Managing Australia’s radioactive waste – need for an independent Commission of Inquiry (Aug 2014)

Managing Australia’s radioactive waste

12 Aug 2014, Jim Green, Online Opinion

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.

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.

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.”

Q: “Regarding the storage of radioactive waste in 26 towns and suburbs in SA, what number of these stores will still be storing radioactive waste even if the repository project goes ahead because of ongoing waste production?”

DEST: “This question should be directed to the South Australian Environment Protection Authority or to the operators of the existing stores.”

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.”

Complete indifference from DEST in 2003 − and nothing has changed in the past 11 years.

Net benefit

The principle of net benefit is useful to frame the discussion. The NHMRC Code of Practice for the Near-Surface Disposal of Radioactive Waste in Australia (1992) requires that “No practice involving exposures to radiation should be adopted unless it produces sufficient benefit to the exposed individuals or to society to offset the radiological detriment it causes.”

Yet successive federal governments have made no effort whatsoever to attempt to demonstrate a net benefit with their SA and NT repository proposals.

In 2004, ARPANSA held an inquiry into the proposal for a waste repository in SA. A government official was asked to justify the claim that a central repository would reduce the cumulative risk of storing waste. The response was that: “In terms of someone sitting down and doing that risk assessment, that hasn’t been done − the short answer is it hasn’t been done.” The official said that the repository proposal was being pursued on the basis of a “general belief” and another official said it was a “general feeling”.

So the robust concept of net benefit has been replaced with general beliefs and feelings as a basis for public policy. The situation has not changed in the 10 years since the 2004 ARPANSA inquiry − there has been no effort to assess waste management options according to net-benefit principles, not even a superficial attempt.

Prof. Ian Lowe, who sat on the ARPANSA panel which convened the 2004 inquiry, summed up some of the unresolved questions and problems: “DEST told the forum that “Disposal of the waste in a purpose-built national repository will reduce the cumulative risks of storing wastes”, leading to the conclusion that “The community and the environment will benefit”. Questioning revealed that the basis for this assertion is shaky. … There are some difficult issues to be resolved if the applicant is to show that the proposal would provide a net benefit to the community, most obviously including a risk assessment to determine whether the increased risk of collecting and transporting waste is outweighed by the reduced risk of storage at a properly engineered repository; this study should take into account the continuing need for local storage of waste between the proposed disposal campaigns. A professional risk assessment cannot be conducted until a firm waste acceptance plan and transport code are developed.”

Commission of Inquiry

An independent Commission of Inquiry is necessary to untangle the mess created by successive governments. It needs to address basic issues that remain unresolved after all these years − such as a comprehensive inventory of existing waste stockpiles, and the adequacy (or otherwise) of existing waste stores. It needs to thoroughly explore all options for radioactive waste management.

The alternative option is that Canberra could try yet again to impose a repository on an unwilling Aboriginal community, stripping that community of its land rights in the process. In addition to the immorality of that approach, it simply hasn’t worked − it failed in SA and it failed in the NT.

A Commission of Inquiry should learn from overseas experience. Around the world, opinion is shifting in the direction of bottom-up, consultative, consensual approaches to radioactive waste management.

The UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management notes: “Experience in the UK and abroad clearly demonstrates the failures of earlier ‘top down’ mechanisms (often referred to as ‘Decide−Announce−Defend’) to implement long-term waste management facilities. It is generally considered that a voluntary process is essential to ensure equity, efficiency and the likelihood of successfully completing the process. There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community.”

The new approaches emphasising consultation and consent clearly represent a qualitative step forward yet they raise challenges of their own. Examples include:

  • Situations where community consent is forthcoming but proposed sites are sub-optimal on other criteria (meteorological, geological, etc.).
  • Impoverished communities offering land for toxic waste facilities to receive benefits which they ought to be entitled to in the first place (sometimes called ‘radioactive ransom’).
  • Governments may not accept informed community decisions, such as the recent political manoeuvring following a decision in north-east England to reject a proposal for a radioactive waste repository.