Unions, environmentalists unite against South Australian nuclear dumps

A protest against a radioactive waste dump at Flinders University on July 9 last year.

Efforts to halt plans for nuclear waste dumping in South Australia have made important advances in recent weeks, with environmental, trade union, indigenous and other bodies pushing for a joint opposition campaign.

At a September 16 meeting called by the peak labour movement body, SA Unions, and the Maritime Union of Australia, members of at least 14 organisations resolved to work toward forming a coordinating committee “around the common objective of preventing nuclear waste dumps being established in South Australia”.

The meeting endorsed preparations by activists for a major anti-dumps rally to be held on October 15 — the anniversary of the first British nuclear bomb test on the Australian mainland, was conducted at Emu Field in South Australia’s north-west in 1953.

SA is being targeted as the site of three large-scale repositories for radioactive materials. The federal government wants a dump for Australian-sourced low and intermediate-level waste at Barndioota, near the Flinders Ranges town of Hawker. The site is culturally important to local Aboriginal people, and the project has been met with bitter opposition from Traditional Owners.

Meanwhile, the Labor state government of Premier Jay Weatherill plans a complex of dumps and re-encapsulating facilities, as part of a massive scheme that will involve importing and storing, for payment, as much as a third of the world’s current stock of high-level spent reactor fuel. A related part of the project will be the world’s largest dump for imported intermediate-level radioactive waste.

Before heading off on September 13 to inspect nuclear waste storage facilities under construction in Finland, Weatherill gave his strongest hint yet that after a period of “consultation”, the state government by year’s end will shift its dumps scheme into a phase of active preparation.

Abandoning the project, Weatherall told the Adelaide Advertiser, looked unlikely. “There’s a red light, there’s a green light and there’s a sort of amber light of ‘proceed with caution’.”

‘Consultation’

Weatherill’s “consultation” began in 2015 with a royal commission headed by former state governor Kevin Scarce and advised by well-known pro-nuclear advocates.

Since the commission gave the dumps scheme its go-ahead early this year, the government has campaigned to swing public opinion behind the plan. This effort includes TV ads, a big social media campaign, deliberations by a randomly-selected “citizens’ jury” and pro-nuclear promotions by a team, dubbed by critics the “nuclear roadshow”, that has travelled the state pushing the royal commission’s findings.

In plugging its scheme, the government is having to combat a strong local anti-nuclear tradition dating back to the days of the bomb tests. But, promised a financial bonanza by the royal commission — which predicted that as many as 37 client countries would pledge millions to help build a dump complex in SA — many of the state’s residents initially took the bait. In a poll for the Advertiser in February, 48% of respondents backed the proposal, with 39% against and 13% uncommitted.

Then a long series of sobering facts started to emerge. A study by The Australia Institute noted that to perform its economic modelling, the royal commission had engaged an engineering firm, Jacobs MCM, which is a large-scale contractor to the world nuclear industry.

Built into the figures Jacobs provided, the Australia Institute explained, were numerous assumptions, mostly speculative and often decidedly unrealistic.

Perhaps the most outrageous of these assumptions was the suggestion that no competition would emerge for the promised “bonanza” — not even from countries such as China, Russia and India that have their own nuclear industries and are likely in time to build their own waste repositories and which could offer storage services to international customers far more cheaply than SA.

Nor did Jacobs consider suggestions that prospective “deep borehole” technology could let potential client countries tackle their waste problems at home, for a fraction of the cost.

“A loss overall [for the SA scheme] is well within the range of possible outcomes,” the Australia Institute concluded.

Writing in June, Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of South Australia Richard Blandy was more blunt: “The alleged riches that the dump has been claimed to bring are a mirage.”

Converts stalled

Amid mounting evidence of incompetence and bias in the Royal Commission findings, converts to the pro-nuclear cause have stopped coming. The slick promotions of the “nuclear roadshow” and the pro-nuclear boosterism of the Murdoch-owned Advertiser have not been able to stop the search for a pro-dumps consensus from stalling.

A further poll conducted for the Advertiser in mid-September showed support for the international dumps proposal virtually unchanged since February at 49%, with 38% opposed and 13% undecided.

In the northern regions of the state where any dumps would be located, an informal ABC North and West poll recently suggested opposition may be as high as 80%.

Importantly, state-wide opposition has firmed among Labor voters: “More than a quarter of Labor voters are strongly opposed, with an eight-point increase to 26% uncovered in the poll,” the Advertiser said in reporting its September survey.

The movement to block the dumps has a solid — and growing — working-class base. With crucial facts on its side, and union bodies swinging in behind, the anti-dumps campaign has excellent prospects for building broad mobilisations that can consign the nuclear dumps to the political shadows.

Union support

A key role in building the campaign against the dumps is being played by the SA branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). If nuclear waste is imported, it will be waterside workers covered by the MUA who face the job of unloading the ships — and seafarers and divers who will try to retrieve any casks that go overboard. Leading members of the MUA have been prominent in the meetings that are organising the October 15 rally.

Support for the campaign from SA Unions has been more guarded. But on September 13 the Advertiser reported that SA Unions secretary Joe Szakacs planned to tell a consultation meeting for the government’s “citizens’ jury” that the union movement would urge abandonment of the nuclear waste dump proposal “unless there was a dramatic change to the safety and economic case”.

Since then, SA Unions sponsorship for the September 16 meeting, which took a clear anti-dump line, has been an encouraging development. Szakacs is understood to be planning to address the October 15 rally on the health and safety dangers of the dump projects.

Meanwhile, new information — ironically, from the organisation that drew up the Royal Commission’s flawed business case — has pointed to the gamble SA’s government is foisting on taxpayers.

On September 21, Dr Tim Johnson, project manager for Jacobs Engineering Group, told a parliamentary committee that the state government would need to stump up hundreds of millions of dollars for pre-commitment work on the international dumps’ proposal — while acknowledging that despite this investment, the scheme might never go ahead.

To convince potential client countries, Johnson observed, the government would need to screen possible sites. That would include sites for the main repository, located 400–500 metres underground, and the screening would require extensive drilling of deep boreholes, which would not be cheap.

A decision by clients to pay billions of dollars for the subsequent construction, Johnson indicated, could not be expected until the scheme had been under way for about six years. By the time contracts were signed, outlays by SA taxpayers would likely be between $300 — $600 million.

Or perhaps, the contracts would not be signed at all. The hoped-for clients could decide to walk away and wait for cheaper alternatives just over the horizon.

Such prospects should make for an interesting ALP state conference at the end of October.

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