Government will most likely repeal the Radioactive Waste Management Act in the new year but the controversy over radioactive waste management will continue. The waste in question ranges from the relatively innocuous – such as lightly-contaminated lab-coats – to the far more hazardous and long-lived wastes arising from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors at Lucas Heights.
If the Labor Government intends to pursue the Howard Government’s plan to establish a dump in the Northern Territory, it will need to override NT laws – and thereby break its pre-election pledge to respect state/territory laws which outlaw the imposition of radioactive waste dumps.
Four sites in the NT are under consideration. None of the four sites was short-listed when a national site selection study was undertaken in the 1990s, informed by scientific, environmental and social criteria. The NT sites were short-listed under the Howard government simply because the NT was seen as a soft political target. Thus Labor’s commitment to handle the issue in a scientific manner will go out the window if the NT sites are pursued.
Early in the new year, Mr Ferguson is expected to wave around a consultant’s report purporting to demonstrate that his favoured site is ideal for a radioactive dump – just as his predecessor, Senator Peter McGauran, paraded a consultant’s report in 2002 purporting to demonstrate that a site immediately adjacent to a missile and rocket testing range in South Australia was the safest place in the nation for a radioactive waste dump. Controversy forced the Howard government to abandon that location, then to abandon the SA dump plan altogether, and Mr McGauran was demoted to a junior ministry for his heavy-handed and clumsy mismanagement of the issue.
Labor’s election commitment to handle the issue transparently went out the window long ago. In April, Mr Ferguson refused to provide substantive answers to questions on his radioactive waste plans, simply asserting that all matters raised were “under consideration”. The secrecy was such that even a question about what specific matters were under consideration was also said to be under consideration!
Mr Ferguson is likely to try to impose a radioactive waste dump in an area in the Muckaty Land Trust, 120 kms north of Tennant Creek. This site was nominated by the Northern Land Council despite vocal opposition from a number of Traditional Owners whose country will be affected by the proposal.
Traditional Owner’s are divided. Dianne Stokes, a Muckaty Traditional Owner who has been leading the campaign against the dump, said at the Senate Committee hearing in Alice Springs; “We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to. The big capital N-O. The Ngapa clan and the rest of the other totems in that land trust are all connected. We have connections to each other and are related to each other. We are the same tribe, the one ancestral cultural group of people who are the strong voice, and one voice, in that country”.
Muckaty Traditional Owner Marlene Bennett told the Committee hearing in Alice Springs: “I would just like to question why Martin Ferguson is sitting on this issue like a hen trying to hatch an egg. The people of the Northern Territory elected the Labor Party. We were led to believe that the nuclear waste thing would be all overturned and overruled, and at this moment we are extremely disappointed. How many times do we have to say no? No means no.”.
The opposition of numerous Muckaty Traditional Owners was expressed during the Senate inquiry and has also been acknowledged by the ALP at federal and territory levels. Among others, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin has acknowledged the opposition and distress of Muckaty Traditional Owners, while in 2001 she publicly acknowledged that Australia has no need for the nuclear reactors which are the greatest source of the problem.
In April, the NT Labor conference unanimously adopted a resolution acknowledging that the nomination of Muckaty was not made with the full and informed consent of all Traditional Owners, that it did not comply with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and that the Muckaty nomination should be repealed.
One wonders if the fate that befell Peter McGauran will be visited on Martin Ferguson – demotion for clumsy, heavy-handed mismanagement of a contentious issue that demands a more considered, intelligent approach.
NUCLEAR WASTE AND INDIGENOUS RIGHTS
Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth:
ABC Radio National – ‘Perspective’, Feb 7 2008
Given that it was a clear point of policy difference between the major parties, it was surprising that the Coalition government’s efforts to impose a nuclear waste repository on unwilling communities received so little media interest during the election campaign.
This issue provides a window into relations between the Coalition government and Indigenous people over the past decade and a test of the former government’s policy of practical reconciliation.
In February 1998, the Coalition government announced its intention to build a national nuclear waste repository near Woomera in South Australia. Leading the battle against the repository were the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women. Many of the Kungka Tjuta witnessed first-hand the impacts of the British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga in the 1950s. They were sceptical about the Coalition government’s claim that nuclear waste destined for the Woomera repository was ‘safe’. After all, the waste would be kept at the Lucas Heights reactor site in Sydney if it was perfectly safe, or simply dumped in landfill.
The Maralinga legacy continued to resonate in another way. A clean-up of Maralinga in the late 1990s generated controversy when nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson revealed that it had been compromised by cost-cutting. This was disconcerting for South Australians since the same government department responsible for the Maralinga clean-up was also responsible for the Woomera repository. Alan Parkinson’s book on the Maralinga clean-up, Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up, was published by ABC Books last year. Mr Parkinson said: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
The proposed repository generated such controversy in South Australia that the Coalition government secured the services of a public relations company. Correspondence between the company and the federal government was released under Freedom of Information laws. In one exchange, a government official asks the PR company to remove sand-dunes from a photo selected to adorn a brochure. The explanation provided by the government official was that: “Dunes are a sensitive area with respect to Aboriginal Heritage.” The sand-dunes were removed from the photo, only for the government official to ask if the horizon could be straightened up as well.
The federal government used compulsory land acquisition powers to take control of land for a repository in SA, extinguishing all Native Title rights and interests. The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta continued to implore the federal government to get their ears out of the pockets, and after six long years the government did just that. In the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, with the repository issue biting politically, the government decided to cut its losses and abandon its plans for a repository in SA.
The ears went straight back into the pockets, however. Unequivocal promises not to impose a repository in the Northern Territory were broken by the Coalition government after the 2004 election. Traditional Owners were not consulted before three sites in the Territory were short-listed for a repository.
Government ministers asserted that the three sites are “some distance from any form of civilisation” or, more bluntly, that they are “in the middle of nowhere”. This is offensive to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people living and running successful pastoral and tourist enterprises three, five and 18 kilometres from the sites.
And then in 2005, the Coalition government rail-roaded the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act through parliament. This legislation provides wide-ranging exemptions from Aboriginal heritage protection laws. Then in 2006, the government rail-roaded amendments to the Waste Management Act through parliament. The amendments state that a nuclear dump site nomination is legally valid even without consultation with, or consent from, Traditional Owners.
The former Coalition government prided itself on its approach of ‘practical reconciliation’. However, its handling of the nuclear waste issue suggests that practical reconciliation was nothing more than rhetoric. Let’s hope that the Rudd Labor government avoids the temptation to impose a nuclear waste repository on an unwilling Indigenous community.