Australia’s nuclear waste is growing as battle over dump site heats up

Government says nuclear waste cannot continue to build up and it will work with traditional custodians of proposed Kimba site

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”.

(October 13, 1950)  Atomic tests

Atomic tests are conducted at Maralinga, Emu Fields and the Monte Bello Islands. In 1958, the Lucas Heights reactor opens.

(October 13, 1978)  A coordinated approach

State and territory ministers ask the commonwealth to coordinate a national approach to radioactive waste.

(October 13, 1980) Consultative committee established

(October 13, 1984)  Sites identified

A report is delivered to the federal government identifying suitable sites for disposal of low-level waste and recommending “the development of facilities for interim storage and disposal of low and intermediate level radioactive waste”. 

(October 13, 1986)  Argy-bargy begins

State and territory studies indicate most states and the Northern Territory have suitable locations for a repository, and thus begins years of suggestions of different sites, and argy-bargy between state and federal governments.

(October 13, 1991)  Governments coordinate

Labor minister Simon Crean asks all governments to coordinate and search for a site for a single national facility.

(October 13, 1992)  Study released

The commonwealth releases a study on site selection for radioactive waste. Second phase released 1994. In the meantime, governments change, some waste is sent overseas for reprocessing, and no real progress is made.

(October 13, 1996)  No Time to Waste report

Senate select committee report, called No Time to Waste, recommends a storage facility that can take low, intermediate and high-level waste.

(October 13, 2000) Formal search announced

The commonwealth announces a formal search for storage facility sites, then a site within Woomera is chosen. Defence arcs up and the government cans that plan and announces a new site on Arcoona station in South Australia’s north in 2003. Almost immediately SA tries to rule that out by declaring it a public park, which will stop the federal government from acquiring it. But the federal government gets in first, acquiring the land before the state parliament has a chance to pass the legislation. Next, the federal court sets aside the acquisition plans, and in 2004 prime minister John Howard abandons that scheme. 

(October 13, 2007)  Muckaty Station

The federal government starts looking at the NT’s Muckaty Station as a possible site, but opposition from local Aboriginal groups sees that abandoned in 2014.

(October 13, 2015) A royal commission

The SA Labor premier, Jay Weatherill, announces a royal commission on the future of nuclear in the state, which reinvigorates the debate about waste. Later that year the federal government gives landowners a chance to nominate their own sites.

(October 13, 2016) Flinders Ranges earmarked

The SA royal commission recommends the state pursue a dump, and a station in the Flinders Ranges is earmarked. Then Weatherill commissions a “citizen’s jury”, which votes against it.

(October 13, 2017)  Kimba goes to ballot

The Coalition announces three possibilities in SA for a site, including two near Kimba. The Australian Electoral Commission holds a ballot at the request of the Kimba council. That ballot eventually finds more than 60% of local residents support the facility. But the traditional owners, the Barngarla people, say many of them missed out on the vote because they were not living in the council area. Enough of them are against the site that, had they voted in the AEC ballot, it would have gone down.

(October 13, 2021) Judicial review of Kimba decision

After Kimba is formally announced as the chosen site, the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation applies for a judicial review to overturn the decision.

(October 13, 2022) The legal wrangling continues

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.


Tory Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

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