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Feb 22, 2010

How to site a nuclear waste dump

Labor's opposition to an NT waste dump before the last election will return to haunt it as Martin Ferguson unveils a permanent waste facility this week. Where was the consent and consultation?

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The Government is expected to announce tomorrow or Wednesday that it will repeal and replace the Howard Government’s much-criticised Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005, and that a nuclear waste dump will be established at Muckaty Station, virtually in the middle of the Northern Territory.

The legislation is likely to be considered by Caucus when it meets for this week’s session of Parliament.

The process of establishing a long-term nuclear waste facility to store uranium mining by-products and waste from the Lucas Heights reactor has been going on for decades.  A Howard Government attempt to force a waste dump on South Australia was defeated in 2004, prompting the Government to focus its efforts on establishing a dump in the Northern Territory, contrary to the strong opposition of the NT Government.

The CRWMA overrode the NT Government’s legislation blocking the establishment of a dump, blocked the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 from applying to the investigation of dump sites and voided the Native Title Act. Appeal processes relating to the investigation and selection of dump sites were severely curtailed.  And in 2006, the CRWMA was amended to override the consent procedures of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Consent and consultation are at the heart of the dispute over Muckaty Station, about 120 kms north of Tennant Creek, which was added to the Commonwealth’s list of NT dump sites when nominated by the Northern Land Council in 2007.  The nomination made on behalf of one group of traditional owners of the Muckaty lands, the Ngapa clan.

However, some traditional owners of lands close to or overlapping with the proposed site are opposed to the dump.  A Senate Environment Committee report in 2008 spent considerable time investigating the arguments of the NLC and traditional owners opposed to the dump, with the NLC strongly defending its consultation and the claims of the Ngapa groups.  The NLC subsequently provided material to the Committee detailing the consultation processes it had undertaken in the lead-up to the nomination, emphasizing that the nomination was not merely supported by the Ngapa groups (which the NLC argues are the only groups whose consent is legally required) but by the majority of other groups of traditional owners involved as well.

Labor’s 2007 election policy was to repeal the CRWMA and overhaul the consultation and consent process involved in site selection. Shadow Environment spokesman Peter Garrett had criticized the nomination in May 2005 because some traditional owners were opposed and the Howard Government legislation overrode consultation processes.  “It seems like the interests of Aboriginal people here are again going to be denied.”

In September 2007, Senator Kim Carr, stated: “Labor is committed to repealing the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act and establishing a consensual process of site selection.  Labor’s process will look to agreed scientific grounds for determining suitability.  Community consultation and support will be central to our approach.”

In the intervening two to three years, nothing has changed: Ngapa traditional owners continue to support the nomination, while some traditional owners nearby do not.

Early last week, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson travelled to Darwin for meetings with the Northern Land Council and the NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson. Henderson wrote to the Prime Minister in July 2008 repeating his Government’s opposition to a waste dump and seeking details of the “consensual approach” to which Federal Labor had committed.

Ferguson would evidently dearly love a waste dump nomination process that had the support, or more plausibly the non-opposition, of the Territory Government, based on a selection process that could be labeled “consensual”, which the Ngapa nomination provides, although Ferguson has undertaken no consultations with other traditional owners since becoming Minister.

Apart from the dispute between traditional owners, there’s a more fundamental question of why remote areas are preferred for nuclear waste dumps. The prerequisites routinely mentioned – geological stability and distance from groundwater – can readily be achieved elsewhere, without the expense and danger of transporting nuclear waste thousands of kilometres.

When asked at the 2008 Senate inquiry why Australian Governments concentrated on remote sites for waste storage, ANSTO executive Steven McIntosh said it was due to “political reasons”. “We cannot really comment upon that policy process [of siting remote dumps]. We understand, and I know that you say to leave politics aside, but politics frankly was the determining factor.”

When asked whether there were any technical reasons why a storage facility could not be constructed at Lucas Heights – where there would be no transport risks – McIntosh said there weren’t, but ANSTO had never looked properly at the issue.

Australia’s nuclear waste policy is not so much ‘evidence-based’ and ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  There’s a strongly held view within the Commonwealth that no community would ever accept a nuclear waste facility, so one will have to be forced on some luckless area because, in the long run, one is needed. Remote siting at least minimizes the political damage of this approach.

Still, it doesn’t eliminate it.  The nomination of Muckaty Station is bad news for Labor MP Damian Hale, who knocked off the CLP’s Dave Tollner by 196 votes in 2007.  Tollner didn’t help his own cause on the issue – he originally opposed a dump in the NT, but then, along with CLP Senator Nigel Scullion, failed to oppose the CRWMA in 2005.

Hale has said he’ll vote for the repeal of the CRWMA but won’t support the nomination of Muckaty.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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55 thoughts on “How to site a nuclear waste dump

  1. justinnt

    G’day Pedant,
    I propose closing lucas heights.
    I’ve had medical treatment with radio-isotopes.
    I’ve been convinced by the experts from the Medical Association for Prevention of War that Australia does not need a reactor program to ensure a first class health system.

    G’day Mark,
    noting that English is a foreign language is not patronising. neither is recognising that the department has repeatedly misled stakeholders.
    oh and you’re wrong about States’ waste. This dump explicitly disallows inclusion of medical and other low-level radioactive wastes from the states (except the NT) : it’s all about the Commonwealth’s long-lived reactor waste.

  2. Scott

    Dare I say it, but I agree with Meski. I always find it interesting that some of the “left” is all for aboriginal land rights in theory but are quite happy for these rights to be taken away if they facilitate mining or nuclear energy.

    Australia needs a place to store toxic waste. It sounds like the Ngapa people are happy to have it on their land, the National Land Council is supportive and a deal has been negotiated. What’s wrong with this picture?

    According to the NLC submission to the Senate in the 2008 inquiry, the Ngapa people negotiated a $12 million deal for the waste dump, including $11 million in a charitable trust and $1 million in educational scholarships. Why shouldn’t they be able to make their land productive?

    As to opposition, from the same report
    “The NLC’s comprehensive consultations during 2006 and 2007 also established that there is
    substantial support for the waste facility from neighbouring Aboriginal groups on Muckaty
    Station, with only a few individuals in other groups expressing concerns.
    In a statement on 25 May 2007, Ngapa elder, Amy Lauder, explained that traditional owners had
    made their decision for three reasons (copy attached):
    “First, we want to create a future for our children with education, jobs and funds for our
    outstation at Muckaty Station and transport.
    Secondly, we have been to Lucas Heights and accept that the waste facility will be safe for
    the environment.
    Thirdly, our decision will help all people in Australia – because all Australians benefit from
    nuclear medicine which saves lives.”

    Let’s us allow the traditional owners decide how best to use their own land. Guess what, sometimes we don’t know what is best for others.

  3. John Worcester

    Mostly a typical lot of responses in various ways – negative, unrealistic, preferring priority to a minuscule group over the rest of the population, resurrecting Intervention issues.
    Let’s face it – asking the States for permission to have a nuclear waste dump will receive a “No!” from all of them. The Federal Government can at least over-rule a Territory and we know the dump won’t be in the ACT.
    So it simply has to be in the NT somewhere.
    The main considerations presumably ought to be geological and transportation issues.
    Obviously local habitations should be minimal (hopefully zero) and native claim considerations must be entirely ridden over.
    Why should some local group with some land-rights be able to dictate to the rest of Modern Australia on this issue?
    Bob Hawke now says we should be prepared to accept back the world’s nuclear waste. I have long agreed with this. Export uranium by all means but maintain safeguards and insist we accept back all waste products for storage.
    At the same time, it would be good if we could be informed of the relative safety of storage methods.
    “Synrock” (an Australian invention by the late Professor Richmond, as I recall) was supposed to be the ideal but I haven’t heard anything of it for more than 20 years – a type of vitrified glass / rock.
    The Australian public might also like to be re-assured that a resting place for the material is genuinely geologically stable. One area I recall being considered had suffered earth tremors. I would think re-assurances are best delivered through a Senate investigative committee where scientists and public servants can be quizzed (I’m not sure which are more “trustworthy”)..
    It’s a decision that a government body can make – but with some sort of public oversight. A Senate Committee serves such a function well.
    Then the government must come to a decision on location and commence activity.

  4. Mark Duffett

    @Evonymous, an estimate I’ve seen for a 1000 MW Integral Fast Reactor (Gen IV) operating for 70% of the time is less than 0.8 tonnes of waste per year.

    @SBH, there’s a reason why I mentioned the commodities I did. Frances Creek (iron), Bootu Creek (manganese), Wonarah (phosphate) and Harts Range (garnet sands) mines are all now either in operation or well advanced in planning. None would be if the railway had not been built.

    @JustinNT (4:31pm), how does 300 years sound? And remember $12m is for the right to use the land, not for an ongoing service. A $12m purchase price for a pretty small chunk of pastoral country in that part of the world sounds like a pretty darn good deal (for the Ngapa) to me.

  5. Veronica Guy

    I have arrived a little late to this party.

    I must admit if there is no problem with the construction of a storage facility at Lucas Heights then it makes sense to utilise that land. To merely store nuclear waste rather than utilising the radioactive elements to fuel heating and other requirements of Sydney and its suburbs does seem wasteful in both the short and long term.

    The only questions really are to do with geological stability and distance from ground water. Maybe the latter is not able to be met at Lucas Heights, although McIntosh seems to think there are no problems.

    To me, the criminal waste is in not utilising this energy resource. That people have immense and ungrounded fears about radioactivity is what needs to be addressed.

    I recall that James Lovelock once publicly offered to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on his small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and fit safely in a concrete pit, and he would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat his home. He feels it would be a waste not to use it, but more important, it would be no danger to him, his family or the wildlife.

    But, Lovelock does point out that it is an endless debate about nuclear energy. Except this one is over the nuclear plant waste with, I guess in this case, the poor, benighted and uneducated Aborigines being snowed by the big bad Government. And let’s take an educated guess as to why ANSTO has never looked properly at the issue of Lucas Heights as a potential storage facility. It is, after all, in Sutherland Shire.

    The other thing I note is the wonderful train line going up the middle of Australia which, of course, provides a terrific transport system for nuclear waste into the heart of the country. And, even better, it doesn’t matter what the Northern Territory passes in its parliament, the Federal Government can always override any Territory legislation. Ain’t it grand!!

    Of course, it is worthwhile reflecting on the cynicism on both sides of the consultative fence. Might I suggest that the Ngapa could well have negotiated a goodly sum for the use of the land. So I, unlike a number of people here, do not fear that the traditional owners of the land have been hard done by and lied to. Maybe they have and maybe they are a lot smarter than white, middle class city dwellers who paternalise and patronise with bleeding hearts realise.

    In any case, all this was set in train (not a pun) many moons ago and I am surprised that WA and SA haven’t put their bids in for storage facilities. Logistics notwithstanding.

    Hazardous waste is only hazardous if it is ignored and not used by recycling to the extent of its capacity. Opposition by other land owners may have more to do with misinformation than anything else. Unless they are being financially disenfranchised.

  6. Veronica Guy

    Thanks Eponymous. I know that Lovelock is considered a fringe dweller but he is certainly no slouch.

    I have not enough knowledge to make a properly informed comment about the use of high level waste and the use of heat from the decaying elements. I am almost certain that it couldn’t happen within a residential setting in any case. I suspect it was one of those things said in an attempt to allay some ill founded fears about nuclear fuel plants. I am aware of unsupported and scare mongering stories that circulate and are virtually impossible to eradicate. I, like Lovelock, may well be guilty of bending too far the other way.

    High level waste is already being dealt with, at least in Finland and Sweden and the EU is considering a HLW facility in Europe. The US also stores its waste. Unfortunately in this stage of our history, we are consumed and controlled by the dollar and so corners are likely to be cut in the storage and/or disposal of potentially damaging wastes. Governments and their agencies do not have good records in the field of waste management. Outsourcing it to private companies is often even worse since economic rationalism and shareholder returns rule supreme. Legislation is usually unenforceable in any case.

    But it is just silly and irresponsible to promote the idea that Australia will become the World’s nuclear waste dump. This sort of comment makes me very cross. The number of conspiracy theories that are burgeoning around the place should give everyone pause to consider a bit of self-education, me included. I know there are concerns with regard to proliferation; I don’t know how to gauge these concerns. I know that most fission products are short lived. I know there is the potential to separate plutonium in a reprocessing plant and using the product.

    But this article isn’t about these concerns. That’s for another comment thread that is more devoted to the science surrounding nuclear fuel production and its waste products.

    All I can say for certain is that the question of nuclear fuel is not going to go away in a puff of smoke because of any attendant fears. We consume energy like it is going out of fashion (which, of course, is the problem). So we have to deal with the waste products and like everything else it’s a cost/benefit ratio. Coal fired plants (and we export to coal to China that erects one plant per week, I believe) are just as problematic in a different way but not that much different in terms of radioactive waste that is not even mentioned. Forget the old carbon footprint for the building of these facilities be they coal or nuclear. The mining of the raw materials requires massive carbon use, the transport costs, wages etc. etc. seem never to enter the equation in our minds.

    The point is that as the rest of the world wants an improved life style, the amount of fuel needed to supply this is skyrocketing. Medical technology is leaping ahead as well. That means we have a global population crisis as well (and it isn’t any good yawning and pointing to reduced birth rates in developed countries. Global infant mortality is decreasing while longevity in increasing. It is still a finite planet.). We will be using a mix of fuel sources, that’s a given and nuclear will be in that mix. To think otherwise is both politically and economically naïve.

    Whew! Big and complicated issues when you try to talk about any of it. So any country that uses (rather than mines, but that’s worth a moral and philosophical look as well) raw materials to generate energy for the use of its inhabitants has to take some responsibility for the safe disposal of the waste. Australia both mines and uses coal and uranium. Australia has to come to the party in safely sequestering waste products. To gainsay that is ridiculous. Given that, Australia has to do the best that it can. Nothing will be foolproof or vandal proof. The proper storage, if that is what is needed of HLW is vitrification as far as I can see.

    Can anyone help with that?

  7. Liz45

    Where’s the evidence for any mining company etc who’ve used positive elements in their quest for mining rights; employment of aboriginal people; will clean up the site after use and the monies produced will go into communities blah blah blah! The reality is, that it either doesn’t happen at all, or the monies go to beaurecracies etc or mis-spent.

    The inquiry into Nabalco, Gove Peninsula is a case in point. The evidence put forward was along these lines, and not only were there no aboriginal workers on that site, the company had a policy of NOT employing indigenous people. The results of this meant much destruction of aboriginal land, seeping of pollutants into waterways etc, and many aboriginal people so bereft of self determination, that sadly, too many became addicted to alcohol and other substances. IF mining companies had contributed to the communities over the last 100 yrs or so, why are the lives of aboriginal people so destroyed by bad health concerns, lack of educational facilities etc.

    Maralinga is a good example of what’s happened, when govts allow for these sorts of things, and don’t live up to their promises. I understand, that the US still does not have a facility to store nuclear waste. Each time it’s muted, there’s legal actions and the costs are not conducive to govts wanting to push the issue.

    It’s silly to even suggest that sites should be secret. When there are humans involved in transport etc and working on the site, keeping it a secret just wouldn’t happen.
    If we take waste from other countries in due course, what’s to prevent high level and very dangerous waste being transported by sea, land or even air? Great if there’s an accident or ‘incident’?

    Remember when Howard was in, and not long after Lucas Heights was in operation, there was a shut down. The then woman Minister for Science, Julie Bishop? had to be asked questions several times whether it had shut down and why, and was almost dragged kicking and screaming before she’d even admit it – then she castigated the then Labor Opposition for even bringing it up in Parlt. I don’t trust politicians with keeping the public informed re our health and safety. Have people forgotten the insulation debacle already? Imagine if this was nuclear waste we were dealing with?

    Aboriginal people are already pissed off with this Rudd govt, that is treating them in the same manner as Howard – talking down to them and treating them in a paternalistic, dogmatic and patronising manner!

  8. Flower

    With the advent of new uranium mines soon to be commissioned in Western Australia, I would say that the NT is a long way from the source.

    WA has a “low level” intractable waste site at Mt Walton, some kilometres out of Coolgardie. Intractable waste is buried in shallow trenches (including plutonium) and there was no sign of a caretaker or any human presence, during our excursion to that area.

    The excuse generally holds that one cannot judge the past by today’s standards but what is the standard today in Australia’s management of hazardous waste? Appalling and well documented.

    A “final cleanup” operation of Maralinga was completed in 1967, by the UK Ministry of Defence (Operation Brumby). Detailed studies carried out in 1984-85 “ revealed contamination levels at the site were much greater than earlier acknowledged.” (ARPANSA). The site was finally declared “remediated” in 2000 but not according to mechanical and nuclear engineer (and Maralinga overseer), Alan Parkinson:


    According to a document authored by Dr Ian Duncan, in 2006, South Australia has the largest amount of low and intermediate level waste, followed by NSW. The NT has a comparatively small amount of 16 cubic metres so I guess that lets the big boys, BHP Billiton and Lucas Heights off the hook eh?

    Of course the sustainability of uranium mining depends on whether one emphasises the economic resources and the billions of dollars in revenue from an inevitable, international nuclear waste dump in the outback, or the potential health and environmental costs to the nation.

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