Arguments against turning SA into the world’s nuclear waste dump

This is the summary of a 2016 submission by Friends of the Earth, Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Conservation Council of SA to the SA Joint Select Committee on the Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. To read the entire submission click here.

“Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000 kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes − of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk.” ‒ Prof. John Veevers, Macquarie University [1]

Our organisations expressed deep reservations over the Royal Commission process, with particular concern over the Commission’s pro-industry terms of reference and the pro-nuclear bias in the composition of the Royal Commission (e.g. a majority of the members of the Expert Advisory Committee were clearly partisan nuclear advocates).[2] We maintain that the Royal Commission’s report is not a credible, even-handed report; instead it should be regarded as an advocacy document.[3] The report fails to demonstrate that a high level nuclear waste facility is practical or economic for SA, it downplays and ignores risks and uncritically presents arbitrary and highly optimistic forecasts of economic impacts.

The Royal Commission report fails to adequately reflect the clear international history of complexity, cost, contest and project failure in relation to radioactive waste management. This experience is of profound importance in framing any future discourse on this highly contested public policy arena. Our organisations believe that as a foundation document for framing and advancing any such discourse the Commission report is deeply deficient.

Importing waste before a repository is established

No country has completed construction and begun operation of a high level nuclear waste repository – at a national, let alone an international level. Many countries have failed or in their attempts to establish a repository. Successive Australian governments have repeatedly failed in their efforts to establish a repository for low level waste and plans to establish an intermediate level waste repository were abandoned in 2004 when the National Store Committee was disbanded. Yet the Royal Commission proposed importing high level nuclear waste on the assumption that it will be possible to establish a high level nuclear waste repository. This is highly irresponsible and should be rejected by the Joint Select Committee.

The so-called ‘Interim Storage Facility’ is proposed to accumulate 50,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste before a repository begins accepting waste. There is a significant risk that high level waste will be imported and will have to remain in ‘interim’ storage ad infinitum due to i) the lack of a repository, ii) the lack of a return-to-sender clause in contracts and iii) the inability to send the waste on to a third country.

International experience

The Royal Commission insists that a nuclear waste storage and dumping business could be carried out safely. But would it be carried out safely? The Royal Commission ought to have considered evidence that can be drawn upon to help answer the question ‒ but it failed to do so.

What sort of evidence might be considered? The experience of the world’s one and only deep underground nuclear waste dump ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in the U.S. ‒ is clearly relevant yet it was completely ignored in the Royal Commission’s Tentative Findings report and receives one token paragraph in the Final Report. WIPP is a case study of a sharp decline in safety and regulatory standards over a short space of time ( A chemical explosion in a nuclear waste barrel in February 2014 was followed by a failure of the filtration system, resulting in 22 workers receiving small doses of radiation and widespread contamination in the underground caverns. WIPP has been shut down for 2.5 years since the accident. Costs associated with the accident are likely to exceed US$500 million.

The Royal Commission ignored the fundamental lesson from the WIPP fiasco – initially high safety and regulatory standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting in the space of just 10–15 years. The Royal Commission correctly notes that high level waste “requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years”. How can we be confident that high safety and regulatory standards in SA would be maintained over centuries and millennia when WIPP shows that the half-life of human complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting is measured in years or at most decades?

The Royal Commission gives great weight to abstract, theoretical safety assessments while ignoring what is happening in the real world. It ignores clear and important examples of the spectacular mismatch between theoretical safety assessments and real-world experience. For example, a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted one radiation release every 200,000 years. Yet WIPP was open for just 15 years before the chemical explosion in February 2014.

There is no logical reason to believe that the SA government would perform any better than the U.S. government. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that nuclear waste management would be more difficult here given that the U.S. has vastly more nuclear waste technical and management expertise, experience and capacity than Australia.

The Royal Commission had little or nothing to say about other problems overseas, e.g. fires at radioactive waste repositories[4], the current project to exhume 126,000 waste barrels from a dump in Germany following extensive water infiltration and corrosion, the liquid nuclear waste explosion at Mayak in the USSR, and many others.

Political decisions are reinforcing the selectivity of the Royal Commission. The leaders of the SA Labor and Liberal parties plan to visit the waste facility under construction in Finland (20 times smaller than that proposed for SA). Why aren’t they visiting WIPP, or the German repository, or Mayak? Why aren’t they visiting places whose names are synonymous with dangerous and hideously expensive nuclear waste mismanagement ‒ Dounreay, Sellafield, Hanford, etc.? Why aren’t they visiting the wine producers in France who took the operator of a nuclear waste dump to court in a failed attempt to have the dump shut down? The SA Joint Select Committee should recommend that the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition extend their overseas trip to visit the above-mentioned locations, or at the least to meaningfully engage with international critics and not merely advocates.

While ignoring the world’s one and only existing deep underground nuclear waste dump (WIPP), the Royal Commission talks at length about deep underground repositories under construction in Finland and Sweden. According to the Royal Commission, those two countries “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” for nuclear waste. But in fact, neither country has completed construction of a repository let alone demonstrated safe operation over any length of time. After over 30 years Finland is still seven years away from first disposal of high level waste ‒ said to start in 2023. Sweden’s Forsmark Geological Disposal Facility has not yet even been licensed to start construction and isn’t planned to open until the late 2020s. Also both facilities are clearly focussed on addressing domestic nuclear waste arisings, not the far more complex international issues.

Mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA

Just as the Royal Commission glossed over countless serious examples of nuclear waste mismanagement around the world, it also glossed over numerous problems in SA.

A radioactive waste repository at Radium Hill, for example, “is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice” according to a 2003 SA government audit ‒ yet there is no current intention to rectify the situation.

The Port Pirie uranium treatment plant is still contaminated over 50 years after its closure. It took a six-year community campaign just to get the site fenced off and to carry out a partial rehabilitation. As of July 2015, the SA government website states that “a long-term management strategy for the former site” is being developed.

Management of mine wastes has also been problematic. For example SA regulators failed to detect Marathon Resource’s illegal dumping of radioactive materials in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. The incident represents a serious failure of SA government regulation yet to the best of our knowledge there have been no legislative or regulatory changes to reduce the risks of a recurrence.

The ‘clean-up’ of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s provides no cause for comfort with an expansion of nuclear waste in SA:

  • Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
  • Scientist Dale Timmons said the government’s technical report was littered with “gross misinformation”.
  • Dr Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said that the ‘clean-up’ was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups”.
  • Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston (now with ARPANSA) noted that there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project”.

The Royal Commission claims that “South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel”. But instead it can be credibly argued that SA has a track record of mismanaging radioactive waste (Radium Hill, Maralinga, Port Pirie, Arkaroola, etc.) and no experience managing high-level nuclear waste.

If there was clear recognition of the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA, coupled with remediation of contaminated sites, we might have some confidence that lessons have been learnt and that radioactive waste would be managed more responsibly in future. But there is no such recognition in the Royal Commission’s report or from state or federal governments, and there are no plans to remediate contaminated sites. On the contrary, the plan is to make a bad situation much worse with the importation of vast amounts of international intermediate and high level nuclear waste.

As mentioned, successive Australian governments have repeatedly failed in their efforts to establish a repository for low level waste and an interim store (or deep geological repository) for intermediate level national waste ‒ yet the current assumption is that it will be possible to establish a repository for high level international nuclear waste. This assumption is not consistent with past experience and needs focussed interrogation.

A moral responsibility to import nuclear waste?

Some argue that Australia has a moral responsibility to accept the high-level nuclear waste arising from the use of Australian uranium in power reactors overseas given that Australia is a uranium exporting nation. But there are no precedents for Australia or any other country being morally or legally responsible for managing wastes arising from the use of exported fuels, or from the export of any other mineral products. The responsibility for managing nuclear waste lies with the countries that make use of Australian uranium.

One plausible scenario is uranium being mined on Aboriginal land regardless of Aboriginal opposition, and high level nuclear waste being dumped on Aboriginal land, again without consent. That scenario is immoral twice over.

Indeed we maintain that the most consistent ‘moral’ argument is that Australia seek to prevent the creation of further nuclear waste rather than attempt to facilitate its import and dumping.

Aboriginal Traditional Owners

Our organisations hold serious concerns over past and continuing nuclear industry practices and impacts and the following comments highlight the often poor treatment of Aboriginal people by the nuclear/uranium industries in Australia and by governments pursuing or facilitating nuclear/uranium projects.

From evidence provided to the Royal Commission it is evident that a large majority of Aboriginal people oppose the plan to import intermediate and high level nuclear waste.[5]

The SA Government’s handling of the Royal Commission process systematically disenfranchised Aboriginal people. The truncated timeline for providing feedback on draft Terms of Reference disadvantaged people in remote regions, people with little or no access to email and internet and people for whom English is a second language. This was compounded when the Commission was formulated as there was no translation of the draft Terms of Reference, and a regional communications and engagement strategy was not developed or implemented. Subsequent efforts by the Royal Commission to provide translators and to translate written material were highly selective, partial and simply inadequate. Aboriginal people repeatedly expressed frustrations with the Royal Commission process.

At a minimum, we call on the Joint Select Committee to develop and implement a strategy to facilitate Aboriginal participation in the Committee’s inquiry, including holding hearings in regional and remote locations, and the provision of translators and translated written material. If this requires an extension of the timeline for the Committee’s work, so be it.

The federal government tried but failed to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in SA from 1998‒2004, then tried but failed to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the NT from 2005‒14, and now the federal government appears to again be seeking to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA against the near-unanimous opposition of Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners.

At the federal level Labor and the Coalition both supported the National Radioactive Waste Management Act, which permits the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land without any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal Traditional Owners (to be precise, the nomination of a site is not invalidated by a failure to consult or secure consent).

In SA, there is bipartisan support for the South Australian Roxby Downs Indenture Act. The Act was amended in 2011 but it retains indefensible exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Traditional Owners were not even consulted about the amendments. The SA government’s spokesperson in Parliament said: “BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that.”

As things stand, BHP Billiton must partially comply with an old version of the Aboriginal Heritage Act ‒ a version that was never proclaimed. That extraordinary situation needs to be rectified. Moreover it sets an extremely poor precedent in the context of the proposal to import foreign nuclear waste.


The Royal Commission ‒ and the Jacobs MCM consultancy ‒ base their economic calculations on an entirely arbitrary estimate as to how much waste might be imported. And their estimate of the price per tonne is highly questionable. Plausible estimates of tonnage and price per tonne result in economic losses as explained by Prof. Richard Blandy: “In fact, if South Australia’s dump could only attract a quarter of the world’s high level nuclear waste, at prices equal to Swedish or Finnish costs of construction (approximately A$1.13m/tonne of heavy metal and A$0.65m/tonne of heavy metal, respectively), our dump would lose money and would have a negative net present value.”

The nuclear waste import proposal privileges short-term economic interests at the expense of the long-term interests of South Australians. Again this is neatly explained by Prof. Blandy: “We are bequeathing a stream of costs to our successor generations. They will be poorer as a result, and will have reason to curse their forebears for selfishly making themselves better off at their expense. The problem with the high level nuclear waste dump is the inescapable risk (the Royal Commission says that “it is not possible to know the geological and climatic conditions in the distant future”) of severely adverse outcomes that we might be passing on to tens of thousands of future generations of South Australians. We should think of what we will leave to our descendants – and not do it.”

The Royal Commission (and the Jacobs MCM consultancy) make some provision for cost overruns but nothing on the scale of the near-doubling of cost estimates evident in France and the UK:

  • Estimates of the clean-up costs for a range of (civil and military) UK nuclear sites including Sellafield have jumped from a 2005 estimate of £56 billion (A$97.6b) to over £100 billion (A$174b).
  • In 2005, the French government’s nuclear waste agency Andra estimated the cost of a deep geological disposal facility at between €13.5 and €16.5 billion (A$19.7‒24.1 billion). In 2016, Andra estimates the cost of the facility at between €20 billion to €30 billion (A$29.1‒43.7 billion).

The promised 600 jobs associated with the nuclear waste project (once operations began) represent less than 0.1% of the 800,000 jobs presently in South Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 11,909,900 ’employed persons’ in Australia as of January 2016 ‒ thus the nuclear waste storage/disposal project would increase the total by 0.005%.

If the nuclear waste project has even a marginal adverse impact on tourism, the jobs created in the nuclear waste project could be equalled by job losses in the tourism industry. According to the SA Tourism Commission, 57,000 are employed in tourism in South Australia (direct and indirect). Thus a 1% reduction in the tourism industry would result in the loss of ~570 jobs, very similar to the 600 promised long-term jobs associated with the nuclear waste project. Visitor expenditure is estimated at $5.7 billion annually, thus a 1% reduction would amount to $57 million annually, or $570 million per decade or $5.7 billion over a 100-year period.

This negative economic impact has not been adequately identified or addressed across a range of potentially adversely exposed sectors including agricultural, wine and fisheries production.

Transport risks

The SA Joint Select Committee might want to consider the implications of any proposal to abandon plans for dedicated, new infrastructure (e.g. port, rail) in favour of existing infrastructure. It should be noted that from 1999‒2002 Pangea Resources initially envisaged dedicated infrastructure but as its plans advanced it increasingly favoured the use of existing infrastructure. A shift from dedicated to existing infrastructure would have significant implications for the economics of the project as well as public health and environmental risks.

The Royal Commission report states: “During the past 50 years, approximately 7000 international shipments of used nuclear fuel, including nine that have left Australia for reprocessing, have been undertaken. In this time, no accident involving a breach of the package and the release of its contents has occurred. The same record applies to international transport of high and intermediate level waste.”

That claim is incorrect and is refuted by documented evidence provided to ‒ and ignored by ‒ the Royal Commission. For example a whistleblower sparked a major controversy over frequent excessive radioactive contamination of waste containers, rail cars, and trucks in France and Germany. International transport regulations for spent fuel shipments were constantly over a period of many years and this was done knowingly. Another example concerns the derailment of a train wagon carrying spent fuel in December 2013, 3 km from Paris, with testing by AREVA revealing a hotspot on the rail car.

Numerous other train derailments involving nuclear materials transport have been documented. It is unsettling to consider the multiple derailments on the Ghan train line in Australia in the relatively short period of time it has been in operation.

Transport incidents and accidents are routine in countries with significant nuclear industries. The case of the UK is pertinent. A UK government database contains information on 1018 events from 1958 to 2011 (an average of 19 incidents each year).

There were 187 events during the shipment of irradiated nuclear fuel flasks from 1958−2004 in the UK (an average of four per year):

  • 33% involved excess contamination on the surface of the flask;
  • 24% involved collisions and low speed derailments of the conveyance;
  • 16% involved flask preparation faults, and loading/unloading faults;
  • 13% involved excess contamination of conveyance;
  • 11% involved faults with the conveyance; and
  • the remainder included three cases involving fire on a locomotive with no damage to flasks.

The French nuclear safety agency IRSN produced a report summarising radioactive transport accidents and incidents from 1999−2007. The database lists 901 events from 1999−2007 − on average 100 events annually or about two each week. The IRSN report notes that events where there is contamination of packages and means of transport were still frequent in 2007.

Potential costs of transport accidents: Spent fuel / high level nuclear waste transport accidents have the potential to be extraordinarily expensive. Dr. Marvin Resnikoff and Matt Lamb from Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York City calculated 355−431 latent cancer fatalities attributable to a “maximum” hypothetical rail cask accident, compared to the US Department of Energy’s estimate of 31 fatalities. Using the Department of Energy’s model, they calculated that a severe truck cask accident could result in US$20 billion to US$36 billion in clean-up costs for an accident in an urban area, and a severe rail accident in an urban area could result in costs from US$145 billion to US$270 billion.

Transport and nuclear security: Nuclear engineer Dr John Large writes: “Movement of nuclear materials is inherently risky both in terms of severe accident and terrorist attack. Not all accident scenarios and accident severities can be foreseen; it is only possible to maintain a limited security cordon around the flask and its consignment; … terrorists are able to seek out and exploit vulnerabilities in the transport arrangements and localities on the route; and emergency planning is difficult to maintain over the entire route.”

A number of nuclear transport security incidents are listed in the body of this submission (section 3.8).

Security and proliferation risks

As the Chernobyl disaster proved, dispersal of nuclear material from just one reactor core can have devastating national and international effects. The Royal Commission proposes that Australia accept an amount of nuclear waste that is more radioactive than the Chernobyl #4 reactor core by orders of magnitude. The proposed import of 138,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel equates to 6,900 reactor-years of nuclear waste generation (a single reactor produces approx. 20 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel per year).

Nuclear engineers Alan Parkinson and John Large have warned that Australia’s proposed national radioactive waste facility would be attractive to terrorists wanting to make a ‘dirty bomb’, a radioactive weapon delivered by conventional means. The same risk applies to any comparable store of nuclear materials.

Historical examples of military attacks on nuclear plants include attacks and attempted attacks on reactors in Iraq, Iran, Israel and Syria. Those incidents were motivated by attempts to prevent weapons proliferation. Nuclear plants might also be targeted with the aim of widely dispersing radioactive material. High level nuclear waste stores in Australia might be targeted for both reasons.

Numerous security incidents at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights site are noted in the body of this submission (section 3.7).

Importation of 138,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel would contain 1,380 tonnes of plutonium − sufficient to build approx. 138,000 nuclear weapons. Thus Australia, regardless of intent, would be far closer to a weapons capability than is currently the case and regional countries might therefore decide to take steps towards a weapons capability.

Claims that Australia would be making a contribution to global non-proliferation efforts by accepting foreign nuclear waste are highly questionable. Australia’s acceptance of spent fuel would add to the number of countries with large stockpiles of fissile material − in that sense it would contribute to proliferation risks, not to the resolution of those risks.



[2] ‘A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’, December 2015,