The federal government has scrapped plans to build the nation’s first radioactive waste storage facility on farmland near Kimba in South Australia. Frankly, it was never going to work. The plan was doomed from the start.
That’s because the “decide and defend” model, where a government decides to put radioactive waste somewhere and then attempts to defend it against the community, hasn’t worked anywhere. It hasn’t worked in the United Kingdom. It hasn’t worked in the United States. Those countries still don’t have any process for long-term management of radioactive waste.
The only country to successfully manage the process is Finland, where the community was engaged. Over a period of several years, the government worked with its people to find a place where the community as a whole was happy to have the radioactive waste, in return for compensation. They’re now building a deep underground repository for permanently storing their radioactive waste.
But Australia’s national government has made the same mistake three times now: a proposal in the Woomera area 20 years ago, Muckaty station in the Northern Territory ten years ago and now Napandee near Kimba. Deciding on a site and then trying to defend it against the community doesn’t work. The government really needs to understand this. The only way to manage our radioactive waste is to engage the community from the start. That means the whole community, including the land’s traditional owners.
Stacking the deck
The Federal Court last month ruled against plans by the former Coalition government to build the Kimba facility, after a court challenge by the traditional owners, the Barngarla people.
The traditional owners had not been consulted – in fact they were specifically excluded from the consultation process. And that’s why the Federal Court overturned the decision.
On Thursday morning, Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King told the House of Representatives she would not challenge the Federal Court decision.
She described Kimba as “a town divided” and emphasised broad community support would have included “the whole community, including the traditional owners of the land”.
But she also drew attention to flaws in the plan, saying:
The previous Government sought to temporarily store intermediate level radioactive waste on agricultural land and contemplated the double handling of the transport of this waste; first from Lucas Heights in NSW, to temporary storage in SA, then on to an undetermined permanent disposal site.
This approach has raised concerns regarding international best practice and safety standards.
King noted the amount of radioactive waste will keep growing, and said her department has begun work on alternative proposals.
Consulting traditional owners is crucial
The Barngarla people understandably objected to nuclear waste being imposed on their land without their prior informed consent.
It might have been possible for the federal government to persuade them to accept low-level waste, which is given that classification because it has relatively low levels of radiation. If buried under a few metres of earth, the radiation reaching the surface is not much above normal background levels.
But the decision to use the site for temporary storage of the intermediate level waste from the Lucas Heights reactor in New South Wales was unlikely to get their approval.
And that raises a quite fundamental issue. Anywhere we want to store radioactive waste in Australia is the traditional land of a group of Indigenous people. Given the history of the Menzies government allowing nuclear weapons to be tested here and the impacts that had on Indigenous people, it’s going to be very difficult to persuade Indigenous people to allow the permanent storage of radioactive waste on their land.
If it’s going to happen, it will require a long process of engagement and communication with Indigenous people to find a group somewhere that’s happy to manage the radioactive waste the community is producing.
What should happen next?
The vast majority (97%) of the nuclear waste produced in this country is coming from Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
The idea of shifting intermediate-level waste from Lucas Heights to another temporary store 1,700km away is particularly silly. The waste is quite nasty stuff that requires serious management. There’s no obvious reason it would have been better in a temporary store at Kimba than in the current temporary store of Lucas Heights.
People have accepted it at Lucas Heights. The sensible approach would be to leave it there until we find somewhere people are happy to have it permanently.
In the fine print of the AUKUS agreement, the Australian government has agreed to manage the radioactive waste from nuclear submarines sourced from the UK and the US. That raises a much more difficult issue.
The Virginia class submarines use highly enriched uranium, which is weapons-grade material. It produces a more complex and intractable set of waste products than what’s produced at Lucas Heights. I’m not sure how many people understand Australia has taken that task on.
Naturally, anti-nuclear campaigners welcomed this week’s announcement. But they also held out an olive branch to the federal government, recognising the waste problem hasn’t gone away.
The Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Dave Sweeney said:
ACF looks forward to constructive dialogue with the Albanese government to help develop a new and responsible approach to radioactive waste management in Australia.
Similarly, Conservation SA chief executive Craig Wilkins said:
Now that the Kimba plan is officially dumped, the real work can finally begin to find a more credible and respectful approach to identifying a long-term storage and disposal site for Australia’s nuclear waste that is consistent with international best practice.