Rowan Ramsey, the Liberal MP who faces the prospect of a nuclear waste dump in his South Australian electorate, has said he is “amazed” the government will begin the search in just 12 months for a facility that won’t be required for decades.
The comments come as green groups rally against a key component of the Aukus nuclear submarine acquisition: that Australia is required to dispose of the waste generated by its Virginia-class submarines and the new SSN-Aukus submarine.
On Tuesday the deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, announced that Australia would need a new facility, remote from the population, to dispose of nuclear waste on defence land, whether current or future.
“Now to be clear, the first of the naval reactors that we will be disposing of will not happen until the 2050s,” Marles told reporters in Canberra. “But within the year, we will announce a process by which this facility will be identified.”
According to defence department documents, the department will work with the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency to undertake a review in 2023 to identify locations “that could be suitable to store and dispose of intermediate-level waste and high-level waste, including spent fuel”.
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Ramsey, whose electorate of Grey covers 908,595 sq km – the majority of South Australia – said he was “amazed” given the 33-year life of the Virginia-class submarine that a waste facility is required as soon as the 2050s.
Australia has struggled with the question of where to store its slowly accumulating intermediate nuclear waste for decades. The Morrison government chose a site near the town of Kimba, in Grey, but the local Barngarla people united against the plan. The Albanese government has continued to pursue using the Kimba site.
Ramsey said there is “no way” the Kimba site “could, should or would be a repository for high level waste”.
“You need 400 metres of solid, dry granite. There are no assessments like that around Kimba, it’s a completely different facility to the one proposed.”
Ramsey said defence land near the remote village of Woomera, also in his electorate, “may well be suitable, but so may a lot of other sites” around Australia. “Geographically and geologically Woomera would be fine.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation has raised the alarm about Australia housing nuclear waste, with its analyst Dave Sweeney pointing to its “scant real world experience”.
“Successive federal governments have searched, without success, for a site for low and intermediate-level waste for more than three decades,” Sweeney said. “This waste remains poisonous and carcinogenic for tens of thousands of years.
“Aukus presents by far the biggest threat yet that Australia will become a dumping ground for the world’s worst nuclear waste.
“If defence applies its standard, highly secretive approach to the management of this high-level nuclear waste, hundreds of generations of Australians will live with the consequences.”
On Tuesday the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, called for a “sensible, mature debate” about nuclear energy, waste and its disposal, urging critics to “grow up”.
“We dispose of nuclear waste now in our country … we dispose of it safely,” Dutton told reporters in Canberra. “We’ve got … an incredibly stable environment to store nuclear waste.”
Dutton said the Coalition “won’t be playing politics … we will support the government in its decision to deal with the waste”.
Asked about housing others’ waste, Marles told ABC TV that managing the nuclear material and reactors powering Australian submarines “is an important part of Australia’s nuclear stewardship and that is all we’re focused on”.