Radioactive trash – a tale of two Sydney suburbsMay 26, 2021
Australia is relatively clear of nuclear reprocessing waste problems. But the Sydney suburbs of Hunters Hill and Barden Ridge have radioactive wastes from uranium processing which have been sitting there for decades. A bill is now before the Senate addressing the issue.
Australia does have radioactive waste problems in the lingering concerns over historic atomic bomb test sites in South Australia., and in both the functioning and the closed uranium mines. But there is only one uranium-processing facility producing radioactive wastes, the Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
Now, Federal and State governments are making decisions on the disposal of these wastes. But there is still uncertainty and lack of public information on just how [or whether] these decisions will be carried out. For example, there’s no detail on transport routes, dates etc.
There are significant differences between the situations of the two suburbs. Perhaps the most significant one is that at Barden Ridge, the nearby Opal nuclear research reactor will be continuing to produce nuclear wastes for the foreseeable future, whereas the Hunters Hill wastes are set for final and permanent removal. Hunters Hill residents have been worried about this for over a century. For Barden Ridge, it has been been recognised as a problem for a much shorter time.
2021 looks like being a watershed year for both.
In 1911, radium was a valuable commodity, and was processed at Hunters Hill, Some 2,000 tonnes of uranium ore were transported from Radium Hill in South Australia, to extract the radium. Several tonnes of uranium oxide were left, and also thorium 230, which itself decays to form more radium and is therefore dangerous for thousands of years. The project closed in 1915. From then on, it was a saga of mistakes and failed attempts to clean up this remaining debris. There was a tin smelter there until 1964.
Then the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC, now ANSTO) decided it was safe for housing. In the following years, residents and others became concerned about the uranium tailings spread over 6 housing blocks, in Nelson’s Parade, with the risk to health. They were met with cover-ups and obfuscation from the government. Health tests were kept secret, radiation hotspots were found, and cancers and deaths were claimed to be linked to this, and legal cases ensued.
Government plans to solve the problem included dumping the wastes at sea. This was resisted by environmentalists. The next plan was to dump it in Western NSW. This was strongly opposed by Aborigines from the area’s Bakandii tribe. When several Nelson Parade residents fell ill in the 1970s, the NSW government purchased several houses and demolished them, but failed to remediate the site.
in 1981 The then NSW Premier, Mr Wran asked South Australia to take 5,000 tonnes of contaminated soil. A NSW Upper House Inquiry in 2008 led to the government attempting to plan for the clean-up of 2,000 tonnes of radioactive waste. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency said radioactive waste from Hunters Hill wasn’t permitted to be stored at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights interim waste storage facility.
In 2012, most of the contaminated earth was reclassified as ”restricted solid waste”. Two Sydney suburbs were mooted as destinations for the wastes – Kemps Creek and Lidcombe. This was resisted by the local residents. Then in 2019, the New South Wales government proposed to store the contaminated soil on site in an ”encapsulated” form. This was vigorously rejected by the Hunters Hill residents.
Now, in 2021, beginning in July, New South Wales Property and Housing Minister Melinda Pavey announced that the radioactive material will be excavated and and be shipped to Idaho ,USA. The contaminated soil is to be sealed in bags, loaded into shipping containers and taken to a secure facility in the Eastern Sydney suburb of Matraville before shipping them overseas in scheduled consignments. ANSTO would oversee the process with up to 1800 tonnes to be transported to Idaho in an18-month-long mission.
The radioactive waste problem of formerly Lucas Heights has a more recent history, with the original HIFAR nuclear research reactor starting operations in 1958. Lucas Heights was then a remote bushland site well outside the suburban area of Sydney. Nuclear development was meshed in secrecy, and controlled by influential experts Philip Baxter, and Ernest Titterton., without much understanding by the parliament or the public. It was the time of British atomic weapons tests in Australia, and heightened fears about the cold war. Little attention was paid to the subject of radioactive wastes.
In later years, as Sydney grew, Lucas Heights did become more of a suburb. And the Three Mile Island 1979 and Chernobyl 1986 nuclear accidents aroused a general awareness of nuclear risks. Radioactive wastes from Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria was brought to Lucas Heights in 1990. By now, public concern was raised. When Lucas Heights agreed to take the waste from St Mary’s Defence Base NSW (1991) the Sutherland Shire Council won a court case against ANSTO to stop Lucas Heights taking waste from other entities.
In 1992, local residents voted to rename the suburb of Lucas Heights, and in 1996 it officially became Barden Ridge. It is widely accepted that this was done to increase the real estate value of the area, as it would no longer be instantly associated with the HIFAR nuclear reactor.
Barden Ridge has a conservative community, historically voting Liberal, that accepts the reality of ANSTO and the now Opal nuclear reactor, with the jobs that come with it. Still, the presence of nuclear wastes is an issue. The Sutherland Shire Council in 2013 said that they liked having the nuclear reactor, but not the radioactive wastes. Local people and Council were relieved to learn, in 1997, of the federal government’s plan to set up a waste facility in another State. Sutherland Shire Council rejoiced in 2014, when the federal government announced plans for a nuclear waste facility in the Northern Territory.
Which brings us to the Australian Government’s Bill about radioactive waste, now before the Australian Senate, the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020. This Bill specifies Napandee, a farm near Kimba, South Australia, as the nation’s nuclear waste dump. Resources Minister Keith Pitt has recently announced more grants to the local community .Yet there is significant local opposition to the plan, from Aborigines and farmers. If this Bill is passed, there can be no judicial review of the decision. So, Barden Ridge residents will get their solution. Or maybe not.
The Hunters Hill solution is an unusual one, and quite a precedent. There could still be some opposition to the planned process. The Barden Ridge one is also fraught with problems, as nuclear waste will continue to be produced by the nearby nuclear reactor. The Senate might not pass this Bill, leaving the Resources Minister with the option of declaring the Napandee site, which would then open the matter up for court action.
It’s again ‘wait and see’ time for two worried communities.