Nuclear waste dump case unravels

The South Australian Labor Premier is pushing ahead with a nuclear waste dump despite First Nations' opposition.
Thursday, July 7, 2016

Armed with the findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill is pressing ahead with plans to import as much as a third of the world's high-level nuclear reactor waste and store it in the state's outback.

There are compelling reasons to reject it. The project, it now emerges, could go ahead only over resistance from Indigenous traditional landowners, some of whom took part in the Lizard Bites Back convergence in early July.

There are serious environmental dangers in unloading the wastes, maintaining them above ground for decades while they cool and transporting them for final burial. Tens of thousands of people would be at risk.

Several devastating critiques have also shown that the economic case for the scheme is largely guesswork. Conceivably, the project would run at a loss — while burdening South Australians with the costs and dangers of tending to the world's greatest single radiation hazard, effectively forever.

Indigenous opposition

Yankunytjatjara Native Title Aboriginal Corporation chairperson Karina Lester told a packed venue at a June 16 meeting: “The overwhelming majority of traditional owners … continue to speak out against establishing an international waste dump.”

Indigenous spokespeople have condemned the project since it was first mooted. In May last year, soon after the royal commission on South Australian involvement in the nuclear cycle began its work, representatives of 12 Aboriginal peoples met in Port Augusta.

The gathering issued a statement that said: “South Australian Traditional Owners say NO! We oppose plans for uranium mining, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our lands.

“We call on the Australian population to support us in our campaign to prevent dirty and dangerous nuclear projects being imposed on our lands and our lives and future generations.”

The prime site for the long-term waste repository is on the lands of the Kokatha people, near the towns of Woomera and Roxby Downs.

The Transcontinental Railway crosses the region and, as the Australian explained on June 27, the ancient rocks of the underlying Stuart Shelf are “considered by experts to have the best geological conditions for a nuclear dump”.

Early this year Dr Tim Johnson of the nuclear industry consulting firm Jacobs MCM told the royal commission his company envisaged a new port being built on the South Australian coastline to service the project. An interim storage facility nearby would hold newly-arrived wastes above ground for some decades, until they had cooled sufficiently to be transported by rail to the permanent dumpsite.

The only practical location for the port and above-ground repository would be on the western shore of Spencer Gulf, south of the city of Whyalla. Spencer Gulf is a shallow, confined inlet whose waters mix only slowly with those of the Southern Ocean. Any accident that released substantial quantities of radioactive material into the gulf would be catastrophic for the marine environment. Profitable fishing, fish-farming and oyster-growing industries would be wiped out, and the recreational fishing that is a favourite pastime of local residents would become impossible.

To connect the above-ground repository to the rail network, a new line would need to be built from the present railhead at Whyalla. Taking wastes north for permanent storage, trains would pass by the outskirts of Whyalla and Port Augusta.

Initially, the materials transported would be large quantities of low and intermediate-level waste, also planned for importation and burial. But after several decades, transport of high-level wastes would begin and would continue for another 70 years.

Awareness is growing in the Spencer Gulf region of the dangers posed by the nuclear industry. On June 24 in Port Augusta about 80 people took part in a protest against the federal plans to site a separate dump, for Australian-derived low-level radioactive wastes, near the Flinders Ranges' tourist area.

Business plan from hell

That the environmental and health risks posed by the international waste scheme are alarming and the economics could well be prohibitive are being ignored by the scheme's supporters.

In its February “tentative findings” and in its May 9 final report, the state government's royal commission set the hucksters drooling with its view that a high-level waste dump “could generate more than $100 billion income in excess of expenditure over the 120-year life of the project”.

Even this sum was too modest for the Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser as it sought to herd public opinion behind the government's plans. Working only from revenues and ignoring costs, the newspaper declared on February 17 that “a gigantic $445 billion would be pumped into the state's finances over at least 70 years”.

The truth is that the economic case for the project rests on such wild assumptions that any competent entrepreneur would view it as a business plan from hell.

Hopes of a monster pay-out were savaged during March when The Australia Institute published a detailed analysis of the waste dump scheme.

Retired professor of economics Richard Blandy, the economic commentator for the Independent Daily, exploded the royal commission's guesswork still more definitively on June 7.

The figure for net income of $100 billion, Blandy explained, was based on a completely fanciful estimate of the price that South Australia could expect to obtain for storing spent reactor fuel.

To obtain this estimate, of $1.75 million per tonne of heavy metal, the commission had assumed that the South Australian authorities of the future would have perfect knowledge of the maximum price that potential customers were willing to pay and that the state would face no competitors in the waste storage market-place.

The reality, as Blandy pointed out, is that India and China — to name just two countries — have extensive nuclear power industries and are highly likely to create their own waste repositories.

For these countries to add extra capacity to accommodate international customers would be relatively cheap — and much cheaper than could be managed by an Australian dump relying exclusively on imported waste.

The “$100 billion” figure also reflected an estimate that 37 countries that now have nuclear power industries — or that might someday set them up — would contract with South Australia to store 50% of their reactor waste.

But what if this estimate was grossly inflated?

If South Australia's dump attracted only a quarter of the wastes targeted, Blandy calculated, and if the price received equalled the costs of building storage capacity in Sweden or Finland (costs, we must assume, that would be high compared to those in India or China) then the South Australian dump would lose money.

Blandy conveyed his objections to the royal commission — which substantially ignored them. Instead, the commission continued putting its trust in Jacobs MCM, which it had engaged to perform its financial modelling.

Jacobs, The Australia Institute notes, “consult extensively to the nuclear industry and have an interest in its expansion and continuation”.

Business backing

The waste dump project may not have good arguments, but it certainly has powerful friends. “We're absolute advocates,” Nigel McBride, CEO of the industry and commerce peak body Business SA told the Independent Daily on June 17. “We're now absolutely saying this is not only feasible but absolutely viable.

“I can tell you Business SA is overtly advocating for a high-level nuclear waste facility in SA, subject to an educational process that will get social consent.”

If this typifies the business skills of South Australia's moneyed elite, then the state's economic woes are no mystery.

The Weatherill government has made no formal commitment to the waste dump project, and will not do so before a process of “consultation” with South Australians ends in November.

But few people take the premier's claim of open-mindedness seriously. Influential figures within the state Labor Party's dominant right faction are on record as enthusiasts for the waste scheme and big business is cracking the whip.

Weatherill made his views clear when he defied the anti-nuclear thrust of federal Labor policy to set up the royal commission and named the conservative-technocratic retired rear-admiral and former state governor Kevin Scarce as commissioner.

More recently, the government has funded two “citizens' juries” to hear the testimony of (mainly) pro-nuclear figures and to deliver reports that can be claimed as indicating popular agreement to the nuclear-waste plans.

Consultation?

Another element of the pro-nuclear “educational process” is to be the work of a “Nuclear Consultation and Response Agency” that will visit “all major regional centres, more than 50 remote towns and all Aboriginal communities” in a “dedicated program to ensure all South Australians can have their say about the state's future involvement in the nuclear industry”.

There is no guarantee, however, that the massaging will work. For all the loot promised by the Advertiser, public opinion for and against the waste dump plan seems evenly split and active resistance is growing.

In mid-May Indigenous, health, union, faith and conservation groups joined in setting up a No Dump Alliance. On June 25, some 80 protestors heckled Weatherill as he arrived to address the opening session of his first “citizens' jury”.

A 200-strong July protest at Roxby Downs, Lizard Bites Back, also condemned the government's plan for a nuclear waste dump on Indigenous land. Spokesperson Nectaria Calan said the convergence was focused on the connections between uranium mining and nuclear waste. “A responsible approach to managing nuclear waste would begin with stopping its production”, she said.

The case presented by the nuclear dumpsters is dissolving. Outspoken opposition from traditional owners is exposing, as a racist charade, the government's attempts to manufacture “consent”.

The people of the upper Spencer Gulf cities will not be reconciled to having trainloads of lethal wastes rumbling past their doors for the next century. And the economic case for the dump scheme would merit an “F” in any respectable business course.

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