Australia – an international nuclear wasteland?

Jul 29, 2023
Radioactive waste tanks against sky clouds. Radioactive waste barrels. Environment protection and toxic nuclear pollution concept.

The spectre of an international nuclear waste dump in Australia hangs over AUKUS and what this secretive agreement commits Australia to. Does it oblige us simply to dispose of spent nuclear reactors from our submarines if and when we get them? Or is there a hidden agenda whereby we also take the expired nuclear reactors from US and British submarines? If so, could it lead to Australia becoming a dump for high-level waste from civil nuclear reactors around the world? is the latest to set speculative hares running. On 26 July it published an article by David Hardaker claiming the Albanese government had struck a secret deal under AUKUS to build a high-grade nuclear waste facility in Australia. Crikey claimed the deal has echoes that resound from 26 years ago.

Indeed it does. In December 1998, a proposal was made by Jim Voss, an American nuclear evangelist, who through his company Pangea proposed constructing an international nuclear waste repository on Billa Kalina, a pastoral lease near Roxby Downs in South Australia. Roxby Downs is a town built to service the giant BHP uranium, gold, copper and silver mine at Olympic Dam. Water for the town and the mine comes from Australia’s Great Artesian Basin.

As I wrote in Fact or Fission – the truth about Australia’s nuclear ambitions (Scribe 2003 and 2022), Voss’s proposal was leaked to the public by Friends of the Earth. Pangea was flying a kite on behalf of Anglo-American and possibly other nuclear interests. It made the unassailable observation that there is a real risk of nuclear weapons proliferation through the theft of plutonium or highly enriched uranium from nuclear power programs. Voss proposed a nuclear waste dump in Western Australia to take about a quarter of the high-level waste from the 445 commercial power reactors in 30 countries around the globe.

This, he claimed, would achieve several things – support international efforts to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation, further the objectives of nuclear disarmament, strengthen Australia’s relations with the United States, protect the global environment, and support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations. How all this would happen he didn’t say.

Such a repository has also been a gleam in the eyes of the Australian nuclear lobby and several politicians for many years. In 2006, John Howard’s Nuclear Review sought to expand Australia’s nuclear footprint by making nuclear power ‘a practical option’ in Australia’s electricity production. He also envisioned an international nuclear waste dump somewhere in the Outback. In 2014, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, supported by then South Australian Premier Adam Giles, proposed to put a high-level nuclear waste depository at Muckaty Station north of Tennant Creek in South Australia. Hawke said the money earned would be of immense value to indigenous communities.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott had similar aspirations. So did Malcolm Turnbull, who in 2015 suggested that Australia should not just export uranium oxide (U3O8), but enrich it, process it into fuel rods, retain Australian ownership by leasing the rods abroad, and take them back as spent fuel for permanent disposal in Australia. That way, he said, Australia retained ownership of the uranium, preventing it from being diverted into clandestine weapons programs.

None of these proposals resulted in practical action. Except for qualified acceptance of the export of Australian yellowcake under safeguards to approved civil nuclear energy companies, the Australian public maintained an aversion to all things nuclear. The earlier careless disposal of nuclear tailings at Radium Hill, the contemptuous and ineffective clean-up of highly toxic plutonium in the aftermath of Britain’s nuclear tests at Emu Field and Maralinga in the 1950s, and French nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1990s, all consolidated Australians’ aversion.

Following negative public reactions to his proposal, Voss quietly closed his Pangea office In January 2002 and retreated to Europe. But several years later, he was given renewed hope. In 2016, the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission under former South Australian governor Kevin Scarce concluded that although nuclear energy in Australia would not be economically viable for the immediate future, research should continue regarding the feasibility of an international spent fuel repository.

Voss returned to Australia in 2022, and took over the optimistically-named Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation in Melbourne. Safe disposal of nuclear waste remained on his agenda. According to Crikey, Voss reckons very deep boreholes of around three to five kilometres could safely incarcerate spent fuel from the reactors of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines for thousands of years.

Could such a storage facility attract US or British attention? Could their governments pressure Australia to take their own submarine spent fuel reactors as well as those of Australia?

They have strong motives to do so. Around 90 British spent fuel submarine reactors are said to be lying around Devonport Docks in Plymouth and the Rosyth dock in Fife, safeguarded only at huge expense. The US Navy has many more in open trenches at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. There are plans to process and store their transuranic elements somewhere permanently, but the Yukka Mountain Deep Geological repository in Nevada was de-funded in 2010, and has been subject to complex political manoeuvring ever since.

Given Albanese’s and Marles’ supine acceptance of US conditions to keep the reactors from our own submarines after their service lives, they could also easily be leant on to take US and UK used submarine reactors as well.

Could this in turn lead to Voss’s grand vision of Australia becoming a spent fuel repository for the international nuclear industry? Since we cannot even decide on the location of a repository for low-level nuclear waste from hospitals and materials testing laboratories, let alone places for intermediate and high-level waste, such an expansion seems a pipe dream. But we must not under-estimate the persistence of the Australian nuclear industry or its backers in Federal and State parliaments and in the Murdoch press.

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