Don't nuclear waste Australia, say activists

The nuclear waste shipment in Port Kembla. Photo: Daryl Morris

Up to 100 people gathered in Wollongong on December 5 to witness the New South Wales government's costly operation to move 25 tonnes of highly radioactive nuclear waste through Port Kembla to the Lucas Heights facility in southern Sydney.

After a welcome to country by a prominent traditional land owner and elder, we were addressed by representatives from the Maritime Union of Australia, the South Coast Labour Council and Beyond Nuclear initiative.

Overnight and into the early morning, Greenpeace activists on flotillas witnessed the incoming shipment on their flotillas.

Unapparent in most reporting has been any sense of what's old being essentially "new" again. Australia, and particularly those areas which remain home to Indigenous peoples of the continent, are at risk of becoming the world's nuclear waste repository.

The rhetoric is not as overt as it once was. The official classification of the waste has been unclear: French authorities, from whom Australia shipped the waste under obligation, have categorised the waste as "high level". Australian authorities consider the waste "intermediate" level.

Nonetheless, the still highly radioactive waste includes by-products from the treatment of spent nuclear fuel, some wastes produced by the operation of nuclear reactors and some long-lived radiation sources used in industrial applications. The material shipped from France to Port Kembla has a half-life of 25,000 years.

Many passing motorists signaled their support to the community, which had gathered on the street corner chanting: "Leave it in the ground".

Radioactive waste is also a risk to workers who are handling the materials and people living along the proposed transport routes.

Natalie Wasley, from Beyond Nuclear Initiative, said that while the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights is still operating, extended interim storage there is considered the "least-worst" management option.

"ANSTO is a secure federal facility where most of Australia's radioactive waste is made and stored and it has the most nuclear expertise and emergency response capacity in Australia", she said.

"The federal government's plan to transport this waste in five years to one of six shortlisted sites is not justified or necessary. Communities at all of the proposed locations oppose the plan and once this waste is back at Lucas Heights, it should stay there where it will be front of mind, rather than out of sight in a regional or remote area.

"Radioactive waste is an intractable problem and the first principle of management must be minimisation: stop producing it.

"ANSTO has said that it can store the waste for the next 20 years. This gives us time to have a credible and independent review of the full range of options for managing this waste into the future.

"A Royal Commission in South Australia is currently examining the possibility of importing international high-level waste. This is something we do not and will never accept.

"What is coming in to Port Kembla is Australian radioactive waste that we have a responsibility to manage. But our presence will help send a message that we will not allow this shipment to be seen as the start of increased transports or an expansion to the nuclear industry in Australia", concluded Wasley.

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