British government behind N-dump plan

Issue 

By Jim Green

The British government is the major backer of Pangea Resources, the company scheming to build an international radioactive waste dump in Australia. An article published in the industry journal Nuclear Fuel on December 14 reveals that British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) is Pangea's major financial backer. BNFL is 100% owned by British government.

Other investors include the Swiss radioactive waste agency Nagra and a Canadian-based company Enterra Holdings Ltd.

According to a report in the February 21 British Observer, Britain has the world's second largest store of nuclear waste, enough plutonium for 5000 bombs.

The industry's efforts to deal with radioactive waste have been disastrous. Historically, reprocessing has been favoured, but residual wastes from reprocessing must still be disposed of. Safety and economic problems led to the decision to close the Dounreay reprocessing plant in Scotland, and the future of other reprocessing plants in Britain is in jeopardy.

In 1998, the British government decided that an underground dump for intermediate level waste could not be made safe over the lifespan of the waste. This left the industry's waste management policies "in tatters", according to Dr David Lowry from the Nuclear Control Institute.

Small wonder that the industry is looking for an off-shore dump. BNFL acknowledges having invested about £5 million in Pangea Resources. A BNFL spokesperson said the search for a domestic dump continues, but other options are being explored. including dumping the waste in Australia.

As nuclear power operators have tried and failed to find domestic solutions to radioactive waste problems, the so-called international solution — dumping waste overseas — has become increasingly attractive.

German and Swiss nuclear agencies investigated the possibility of locating a dump in China's Gobi Desert in the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, US nuclear agencies were advocating a dump on a South Pacific island. German nuclear power utilities have floated the idea of locating a dump in South Africa.

The Environmental News Service reported on February 8 that the Russian minister of atomic energy wrote to the US energy secretary in December, offering to consider a long-term commercial arrangement for the import of spent fuel from US nuclear power plants for storage. The Russian Duma is considering legislation to allow this.

Australian locations

Pangea's search for possible locations turned up four options — Australia, Argentina, China and South Africa. According to chairperson Jim Voss, sites in China and South Africa were eliminated on technical and political grounds. Nuclear Fuel reports that "informal" interest in Australia resulted in the Argentine site being put on the back-burner.

The Pangea proposal has attracted support from right-wing think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs and some media commentators. Establishment politicians have distanced themselves from the proposal, but South Australian premier John Olsen said he would "have a look" at any firm proposal put to him.

Members of the federal government have said it is not government policy to allow the importation of radioactive waste, and deny having met with Pangea. However, it was reported in the Australian last year that Voss met with government ministers to discuss his desire to operate the proposed national dump in the Billa Kalina region of SA. It is difficult to imagine that the international dump proposal was not discussed.

Nuclear Fuel cites an Australian "source" that the government's opposition to the Pangea proposal "is not unbending".

In the Senate, on December 10, the Coalition defeated an amendment to a nuclear bill which would have prohibited the construction of radioactive waste storage facilities in Australia.

Pangea has not been deterred by negative reactions to its proposal since it was revealed in December. Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor has been commissioned to test public opinion.

The Canberra-based firm Access Economics was commissioned to prepare a report on the economic benefits of an international dump, and came up with a figure of $200 billion over a 40-year period.

The latest supporter of the Pangea proposal is David Reese, Australia's ambassador for disarmament from 1989 to 1990. Australia is "uniquely placed" to provide a "safe" solution to this "international problem", he claims. By accepting a tiny proportion of the global stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium, "we may be able to help and contribute to the effort to achieve a safer world free of nuclear weapons".

Reese claims that the "only attempt to canvass the question dispassionately so far has been by the distinguished scientist Sir Gustav Nossal". However, as Reese well knows, Nossal has a declared financial interest in the project, having accepted a consultancy with Pangea.

Pangea's promotional video identifies SA and WA as having suitable sites. A report in the Australian on January 30 says that Pangea has earmarked an area 100 kilometres inland in WA. WA Greens parliamentarian Liz Watson says that an $80 million upgrade of the road from Port Hedland to Marble Bar, and an extension leading a further 132 kilometres east, is paving the way for the Pangea dump.

A spokesperson for the WA government denied any knowledge of Pangea's dump proposal, saying the road was being built to service two mines and local Aboriginal communities. However, Watson says, "Even the most gullible of us do not believe a government, let alone a Liberal economic rationalist government, would spend that much money on the small mining companies which are en route."