New nuke reactor will worsen toxic waste problem

February 2, 2007

The announcement on January 30 that Australia's first nuclear reactor was to be decommissioned sounded good. But residents and activists hoping for an end to the nuclear industry will be disappointed to hear that this is not the end of Australia's nuclear experimentation. The old HIFAR reactor, Australia's only multi-purpose research reactor, has been superseded by another reactor in the same suburb of Lucas Heights.

During the 50 years the Lucas Heights reactor has been in operation, highly toxic and dangerous nuclear waste has been transported through Sydney suburbs by truck and then shipped to nuclear waste storage facilities in Scotland and France.

Residents in Sydney have long been opposed to the reactor and the transportation of dangerous waste through residential suburbs. Lucas Heights has been so closely associated with the reactor that the residential part of the suburb now goes by the name of Bardon Ridge.

The new reactor will continue to produce waste that will then be transported through Sydney before being shipped overseas. The further the waste must be taken, the greater the risks associated with spillages through accidents or criminal or terrorist activity. The old reactor has even more problems.

According to Dave Sweeney, an anti-nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the radioactive waste produced by the HIFAR reactor "will continue to be a direct threat to people and the environment for thousands of years to come".

To fully decommission the old Lucas Heights site, radioactive fuels and machinery needs to be left to "cool down" for 10 years before it becomes possible to transport and remove. After 10 years, the dangerous nuclear material will have to be stored somewhere. The Howard government is now using the need to find a repository for the waste as an excuse to bolster support for an international commercial nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory.

The ACF has called on Canberra to keep the waste at the Lucas Heights facility where the technical expertise and equipment are already available to deal with it. It also said that plans for a new reactor or a waste dump anywhere in Australia should be scrapped.

"A new nuclear facility in the suburbs of our largest city cannot be — and has not been — justified in the current security environment", Sweeney said. "Shutting down [the Lucas Heights reactor] should be the start of Australia getting out of the contaminating nuclear trade, and not a signal to go further down that tired toxic path."

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