South Australian ‘citizens’ jury’ rejects nuclear dump

November 11, 2016

To the fury of business spokespeople, South Australia’s “Citizens’ Jury on Nuclear Waste” has effectively exploded plans by the state Labor government to host the world’s largest nuclear waste dump.

The jury was intended by Premier Jay Weatherill to lend his scheme a garnish of popular consent. But in their final report on November 6, the jurors instead concluded that the dump plan should not go ahead “under any circumstances”. The vote was overwhelming, with two-thirds of jury members opposing the government’s projections.

Both as science and public policy, the jury’s finding made superb sense. But the verdict was more than that.

From the ordinary working people of South Australia, it was a message to their “betters”: “Be damned. We don’t trust you to defend our interests. Given the chance, we’d send you to hell.”

It was like Brexit. Or the street parties held when Margaret Thatcher died.

To reach their verdict, the jurors — initially numbering 350 and chosen as a representative slice of society — defied an intensive propaganda campaign mounted by the state authorities over several years at a reported cost of $10 million.

The government, Weatherill insisted from the outset, would never go ahead with its dump scheme unless the population, including indigenous people, was shown to be solidly behind the plan. To make the case for the proposal, a Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle was held, headed by former South Australian Governor Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce. The commission’s final report, key sections of it drafted by nuclear industry consultants, was delivered in May.

As anticipated, the commission urged constructing a “deep repository” to house as much as a third of the world’s current stock of high-level reactor wastes. Most of the immense cost, South Australians were promised, would be borne by client countries anxious to rid themselves of a growing mountain of spent nuclear fuel. The eventual net flow of revenues to the South Australian government was put at a dazzling $51 billion.

Nuclear spruikers

Following the royal commission was a “consultation” program dubbed by critics the “nuclear roadshow”. For months, teams of pro-nuclear spruikers toured the state’s urban centres. Supposedly seeking the views of the population on nuclear issues, program staffers mounted slick presentations uncritically promoting the commission’s findings.

Pounding still broader numbers of South Australians into line was a drum-beat of pro-nuclear articles in the Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser.

Within the government’s strategy the role of the Citizens’ Jury, which met for the first time in June, was to produce a report voicing at least conditional assent to the dump plans. Weatherill and his cabinet would then have claimed public support for beginning the process, predicted eventually to cost taxpayers $300–600 million,  that would see the sites for interim and final dumps chosen, the location selected for a dedicated port, and prospective clients scouted.

Though strong on the rhetoric of “consultative leadership” and “deliberative democracy”, the Weatherill government clearly did not mean to let in-depth debate get in the way of a suitable jury verdict. Control over the jury process was handed to a team of “facilitators” put together by the firm DemocracyCo. The latter compiled a list of 160 “expert witnesses”, skewed strongly towards nuclear advocates, to address the jurors.

A script drawn up by the facilitators would rush the jurors through hurried workshops, many held simultaneously. Jurors would have little chance to question witnesses at length, or to gain a feel for the broad progress of the discussion.  

The government’s ploys seemed watertight. But on November 6, they were shown to have failed completely.

“Multiple threads of concern are present that undermine the confidence of jurors in the Royal Commission report’s validity,” the jury’s final report stated. “These concerns collectively combine to affect a powerful NO response.”

“Green activists kill inquiry”

What had gone wrong? In the view of Nigel McBride, chief executive of the peak association Business SA, the jurors had been got at by “green activists determined to kill further inquiry”.

“They ran an absolutely undiluted campaign of fear and misinformation,” McBride was quoted by the Advertiser as saying: “The people who were going to die in a ditch over this were the naysayers, the rest of us were calling for an informed investigation … It’s disappointing. An extraordinary amount of effort and resources and time has gone into it.”

The truth is less sinister. Chief Executive of the Conservation Council of SA Craig Wilkins pinpointed it in a press release:

“The nuclear industry likes to push a myth that the more people get to understand nuclear issues, the more supportive they are. Well, 350 South Australians have spent over 40 hours hearing about a nuclear dump for SA and the more they heard about it, the less they liked [it].”

The real problem that brought the nuclear dumpsters undone was simple: before a demanding audience that had other sources of information, the pro-nuclear side was incapable of putting forward convincing arguments.  

Dissatisfied with the witnesses on offer, the jurors invited experts of their own choice, to talk to them, including Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner Jim Green, Australia Institute Chief Economist Richard Denniss, and University of South Australia Adjunct Professor Richard Blandy, all incisive public critics of the dump scheme.  

The jury’s final report is not a polished document. Those who worked on it, however, obviously took their task with enormous seriousness. Their rejection of the pro-dump case, it is fair to say, rested on two main grounds: the refusal by the dump’s proponents to address the objections of traditional indigenous landowners and the gross flaws in the economic case for the dump as put forward by the royal commission.

As related by the Adelaide Independent, Weatherill in the past had “told a national television audience that a dump would ‘require essentially the explicit consent of traditional owners’ and that ‘if it did not exist, it wouldn’t happen’.”

In a two-hour session before the whole Citizens’ Jury, more than a dozen well-known Indigenous elders made it plain that no consent was being given or ever would be.

“Indigenous, community and social consent is absolutely required,” the jury’s report notes. “Currently not provided and a resounding ‘No’…”

The economic case for the dump, prepared for the royal commission by the nuclear industry consulting firm Jacobs MCM, is savaged in the report. “Many (jurors) have no confidence in the economics of the project. … The assumptions made (as) to potential income are based on assumptions with little support.”

Eighty-two per cent of the jurors, the report notes, were inclined to view the economic risks of the scheme as too great.

Lack of confidence

Also striking is the complete lack of confidence voiced by the jurors in the ability or willingness of the state’s politicians to manage radioactive materials responsibly. “No evidence of regulatory bodies … to act independently and to be funded properly to adequately regulate an industry,” the report observes. As evidence, the report cites examples that include a radioactive tailings site at Port Pirie on which children were allowed to play for decades, and which was prone to flooding by high tides.

Dealt with brusquely is an issue that promises to be highly contentious in coming months. “There was agreement that … NO FURTHER PUBLIC MONEY should be spent by the South Australian taxpayer.”

Weatherill, however, shows signs of planning to do exactly that.

The jury’s verdict is not binding on the government. After months of implying that the jury’s recommendation would be viewed as definitive, the Premier has now switched to stressing the “fifty thousand” South Australians whose views his “roadshow” supposedly canvassed.

The dump process, Weatherill made clear in his address to the jury on receiving its report, is not yet dead.

“Mr Weatherill said the ‘very clear position’ of the jury would be combined with other government research about the state-wide views of the nuclear industry, as Cabinet considers whether to push ahead,” the Advertiser reported on November 7.

“All of those perspectives need to be weighed up,” Weatherill said. “We don’t expect that this is a debate that will be concluded any time soon.”

Weatherill is now due to present a formal position to parliament on the dump proposal, probably around the end of November. But if he tries to force the scheme through as he has suggested, the political costs for his government will be dire.

On the question of the dump, South Australians seem overwhelmingly to accept the verdict of their Citizens’ Jury peers. On November 7 an informal Channel 7 poll asked: “Should the state government now abandon its nuclear storage plans?” The response was: Yes 86%, No 14%.  

Charged with legitimising the dump, the jury has very likely ended the scheme. But anti-dump activists would be foolish to quit their campaigning just yet.

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