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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?


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.


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55 thoughts on “How to site a nuclear waste dump

  1. Meski

    The middle of erewhon, and the owners approve, sounds like a good location all round.

  2. Jenny McFarland

    The owners have probably been sold a crock if the “consultation” process used for the NTER is any indication. These consultations consist of a whitefella talking in a foreign language and making lots of promises. Few of these eventuate, and the price is horrendous – poison country for thousands of years. How is this a good outcome?? Roads are few and far between in the region – so hazardous waste will have to be transported thousands of kilometres right through remote urban centres to get to the dump. Siting decisions for the dump should be made on the basis of the science, not the shabbiest of politics.

  3. justinnt

    MeSki: out of sight / out of mind ? out of your mind if you think that’s a responsible approach to this important responsibility.
    as for land owner approval, this nomination by the NLC is fiercly contested : by Ngapa Traditional Owners, neighbouring Traditional Owners on the haulage road, and other local people. The Minister, and other members of Federal Government, for their part have ignored repeated correspondence from locals opposed to the dump, including a letter tabled in the Senate last year, signed by 57 Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the Muckaty Land Trust area, imploring Minister Ferguson to meet with them.

  4. Mark Duffett

    @Jenny McFarland, could you be any more patronising of the Ngapa?

    FWIW, if you read between the lines above, the science is saying it doesn’t matter all that much where you site the facility, at least in terms of natural risk (i.e. extremely low).

    And while it might be strictly the case that the Federal facility is planned only for mine waste and Lucas Heights material, I’d be very surprised if the States didn’t take the opportunity to try to deposit the waste for which they are responsible (medical isotopes and suchlike, currently in hospitals all over the place) as well. This disposal stream would be ongoing. So a Lucas Heights disposal site isn’t likely to eliminate any transport risks, such as they may be.

    My family might not live in Alice Springs any more, but you can rest assured this issue wasn’t the reason we moved.

  5. EnergyPedant

    Those who suggest closing Lucas Heights first have to face each person who’s medical treatment would have used isotopes generated there (practically every cancer patient and any number of different scans/tests).

    They should just build a dump somewhere and not tell anyone. Waste dumps are actually quite safe if they are built properly.

    As ANSTO say they could just store waste at Lucas Heights. Actually at the moment that is what they are still doing since there is no waste facility. Its just siting in Barrels in the basement (or somewhere else on site).

    However it being “Nucular” everyone turns NIMBY and every voter within 100km gets up in arms. Therefore you pick a location without many voters within 100km, basically that means one of those empty dry spots in the middle of WA/NT/SA/West Qld.

  6. SBH

    I hear you MESKI but it’s not in the middle of nowhere if you live there. Here’s an APH link which is worth reading as to the level of consultation and agreement by the TOs

  7. SBH

    Oh its worth noting that there are at least five language groups (Warlmanpa, Warlpiri, Mudbura, Warumungu and Jingili) on Muckaty station and the original legislation required consultation with groups who would be affected as well as TOs of the land concerned.

    My concern is more about how those people were treated rather than the nuke aspect, I’d have to say and I probably tend to agree with energypedant. I mean no one complains about the ongoing release of isotopes form coal fire power stations but thats another story.

    What we have is the latest step in building infrastructure to increase the uranium mining industry and to introduce a nuclear power industry. That’s why after 100 years the train line to Darwin was finished by Haliburton, remember them? That infrastructure is being built up by stealth and with no debate with Australian public about whether that’s what we want

  8. SBH

    Maybe the TO’s should have a talk to the Jawoyn who know a thing or two about sickness country

  9. 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.

  10. Eponymous

    EnergyPedant opined
    “They should just build a dump somewhere and not tell anyone. Waste dumps are actually quite safe if they are built properly.”

    I actually find some solace in that remark. One of the risks when storing nuclear material is that bad people might want to dig it up and spread it out somewhere with a lot of people. If no one knows where that place is, this problem is solved!

  11. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Energypedant – I didn’t get the impression that anybody writing here wants to “close Lucas Heights” (ie. the entire reactor operation). The suggestion seemed to be that as Lucas Heights is already an approved, accepted and functioning site to produce, manipulate and store all sorts of ‘nuclear’ materials, why couldn’t it be expanded to deal with (say) all the medical isotope and laboratory waste material rather than re-moving all its own stuff back out of Sydney and up to NT forever? Presumably there’s no ‘political’ problem to overcome at Lucas Heights because it is already doing this thing.
    Mining waste is another matter entirely. Also, potentially a site in NT could also begin to receive waste from other countries and/or particular parts of the industry.
    Finally, just about any place 100 kms away from a metropolitan area is a “location without many voters”. A central Australian location is ridiculous unless you are planning to allow secrecy and sloppiness to prevail. Who would ever believe that an Australian government would do that?

  12. John Bennetts

    NT legislation can be overwritten by the Commonwealth. Much less likely to be challenged in court successfully. Sure beats negotiating with a State government about things like money, and lots of it.

  13. Mark Duffett

    @JustinNT, there’s a reason why I said the States would try to get their waste into the Federal facility, once it was established. In any case, the ‘explicit disallowing’ of medical radioisotopes wouldn’t be in that same legislation announced as being repealed in the first sentence of this article, would it?

    And I’d be interested to know how the MAPW ‘experts’ reconcile their attitude to Australian medical isotopes with the global shortage of same. If the alternatives were so good, demand reduction should mean no shortage, never mind supply.

  14. Meski

    There’s thousands of square kilometres of nothing out there, people can’t be occupying them all, so you can’t meaningfully say ‘for people that live there’. Or take another location, Woomera, or Maralinga, which are already quite contaminated.

  15. klewso

    Has Brough’s “divine intervention” made this sort of “intervention”, in a long running problem, any easier?

  16. SBH

    there’s something there comrade it’s just not something you value.

    Couple of other issues worth thinking about:
    1) transport. this waste will get trucked and trained a couple of thousand ks through some very heavily populated areas. seems like a big risk to me

    2) this dump is intended to support an expanded mining and power industry. It would be nice if the government talked to it’s electors before deciding on this path.

    3) the legislative innovations neccesary to enable this dump bespeak a complete contemp for the interests or objections of all Australians but especially for indigenous people.

  17. justinnt

    Good question Klewso.
    Obviously, the land owners of all four sites (the three scheduled sites, and the Muckaty one nominated by the land council) are severely impacted by the racist emergency response laws. I guess the way these interact is that the intervention just makes it harder for people to adequately engage. Attacking communities with ugly accusations, racist penalties and tiresome invasion of their day to day lives makes it hard for them to play an equal part in good decision making.
    MD: re states’ waste : yeah, that may well change.
    as for MAPW’s alternatives, I encourage you to study their work.

  18. EnergyPedant

    John Bennetts brings up the entire reason it will be located in the NT.

    States have rights vs the Federal government. Territories don’t. But for some unknown reason the Feds seem to treat NT much worse than the ACT…..

  19. Meski

    HAZMATs are transported through very heavily populated areas every day of the week now. Are we increasing the risk much?

  20. Jenny McFarland

    Mark Duffit, have you actually witnessed how “consultations” with traditional owners are conducted?? Clearly not, as you display an alarming naivety about them – or are you perhaps one of the seagull consultants employed to do the consultations? It will not just be the states trying to get their waste into the dump – in a few years, Australia is under a contractual obligation to take back the waste from some of the countries we have sold uranium to. Gee I wonder where that will go??

  21. 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.

  22. Mark Duffett

    So, Jenny McF @3:50pm, you’re saying the NLC doesn’t do consultations with its own clients properly? I’d love to see what Bob Gosford thinks of that notion.

  23. Meski

    Further, if the owners want to set up a company, and sell shares, I’d be overjoyed to buy some of said shares. Waste management in the future will be important.

  24. SBH

    Scott I don’t know anyone on the left, nor can remember hearing it expressed, that they are happy for Aboriginal people’s land rights to be taken away to facilitate mining.

    By all means let the TO’s decide how to use their land. Legitimate questions have been raised as to whether it was the TO’s or indeed whether the nomination process was so deficient that the relevant acts needed to be changed to legalise the selection of Muckaty station in the face of objects from people who should, according to the unamended act, be consulted. I haven’t started quoting TOs or speaking on there behalf but theres plenty of quotes opposing the dump.

    And Meski, yes more crap x more miles = more risk squared

  25. 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.

  26. Mark Duffett

    @John Worcester, I think you’re thinking of Prof Ringwood (not Richmond).

  27. justinnt

    Scott : I understand that some people love the idea of land owners saying yes to mining and nukes, but that just isn’t what’s happening today in the NT. A handful of land owners are implicated in the secret deal done between NLC and government, while dozens have repeatedly written to the Minister expressing their opposition.
    Yes, MD, the role of the NLC is contested. Precisely in question is the role of Land Council and Governments in ensuring the traditional decision making processes provided for by the Land Rights Act. The CRWM Act, which is the subject of the Crikey article, explicitly overrides these provisions, declaring that a nomination by a land council will be valid irrespective of whether these traditional decision making provisions are observed.
    By the way, even if this was a genuine transparent agreement between all Traditional Owners and government, it’s still not a great deal. Do the maths. A mere $12m (that will go on services that those of us in big cities take for granted) in return for … how many years do you want that stored?

  28. John Worcester

    Mark – you’re right. Prof Ted Ringwood – (memory plays up!)
    I was glad to note that various deals seem to have been done with local traditional owners to allow for some path forward. It sounds that all avenues have been covered.
    The fact that a few individuals have complained seems to be something our armchair critics have seized on. If full consultations have been followed by agreement in the usual democratic way, some dissentients can’t hold the rest to ransom. But it’s interesting some Crikey respondents should seize on that: grabbing at straws but demonstrating the futility of their case.

  29. SBH

    John its a big IF, and no the usual democratic way was not used. The Act needed to be ammended. ‘some dissidents’ is just a pergorative. The views of those TO in and around Muckarty station who oppose the dump should have been included had the ‘usual democratic way’.

    JustinNT wot you said.

  30. justinnt

    John : yeah, Tennant Creek is home to the largest release of energy in one day in Australia. On 22/01/88, three large earthquakes occurred, with magnitudes MS 6.3 at 10:06, MS 6.5 at 1:27 pm and MS 6.7 at 9:35 pm CST, followed by many smaller aftershocks. The three main events were felt in Darwin, and the largest was felt as far as Cairns in northern Queensland and in high rise buildings in Perth and Adelaide. The quakes resulted in large, long ground ruptures and a 35 km fault. The south block thrust over the north block by up to one metre vertically and about 2 metres horizontally. an earthquake station was installed, and many hundreds of events have been recorded. Activity in the area continues at a high level today.
    as for “full consultations have been followed by agreement in the usual democratic way” – this is precisely the subject of dispute (see above)
    Why should Modern Australia be able to dictate to a local group with land-rights on this issue?

  31. Bill Parker

    Thin end of a wedge? The site is conveniently located near a trans australian railway ( who built that and in such haste after so long?) It connects nicely with Esperance WA and Darwin NT albeit at some distance, but who’s counting that?

    Pangea ( British Nuclear Fuels) were in WA in 1999 telling us good folks about their plans to use a chunk of WA for high level nuclear waste. No doubt about it, geological stable, politically stable, all good pointers for a site to solve BNF’s and other’s intractable problems.

    Nothing convinces me anymore that we are not still a target by stealth – that someday the real nuclear waste disposal door in Australia will finally open. In a few year’s time we will have worked up the expertise on the low level stuff, trained people, got a fully secure rail transport system in place etc. etc

  32. Scott

    “Why should Modern Australia be able to dictate to a local group with land-rights on this issue?”

    But aren’t you doing exactly that?

    The Senate Inquiry submissions (especially from the NLC) make for very interesting reading. They spent a lot of time conducting anthropological research, finding out who were the traditional owners and who could make the decision under the various Native Title Acts.
    This quote pretty much sums it up.

    “However only the traditional Aboriginal owners, being
    the Ngapa group associated with the Lauder families, were empowered under the Act and under
    Aboriginal tradition to consent to the repository. Conversely persons from other groups are not
    entitled under the legislative scheme or under Aboriginal tradition to prevent traditional Aboriginal owners from utilising their land as they see fit”

    Seems pretty cut and dried to me. You can attack the NLC, but they seem to have done a bit of homework on this one.

  33. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    John Worcester, it’s interesting that you should identify that the responses so far are negative and unrealistic and that instead the main considerations should be geological and transport. There is no indication so far that this “radioactive dump” will be anything more than a warehouse in a concrete yard with a high fence around it – isolated in the middle of a very large paddock (with another high fence) about three kilometres from the front gate completely out of sight of any public observation point. Like the secret spy station at Pine Gap.
    Everything that will be stored there will be capable of retrieval from there. It won’t be set in concrete or ‘synrock’ underground and never seen again – because that concept of “storage” is not viable – either here or anywhere else in the world.
    If it’s going to be a warehouse, why can’t it be at Lucas Heights?

  34. justinnt

    No Scott, I’m not dictating
    I’m sharing that I think this is a bad way for australia to manage nuclear waste,
    and I am reporting that the secret agreement between NLC and government is suspect.
    Some of the grounds for dispute could be resolved easily if the agreement were made public.
    Then there is a further question of consent for using the neighbouring land to transport the waste to the facility. NLC may have done some leg work, but it is highly contested as to whether they have served the interests of their constituents, and whether they have appropriately applied the traditional decision making provisions of the Land Rights Act.

  35. Mark Duffett

    Why should Modern Australia be able to dictate to a local group with land-rights on this issue?

    Careful with that argument, JustinNT, it cuts both ways. I hereby declare my backyard to be a radioactive waste disposal site. What? I can’t? How dare the community dictate what I can or can’t do on my own land?

    Oh, and Bill Parker and SBH, give the Darwin railway conspiracy theory a rest. Uranium mining and radioactive waste transport are really very low tonnage operations. (This is the whole point about nuclear fuels: their fantastically high energy to mass ratios.) Ergo, the proximity or otherwise of railways isn’t all that relevant. Might be nice to have, but not a showstopper. It’s only bulk commodity operations like iron ore, manganese, phosphorus and mineral sands that the proximity of the railway has really made a difference to the viability of.

  36. Bill Parker

    Mark D, it is not the tonnage that makes people like BNF use rail in the UK, its the reliability and security. I agree it isn’t a show stopper, but the railway IS there for whatever reason it was built. ( I can think of one: shifting Australian armed forces north quickly.)

  37. Eponymous

    Any idea on the numbers involved Mark? My understanding is that there are levels of waste and all of them need to be stored somewhere. I think here we’re only talking about high and medium level? That said, I think there’s still low level waste hanging around at Lucas Heights.

    What I’m saying is, how many tonnes of waste would we have to contend with per XX MW of capacity? I’ve absolutely no idea.

  38. SBH

    Well I hate conspiracy theories as much ass the next person Mark, but Haliburton or its subsidiary built a railway for a reason and it wasn’t to bring tourists to Darwin on the Ghan. At the same time the Government launched vigorous support for a pro uranium mining and energy furture which require a dump and a decent rail link. It doesn’t really help with troop movements which can be accomplished quicker and with greater flexibility other ways. It’s not economical as a frieght route to Darwin or as a way to connect asian ports to the south. So can yu suggest a sound economic reason why it was built?

    And Scott, that anthropological evidence is secret so we’ve no idea what it says. That aside the unammended act required greater consultatio. The act was ammended specifically to override the legislative impediment created by the failure to gain adequate approval.

  39. 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.

  40. SBH

    You might have a point Mark and thanks for a meaty response but Harts Range (also on the short list for a dump) is near Alice Springs and the train already went there, Wonarah is halfway to Mt Isa so I don’t see the rail way as being critical. So that leaves Bootu which is at Muckaty. Are you saying we spent $500 of government money and a lazy1.3billion of private dough on a small manganese mine? I’m sure your point is that it will open up all sorts of new territory for miners but the best part of 2 bill seems a lot to pay for a small return.

  41. 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.

  42. Eponymous

    Thanks for a solid response Veronica.

    However, this is another quote for the ‘James Lovelock is actually barking mad’ file:
    “he would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat his home”

    I very strongly doubt this is easy to do on a residential scale. Extracting the heat without the radioactivity is the crux of the whole nuclear operation. Lovelock suggesting he would just bury a lump in the backyard and heat his house with it seems a little bit of hyperbole.

  43. AR

    How is it that nobody thinks this is a ploy to set up the WORLD’s waste dump – so we can sell as much uranium as we can dig up, on the basis of storing it afterwards, for unknown millenia.
    And people say the federal government doesn’t think long term!

  44. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Everyone on this post would benefit from the reference supplied by JustinNT – even if the ref is 10 years old. For example – there is a statement there which says that high level waste cannot be even considered for permanent storage or glassification (or whatever) until it has calmed down a bit. “A bit” seems to be about 50 years.
    Not that there’s a lot of High Level in Australia but there are some technicals here which go way beyond the laymans imagination.

  45. Bill Parker

    AR asks “How is it that nobody thinks this is a ploy to set up the WORLD’s waste dump”

    I certainly do.

  46. SBH

    sorry I should have said $500 MILLION. it was late

  47. 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?

  48. SBH

    Veronica, you’re right when you say this article isn’t about the merits of nuclear industries. I agree that the idea of a world wide dump is far fetch and would need to surmount numerous significant transport, political and economic problems. No I think the answer to what’s going on is closer to home.

    However saying most fission products are short lived needs unpacking. The vast majority of bullets manufactured are perfectly safe and will never cause any one any harm. It’s only the small percentage that make a high energy contact with people that really cause concern and various estimates rate the lethality of bullets at 40 – 85 million people since World War Two. In the same way a sufficient number of fission products have high energy decays and long half lives to cause a significant health risk.

    The real issue here is the process around selecting Mackaty and the overriding of the scheme established to ensure Aboriginal people were properly and appropriately consulted prior to Government making decisions which is dealt with in the posts and links above. This concerns me for two reasons firstly I think Aboriginal people have a right to be dealt with in a fair reasonable and predicatable manner, secondly the way in which the parliament change the laws in this case mean they can do it to me or you when ever they choose.

  49. 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!

  50. Bob the builder

    Put it under Parliament House….if it’s so safe.

  51. SBH

    Funny Bob, that’s just what some of the TOs were saying

  52. Bob the builder

    How funny!
    Well I wouldn’t trust anybody who told me something was completely safe but wanted it as far away as possible from themselves.

  53. Meski

    Not that safe, the parliamentarians park their cars there.

  54. 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.

  55. Bill Parker

    Flower, can you substantiate your statement that plutonium is buried at Mt Walton?

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