Australia is accumulating more intermediate-level nuclear waste than previously thought, a new inventory has found, as the battle over a nuclear waste dump heats up.
After 40 years of different governments talking about a national nuclear waste facility, the Morrison government chose a site near the town of Kimba in South Australia. But the local Barngarla people are united against the plan, and have vowed to keep fighting to stop it happening.
The federal resources minister, Madeleine King, said the waste “cannot continue to build up” and she would continue to work with the Barngarla people to protect the cultural heritage of the site and deliver economic benefit to the traditional custodians.
Opponents of the site hope the new Labor government will be more likely to abandon the plan, but King said the government was committed to “progressing the facility”.
Most of Australia’s nuclear waste is low-level waste (LLW), which tends to be items such as paper and gloves from laboratories that emit small amounts of radioactivity. The rest, intermediate-level waste (ILW), comes from the production of nuclear medicine – which is used, for example, in imaging, scanning and radiotherapy. It emits more radiation, breaks down more slowly and needs stricter shielding measures.
The Australian Radioactive Waste Agency (Arwa) recently updated its inventory of waste, to inform the development of the Kimba facility. It found there was 2,061 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste in 2021, compared to 1,771 cubic metres in 2018. And it projects 4,377 cubic metres in the next 50 years, compared to 3,734 cubic metres projected in 2018.
Arwa notes that more waste categories and holders were included in 2021, increasing the current levels of waste, and that estimates for future years were revised.
Currently waste is stored in more than 100 places around the nation, but most of it is held at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) facilities in Lucas Heights, Sydney.
The Australian Conservation Foundation and others argue that Ansto should be expanded to become the national storage site.
The chief executive of Arwa, Sam Usher, wrote in the report that Kimba would be used to dispose of Australia’s LLW, and to hold ILW temporarily while a permanent solution was found.
“To ensure the facility has capacity to house Australia’s current and future waste holdings, Arwa has undertaken extensive work to provide an updated national inventory of radioactive waste,” he wrote.
The Kimba site was announced after an Australian Electoral Commission ballot found the majority of the people in the council area were in favour. However, that ballot did not include Aboriginal people who count the area as part of their traditional lands.
The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation chair, Jason Bilney, said his people were never consulted, and they are unanimously opposed.
“We were excluded,” he said. “Unanimously, we do not want it on our country.
“We’ll keep fighting this.”
Bilney said his people were organising a rally in Port Augusta on Saturday to remind people what is happening. He said his concern was that the site would start accepting waste from outside Australia. He also said it made more sense for the Lucas Heights facility to expand into waste storage, because the proposed Kimba site was only meant to be temporary storage for ILW anyway, with a permanent site yet to be determined.
“Why would you keep kicking the can down the road?” he said.
There was an ongoing court process with Barngarla people fighting for access to government documents, and King said she would not “pre-empt” the outcome of that. She said nuclear medicine, which most Australians benefit from at some point, produced radioactive waste.
“We need to be responsible for the waste we create, and this includes developing permanent disposal solutions,” she said.
“I will continue to work with the Barngarla people and the local community – those for and against the proposal – as we move forward.
“While there is no native title on the site, the government is committed to progressing the facility in a way that protects cultural heritage and delivers economic benefit to the traditional custodians.”
The site is freehold, but on the traditional lands of the Barngarla.
Dave Sweeney, the ACF’s nuclear free campaigner, said there was room at Lucas Heights, and pointed to $60m awarded to Ansto in 2021 to expand its storage.
“That’s approved,” he said. “It’s been through the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (Arpansa).”
“Arpansa has said that it’s consistent with international best practice and that means that material can be safely stored there for decades to come. So they’ve got the capacity, they’re actually growing the capacity.”
The South Australian Labor premier, Peter Malinauskas, supports the Barngarla people, and says he will try to influence the federal Labor government.