Plans for SA nuclear dump unravel

December 1, 1999

By Jim Green

The federal government's plan to dump nuclear waste in northern South Australia may have to be scrapped because of fierce opposition in the state.

Indicative of the opposition was the attendance of more than 900 people at a public meeting on November 18 in the Adelaide Town Hall, organised by the Australian Conservation Foundation to build the campaign against the dump.

The following day, the Advertiser, South Australia's only establishment paper, ran the page-one headline "COMING TO A DUMP NEAR YOU: SA favored site for medium-level nuclear waste". On November 20, the Advertiser's page one screamed, "NOT IN OUR BACKYARD: No nuclear waste dump, says [Premier John] Olsen".

Two issues have incensed South Australians. One is the realisation that the dump is a grubby political exercise to remove nuclear waste from the reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights, thus minimising opposition to the plan for a new reactor at the same site.

The federal government and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), operator of the Lucas Heights reactor, obfuscate on ANSTO's contribution to Australia's nuclear waste stockpile. However Dr Des Levins, head of radioactive waste management at ANSTO, said at a public meeting in Sydney in March that there is "no doubt" that the "major fraction" of the waste sent to any "national" dump would arise from Lucas Heights.

The second, related, issue is the realisation that the government is scheming to "co-locate" an above-ground store for long-lived intermediate-level nuclear wastes — including wastes arising from reprocessing ANSTO's spent fuel rods in Europe — adjacent to the underground dump for low-level wastes.

Premier Olsen said in parliament on November 19 that while the state government supports a low-level waste dump in SA, "The storage of long-lived intermediate-level waste, such as reprocessed fuel rods from Lucas Heights, is an entirely separate issue ... I am opposed to medium- to high-level radioactive waste being dumped in South Australia."

Other comments by Olsen were equivocal, however.

The November 22 Advertiser quoted anti-nuclear campaigner Jean McSorley as saying that federal government bureaucrats and ANSTO staff have told her repeatedly that the spent fuel wastes would be stored in SA.


The opposition has forced some backtracking from federal science and resources minister Nick Minchin, who was quoted in the November 23 Advertiser saying that long-lived intermediate-level wastes could be located in any of Australia's states or territories. This contradicts a 1997 decision of the Commonwealth/State Consultative Committee on the Management of Radioactive Waste, that co-location of intermediate-level wastes with the dump for low-level waste "should be considered as a first siting option".

Minchin said in the Advertiser (November 23) that a decision on the siting of a store "will not be made for at least a few years" because the government is not required to have a store for long-lived intermediate-level wastes ready until 2015, when spent fuel wastes will first return from a European reprocessing plant operated by the French nuclear agency Cogema.

However, Minchin is creating more problems for the federal government. During the environmental impact assessment into the plan for a new reactor, Minchin and environment minister Robert Hill both agreed that construction of a new reactor "should not be authorised until arrangements for the management of spent fuel rods from the replacement reactor have been demonstrated to the satisfaction of ARPANSA [the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency] and the Minister for the Environment and Heritage".

The government and ANSTO plan to begin construction of a new reactor in May 2002. By that time, the federal government may have bullied or bribed a state government into accepting the wastes from Lucas Heights, but that is far from certain. Once a site has been selected, environmental assessment could take another year. Construction of the store would also take time.

If no site has been selected, assessed and approved by May 2002, will ARPANSA and the environment minister be "satisfied" with spent fuel arrangements and thus allow construction of a new reactor to begin? They would need to be very easily pleased indeed!

ARPANSA's chief executive officer, John Loy, told me on November 25,"I guess it would be stretching it" to authorise reactor construction if a site had not even been selected for a long-lived intermediate-level waste store. However, Loy equivocated on whether approval could be granted in the event that a site had been selected but not assessed or approved.

The timing of the reactor and waste management plans clearly poses problems. An even greater problem will face the federal government and ANSTO if the SA government does ultimately refuse to store long-lived intermediate-level wastes from Lucas Heights.

An adviser to Minchin declined to answer when I asked on November 25 whether the federal government has the power to override state government opposition to a store for intermediate-level wastes.

Even with the breathing space afforded by sending spent reactor fuel to Europe for reprocessing, the federal government clearly has numerous hurdles to jump. What if the European reprocessing contracts fall through? This is a real possibility. In fact, plans to send spent fuel to a Scottish reprocessing plant fell through last year.

The French Greens, part of the coalition government, have attacked the reprocessing deal between ANSTO and Cogema. They said on November 18 that the reprocessing contract violates a coalition agreement which stipulates that reprocessing at Cogema's plant was to be reviewed and no new contracts entered into.

The French Greens have called on their Socialist senior partners to scrap the deal immediately.

If overseas reprocessing options fall through, ANSTO has stated that it could send spent fuel directly to the (non-existent) national store for long-lived intermediate-level wastes. It is also possible that the federal government will attempt to establish a spent fuel conditioning plant in SA, which would involve dissolving spent fuel in acid and all the public health and environmental risks that entails.

Labor opposition

The SA Labor environment spokesperson, John Hill, speaking at the November 18 meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall, said he opposed SA being used to dump long-lived intermediate-level wastes, and he questioned whether a national low-level dump is required. Opposition leader Mike Rann said the idea of dumping medium- to high-level nuclear waste in SA is an "outrage".

However, federal Labor politicians have sided with the government. In the early 1990s, the federal Labor government was threatening to seize land for a dump if no state government volunteered land.

Federal Labor MP Martyn Evans, the shadow resources minister, supports the plans for a low-level dump and a long-lived intermediate-level store in SA. Evans incorrectly claims that this is Labor policy; in fact, the federal ALP is in the process of determining its policy on the dump plans.

One option for spent fuel management ruled out by the government and ANSTO is storing it at Lucas Heights. However, this is the best of a bad bunch of options in terms of environmental and public health risks. It minimises handling and avoids the risks associated with transportation. Moreover, Australia's nuclear expertise is concentrated at Lucas Heights.

Storing spent fuel at Lucas Heights is also in accord with the general principle that nuclear waste producers ought to manage their own wastes, a principle which encourages waste minimisation. Insisting that ANSTO looks after its own mess could force a reassessment of the plan for a new reactor.

As things stand, the federal government and ANSTO plan to build a new reactor which will generate another 1500-2000 spent fuel rods and a 12-fold increase in the production of intermediate-level liquid wastes and a four-fold increase in other wastes. All this waste is destined for the "national" dump and/or store. Even the reactors at Lucas Heights will be dismantled and dumped in SA.

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