Nuclear waste dump in South Australia: what could possibly go wrong?

April 14, 2016
Kimba residents oppose a nuclear waste dump.

As a sagging economy cruelled their electoral chances, right-wing parliamentarians and power-brokers in the South Australian Labor Party decided in late 2014 that it was time to ditch a once fiercely-defended point of policy. The party's remaining opposition to the nuclear fuel cycle would have to go.

Labor Premier Jay Weatherill soon came on board, and by March last year the state's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was under way.

In the vast Roxby Downs ore body, South Australia already had the world's largest single deposit of uranium, mined since 1988. Now a broad range of other nuclear-related industries and processes would be on the table: uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, nuclear power generation — and the storage for profit, in a massive outback repository, of a huge chunk of the world's high-level reactor waste.

Royal Commission

Critics observed that the Royal Commission was geared more to advocacy than to analysis.

A no-nonsense retired military logistics expert and former South Australian governor, Rear-Admiral Kevin Scarce, was named as commissioner. On the committee assisting him, the outstanding personality was the prominent nuclear energy advocate, University of Tasmania Professor Barry Brook. To perform the economic modelling, the commission engaged international nuclear industry consulting firm Jacobs MCM.

On February 15, the commission released its Tentative Findings report. As anticipated, long-shot proposals including uranium enrichment and energy generation were downplayed. But on the waste dump, for which Adelaide's business chiefs had really been gunning, Scarce and his co-authors bubbled with enthusiasm.

“South Australia can safely increase its participation in nuclear activities,” the report declared unequivocally. The state was said to have “a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel.”

Right-wing state Labor MP Tom Kenyon, one of the waste dump's key boosters, pitched in with an article on February 16: “The commission has found that [the dump] is a technically feasible project — in other words, that it is safe.”

What could possibly go wrong? The answer, unsurprisingly, is plenty. Indeed, the volume of wastes envisaged for the South Australian dump, and the time-frames involved, make massive and probably lethal accidents all but certain.

As projected by the Royal Commission, South Australia would play host to a mind-bending 138,000 tonnes of high-level waste — equal to 40 to 50% of the world's current total. Also accepted would be foreign-sourced intermediate and low-level waste.

Nuclear waste storage

Storing nuclear waste is not just a matter of isolating it and forgetting it. Spent reactor fuel generates significant heat for decades, and is dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years beyond that.

Dealing with such materials is a complex engineering problem, and the sites need continuous guarding and monitoring — effectively, forever.

Throughout the first 120 years of the South Australian dump, large amounts of high-level waste would not even be underground. Instead, these materials would be in concrete and steel casks on the surface. Between years 40 and 65, as much as 70,000 tonnes would be in such “temporary” above-ground storage.

What are the chances of tending these wastes without mishap — not just during the 100-odd years when shipments would be accepted, but throughout the eons beyond? The record of the nuclear industry to date is not reassuring.

The industry has existed for a mere 74 years, but this has been plenty of time for an unnerving list of waste-related accidents to be recorded. Both above and below-ground sites have witnessed dangerous leaks of radioactivity — and in one case, a major disaster.

Until Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident on record was in September 1957 at a dump site near the town of Ozyorsk (Chelyabinsk) in Russia's Southern Urals region. Improperly stored reactor waste overheated, causing a huge chemical explosion that left thousands of square kilometres of forest and farmland heavily contaminated.

European accidents

Even in countries where waste disposal receives a degree of public scrutiny, there have been persistent failures.

In 2005 it was found that repeated leaks from the French facility at La Hague in Normandy had left groundwater with radioactivity levels up to 90 times the prescribed limit.

At Asse in northern Germany, 126,000 drums of low and intermediate-level waste were deposited from 1967 in an abandoned salt mine. By 2011, technical problems had forced a decision to remove the materials, at a final cost projected to be many billions of euros.

“In 1988, radioactive brine started to leak through the mine's walls,” the environmental organisation Bellona reported. “The site operator never informed the public. Many thousands of barrels in the mine have been overturned and are rusted through — and many were already damaged before they were buried.”

As reported in New Scientist early this year, brine is now seeping into the mine at a rate of around 12,000 litres a day, threatening to flush radioactive material to the surface.

US waste accidents

In these cases, ill-considered engineering decisions were a large part of the problem. But even where design has been impeccable, safety has repeatedly been undermined by human neglect or recklessness.
Storing even low-level nuclear waste needs rigorous adherence to exacting procedures. But over time, a culture of routinism and complacency can set in. And where the responsible organisations are private contractors operating for profit, pressures on workers to cut corners and fudge test results can become extreme.

In February 2014, an above-ground monitoring station 800 metres from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility in the US state of New Mexico suddenly began recording airborne particles of plutonium and americium. Far below the surface, a chemical explosion had ruptured a drum of intermediate-level waste.

A total of 21 workers were exposed, and WIPP continued to vent radioactive particles for almost three weeks. Years later, the US$19 billion facility remains closed, and estimates of the clean-up bill run to at least US$500 million.

The immediate fault lay with the source of the offending waste, the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) in northern New Mexico. Dysfunction at LANL, as described in a later report by the Santa Fe New Mexican, included “injured workers, improperly handled hazardous waste, missing enriched uranium, stolen tools and the public release of classified documents.”

Complaints by LANL workers about safety lapses often evoked retribution. An official report on the WIPP accident later found that higher-ups at LANL “were not receptive to bad news, and would retaliate in response to reported issues”. Managers were recorded as failing to act even when workers reported “foaming and an orange or yellow colored smoke” coming from drums of waste.

At one point, a contractor at LANL was rushing to meet a deadline when a batch of waste was found to be extraordinarily acidic. The laboratory and various contractors then reportedly took shortcuts, adding a neutraliser along with cat litter to absorb excess liquid.

The cat litter employed, however, was not the inert, clay-based material prescribed, but a wheat-based organic variety. When workers questioned the wisdom of using organic cat litter, the Albuquerque Journal later reported, they were told to “focus on their area of expertise and not to worry about other areas of the procedure”.

With heat from nuclear decay, the mixture of organic material and nitrate salts in the waste approximated to a bomb. Nevertheless, at least 1000 containers replete with organic cat litter were sent off for storage, with 350 of them going to WIPP. Documents accompanying the containers failed to mention the acidity problem, and the cat litter was mischaracterised as clay-based.

South Australian waste dump

Nothing in this grim fiasco is good news for the proponents of the South Australian waste dump. Meanwhile, the experience at LANL and WIPP points to the fact that the dangers implicit in the South Australian scheme are many times those to which WIPP succumbed.

Unlike WIPP, the South Australian dump is to accept mainly high-level rather than intermediate-level waste. Crucially, the dangers from negligence or criminality in its supply chain would be vastly greater.

WIPP essentially had only one supplier, the US nuclear weapons industry. To make money, the South Australian dump would need to accept waste from as many as 37 countries. Prospective sources cited by the Royal Commission — some of these countries do not yet have nuclear industries — include Ukraine, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana.

What are the chances that another “barrel bomb” will be among the materials transported through South Australia and stored in its outback?

The Asse repository took about 20 years to come to grief, WIPP barely 15. The champions of South Australia's waste dump are betting it would operate without mishap for hundreds of thousands of years. While the radioactivity of the wastes would diminish over time, the protective measures would degrade too.

If the South Australian plan goes ahead, then a major accident at some point is a mathematical near-certainty. Quite likely, it will occur within the first decades.

Today's politicians and business chiefs, however, count on being securely in their graves before any such calamity occurs. Dealing with the results of their recklessness will be left to future generations.

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