The Senate’s nuclear waste dilemma

Jun 27, 2021
Kimba Shire

The Australian Senate is poised to vote on a controversial nuclear waste dump plan. It is an issue of national concern, but it has been pitched by the government as a matter only for the 824 eligible voters of the Kimba Shire.

It must be a nail-biting time for Resources Minister Keith Pitt, as the Australian Senate is now to decide on a new amendment to the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020, which has been languishing in the Senate for months. Minister Pitt, ANSTO, and the Industry Department have poured huge efforts, and an unknown amount of money promoting this.

If the newly amended Bill is passed, people will be able to legally appeal against its most significant provision.

The first Amendment Bill appeared to be much the same as the original National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012. Just a few small changes. BUT, the one that matters – the Bill had specified Napandee, a small farm at Kimba, as the site for the National Radioactive Waste Facility. If that Bill became law, there would be no ability for anyone to challenge it in a court of law.

Heaven knows, Pitt, ANSTO, and the Department of Industry made every effort to get that Bill through. In the Senate, Labor objected to there being no chance for judicial review., while the Greens and the independents objected on several grounds.

Meanwhile, Australia’s obligations mount – to have some credible plan for long term management of its nuclear waste from its present Opal, and previous HIFAR nuclear reactors.The new amendment made this very significant change – and a real career-on -knife edge situationfor Keith Pitt. Instead of specifying Napandee as the site for – let’s face it – just another temporary nuclear waste dump – the Bill now says that a selection is to be made from one of the listed sites. i.e. those already government approved as suitable.

Well this seems to boil down to just one site anyway. Originally in 2015 there were 28 nominations of private land across Australia in 2015 to “host” the waste dump. Three were ruled invalid, and of the rest, just 3 were shortlisted. All 3 were in South Australia, in the electorate of Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey, (who had previously offered his own property). Two were near Kimba and one, Wallerberdina, in the Flinders Ranges. The two Kimba ones were rejected in 2016 because of community opposition, but in the next year the Department accepted two new nominations from Kimba – one was Napandee and the other was Lyndhurst, (wrongly reported by Murdoch media to be in New South Wales.)

All sites outside South Australia were rejected, including Sally’s Flat in New South Wales, geologically safer, and much closer to the nuclear reactor. As the Wallerberdina site was rejected by a local community vote, Labor is introducing an amendment to exclude it. Lyndhurst might possibly still be in it, but after all the promotional activity, and significant funding already granted to Kimba, it looks as if Napandee is still the targeted site.

So, what now?

Legal challenges to this site selection ? One hardly knows where to begin.

Of course, the first consideration will be the Barngarla Native Title Owners, who had been carefully excluded from the Kimba community ballot that approved the dump, and who held their own ballot – with unanimous opposition to it.

Then there’s the farmer-initiated group No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land in Kimba or South Australia. Founded in 2016, this Association has over 450 members from the Kimba community, more than half of the local population. They are farmers, local residents and business leaders, who are asking the government for funding for an independent review and assessment of the dump project. Up till now, information on the project has been confined to government and ANSTO promotion of the dump as a ”medical necessity” for Australia.

Then there are residents of the wider Eyre Peninsula, who have had no say in the Kimba decision. There are the various communities whose residents are likely to object to having radioactive waste transported through their area. There’s South Australia, too, which has clear laws prohibiting the establishment of a nuclear waste dump in that State, the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000.

But even those who have no ”local” interest in this project have been raising objections, with that rather old-fashioned motivation – the greater good. Thirteen of Australia’s top non government organisations rejected the Napandeed plan and the original Act as deeply flawed There were many submissions to the Senate Committee’s Inquiry into the plan, raising well-argued doubts about economic problems with the plan, about geological unsuitability of the location, environmental risks, and the likely outcome of Kimba being burdened with ”stranded wastes”

It is an issue of national concern, but it has been pitched by the government as a matter only for the 824 eligible voters of the Kimba Shire.

Looking at this in the wider and historical context, the plan is not so new. The federal government and ANSTO have been aiming for years to transfer the responsibility of the reactor wastes to some distant location, preferably out of New South Wales. ANSTO, under the recently departed CEO Dr Adi Paterson had grand plans for expanding its operations, to build a marketing empire for medical radioisotopes, This is a dubious plan, as now these isotopes are being produced in a safer, more practical way, using non nuclear cyclotrons.

A greater dream, (or perhaps nightmare) lies behind the nuclear lobby’s push for a radioactive waste dump. It’s the idea, promoted by the company PANGEA, in 1999, of Australia becoming the importer of international nuclear waste – the world’s nuclear waste hub. PANGEA has been reborn as ARIUS, with the same dream. In 2016, that dream was pushed by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Commission, which failed to convince South Australians. Two Citizens Jury processes rejected the plan, and the South Australian Premier Steven Marshall announced that it was definitely axed.

There’s still more. The dream of plutonium and other end products of nuclear reactors coming to Australia was tied to the aspirations for an Australian nuclear future, first with the goal of the full nuclear fuel cycle, with advanced nuclear reactors, small nuclear reactors, thorium reactors, (that need plutonium to kick-start the fission process), nuclear submarines, nuclear-propelled spacecraft and so on.

Ever since the atomic bomb tests in the 1950s, and the first (HIFAR) nuclear reactor in 1955, nuclear waste has been a problem for Australia.

Here’s a list of events in the nuclear waste saga:

  • 1972 – ANSTO’s Lucas Heights wastes to St Mary’s NSW
  • 1990 CSIRO radioactive wastes from Victoria to ANSTO
  • 1991-1995 Wastes from ANSTO to Woomera South Australia
  • 1991 Northern Territory refuses nuclear waste dump
  • 1996 wastes to Scotland – to return 2021
  • 1999 wastes to France – to be returned
  • 1999 Pangea plan for wastes import
  • 2000 Federal Nuclear Waste Prohibition Act, followed by several similar Acts in several States, incl South Australia
  • 2003 Western Australia, South Australia and Northern Territory reject nuclear waste dump
  • 2004 List of 22 sites, including 3 in the ACT, 9 in NSW, 4 in NT, 3 each in Queensland, SA and Victoria.. only offshore islands would be considered for the dump site.
  • 2007 Opal reactor set up.
  • 2010 Northern Territory Aborigines win legal action against waste dumping
  • 2016 South Australian Royal Commission plan to import waste to South Australia is roundly defeated.
  • 2020 Panicky Federal Government plan for nuclear waste dump at South Australian farm Napandee.

Coming back to the present situation, it can be seen that it’s not going to be an easy ride for Minister Pitt’s current Bill. Even if it is passed by the Senate, there will surely be legal actions against it.
Labor had rejected the previous Bill. Now, Labor’s position is in some doubt. Labor’s Caucus agreed to let Shadow Resources Minister Madeleine King negotiate on the bill after the Coalition suggested it would present amendments to Parliament allowing for judicial review. “We said we would not support passage of this legislation unless the traditional owners were comfortable with it,” Ms King said. Ms King said the opposition would wait to see the details of the amendments before making its final decision.

Australian Conservation Foundation Nuclear Free Campaigner David Sweeney said “The return of legal review is important but it is extraordinary that the Minister ever thought its removal was reasonable,” Mr Sweeney said.“A day in court is a fundamental right and to seek to remove this was deeply flawed – as is the government’s wider plan.”

The ACF along with other peak environmental, health and community organisations, has spelt out its objections in a document on its website, stating that the plan for the Kimba waste dump is unnecessary and deeply flawed. More importantly, they are calling for what is instead really needed . They demand a properly funded and expert independent review of Australia’s radioactive waste management, based on evidence and global best practice.

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