How South Australians dumped a nuclear dump

June 17, 2017

Last November, two-thirds of the 350 members of a South Australian-government initiated Citizens' Jury rejected "under any circumstances" the plan to import high-level nuclear waste from around the world as a money-making venture.

The following week, Liberal Opposition Leader Steven Marshall said: "[Premier] Jay Weatherill's dream of turning South Australia into a nuclear waste dump is now dead." Business SA chief Nigel McBride said: "Between the Liberals and the citizens' jury, the thing is dead."

And after months of uncertainty, Weatherill said in the past fortnight the plan is "dead", there is "no foreseeable opportunity for this", and it is "not something that will be progressed by the Labor Party in Government".

So is the plan really dead? The Premier left himself some wiggle room, but the plan is as dead as it can be. If there was some life in the plan, it would be loudly proclaimed by local Murdoch tabloid, The Advertiser. But The Advertiser responded to the Premier's recent comments on the death of the dump with a deathly, deafening silence.

Royal Commission

It has been quite a ride to get to this point.

The debate began in February 2015, when Weatherill announced a Royal Commission would be established to investigate commercial options across the nuclear fuel cycle. He appointed a nuclear advocate, former Navy man Kevin Scarce, as Royal Commissioner. Scarce said he would run a "balanced" Royal Commission and appointed four nuclear advocates to his advisory panel, balanced by one critic.

The final report of the Royal Commission, released in May 2016, was surprisingly downbeat given the multiple levels of pro-nuclear bias. It rejected — on economic grounds — almost all the proposals it considered: uranium conversion and enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication, conventional and Generation IV nuclear power reactors, and spent fuel reprocessing.

The only thing left standing — apart from the shrinking uranium mining industry — was the plan to import nuclear waste as a commercial venture. Based on commissioned research, the Royal Commission proposed importing 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste — spent nuclear fuel from power reactors — and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste.

The government then established a “Know Nuclear” statewide promotional campaign under the guide of “consultation”. The government also initiated the Citizens' Jury.

The first sign that things were not going to plan for the government was on October 15 last year, when 3000 people participated in a protest against the nuclear dump.

A few weeks later, on November 6, the Citizens' Jury rejected the nuclear dump plan. In the immediate aftermath of the Citizens' Jury, the Liberals and the Nick Xenophon Team announced they would actively campaign against the dump in the lead-up to the state election due in March next year. The SA Greens were opposed from the start.

Weatherill previously said he established the Citizens' Jury because he could sense that there is a "massive issue of trust in government". It was expected, when he called a press conference on November 14, that the Premier would accept the Jury's verdict and dump the dump.

Instead, he announced he wanted to hold a referendum on the issue, as well as giving affected Aboriginal communities a right of veto. Nuclear dumpsters went on an aggressive campaign to demonise the Citizens' Jury though they surely knew that the bias in the Jury process was all in the pro-nuclear direction.

For the state government to initiate a referendum, enabling legislation would be required and non-government parties said they would block such legislation. The government didn't push the matter, perhaps because of the near-certainty that a referendum would be defeated.

The statewide consultation process, led by the government, randomly surveyed 6000 South Australians and found 53% opposition to the proposal compared with 31% support. Likewise, a poll commissioned by the Sunday Mail in November found 35% support for the nuclear dump plan among 1298 respondents.

Then the government announced on November 15 that it would not seek to repeal or amend the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000, legislation that imposes major constraints on the ability of the government to move forward with the nuclear waste import proposal.

Economic claims exposed

Implausible claims about the potential economic benefits of importing nuclear waste had been discredited by this stage. The claims presented in the Royal Commission's report were scrutinised by experts from the US-based Nuclear Economics Consulting Group (NECG), commissioned by a Joint Select Committee of the SA Parliament.

The NECG report said the waste import project could be profitable under certain assumptions, but the report then raised serious questions about most of those assumptions.

The report noted that the Royal Commission's economic analysis failed to consider important issues that "have significant serious potential to adversely impact the project and its commercial outcomes"; that assumptions about price were "overly optimistic" in which case "project profitability is seriously at risk"; that the 25% cost contingency for delays and blowouts was likely to be a significant underestimate; and that the assumption the project would capture 50% of the available market had "little support or justification".

The farcical and dishonest engineering of a positive economic case to proceed with the nuclear waste plan was exposed by ABC journalist Stephen Long, who asked: "Would you believe me if I told you the report that the commission has solely relied on was co-authored by the president and vice-president of an advocacy group for the development of international nuclear waste facilities?"

The economics report was an inside job, with no second opinion and no peer review. No wonder the Citizens' Jury was unconvinced and unimpressed.

The dump is finally dumped

By the end of last year, the nuclear dump plan was very nearly dead, and the Premier's recent statement that it is "not something that will be progressed by the Labor Party in government" was the final nail in the coffin. The dump has been dumped.

There is much to reflect on. The idea of Citizens' Juries would seem, superficially, attractive. But bias is inevitable if the government establishing and funding the Jury process is strongly promoting (or opposing) the issue under question. In the case of the Jury investigating the nuclear waste plan, it backfired quite spectacularly on the government.

Citizen Juries will be few and far between for the foreseeable future in Australia. A key lesson for political and corporate elites is that they should not let any semblance of democracy intrude on their plans.

The role of Murdoch tabloids needs comment, particularly in regions where the only mass-circulation newspaper is a Murdoch tabloid. No-one would dispute that the NT News has a dumbing-down effect on political and intellectual life in the Northern Territory. Few would doubt that the Courier Mail does the same in Queensland. South Australians need to grapple with the sad truth that its Murdoch tabloids — The Advertiser and the Sunday Mail — are a blight on the state. Their grossly imbalanced and wildly inaccurate coverage of the nuclear dump debate was — with some honourable exceptions — disgraceful.

The main lesson from the dump debate is a positive one: people power can upset the dopey, dangerous ideas driven by political and corporate elites and the Murdoch press. Sometimes.

It was particularly heartening that the voices of Traditional Owners were loud and clear and were given great respect by the Citizens' Jury and by many other South Australians. The Jury's report said: "There is a lack of Aboriginal consent. We believe that the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions."

Conversely, the most disheartening aspect of the debate was the willingness of the Murdoch press and pro-nuclear lobbyists to ignore or trash Aboriginal people opposed to the dump.

Another dump debate

Traditional Owners, environmentalists, church groups, trade unionists and everyone else who contributed to dumping the dump can rest up and celebrate for a moment. But only for a moment.

Another dump proposal is very much alive: the federal government's plan to establish a national nuclear waste dump in SA, either in the Flinders Ranges or on farming land near Kimba, west of Port Augusta.

In May last year, Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Regina McKenzie, who lives near the Flinders Ranges site, wrote: "Last year I was awarded the SA Premier's Natural Resource Management Award in the category of 'Aboriginal Leadership — Female' for working to protect land that is now being threatened with a nuclear waste dump. But Premier Jay Weatherill has been silent since the announcement of six short-listed dump sites last year, three of them in SA.

"Now the Flinders Ranges has been chosen as the preferred site and Mr Weatherill must speak up. The Premier can either support us — just as the SA government supported the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta when their land was targeted for a national nuclear waste dump from 1998–2004 — or he can support the federal government's attack on us by maintaining his silence."

Perhaps the Premier will find his voice on the federal government's contentious proposal for a national nuclear waste dump in SA, now that his position is no longer complicated by the parallel debate about establishing a dump for foreign high-level nuclear waste.

He might argue, for example, that affected Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over the establishment of a national nuclear waste dump — precisely the position he adopted in relation to the international high-level waste dump.

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter.]

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