Social license missing from Coalition’s nuclear push

Published on Thu 11 June 2020 11:40am

If we know anything about nuclear technology, we know that it relies upon toxic radioactive material and it generates toxic radioactive waste. That’s why there are serious engineering challenges in relation to waste and that’s why there are quite legitimately very serious issues in relation to social licence around nuclear technology. People are wary of it, especially of nuclear waste, and they should be. We have to get towards a long-term disposal solution, and yet this bill raises two serious questions about how the government wants to take us there.

Mr Wilson (11:40am) – There’s no question that we benefit significantly from nuclear medicine, from the use of radiopharmaceuticals, especially as a diagnostic tool. We benefit here in Australia and we provide those benefits to other parts of the world. We have the nuclear facility, the OPAL reactor, that’s operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO, at Lucas Heights. It creates the relevant material for nuclear medicine and it creates the need to carefully and safely deal with the waste. It’s not an easy task to do that, but this bill doesn’t help.

Effectively this bill seeks to rush and force the issue of community acceptance, which is a mistake. The minister has the power to make the decision in question. You can only guess that the reason for this legislation is to lock in an outcome, when the minister and the government accept that there are some concerns with the community acceptance process that has occurred so far. The bill effectively also wants to ignore, avoid and further neglect the key issue of a permanent disposal site for intermediate-level waste. There are two kinds of waste that this bill proposes to send to a site in South Australia—low-level waste and intermediate-level waste—and they are very different. A lot of what has been said, including what the minister said in introducing this bill, glides over that difference in a way that is wrong and is certainly not helpful in terms of getting to where we need to get to with a permanent disposal site for low-level waste and a permanent site for intermediate-level waste.

If we know anything about nuclear technology, we know that it relies upon toxic radioactive material and it generates toxic radioactive waste. That’s why there are serious engineering challenges in relation to waste and that’s why there are quite legitimately very serious issues in relation to social licence around nuclear technology. People are wary of it, especially of nuclear waste, and they should be. We have to get towards a long-term disposal solution, and yet this bill raises two serious questions about how the government wants to take us there. There’s concern over the site selection process, which goes to the question of consultation, engagement and community agreement, and there are concerns about the purpose and function of the facility. I want to talk mostly about the latter, but, in relation to the former, in relation to community decision-making, I support the fundamental proposition that the people of South Australia, or any state or territory where a waste disposal site is proposed, should decide, and the agreement about a site should be a meaningful agreement without the serious question marks that remain in this case. Really, for the government to take us to that end, it would do better to work on achieving that meaningful agreement rather than steamrolling over the top in the way that this bill seeks to do.

The second issue is the fact that this site is proposed to be a permanent disposal site for low-level waste and a temporary storage site for intermediate-level waste. To the extent that it proposes that it’s going to be a temporary storage site, it really stretches the ordinary concept of the word ‘temporary’. The problems with that are really quite considerable. There is a very serious risk, and no-one in this place should be ignorant of the possibility, that intermediate-level waste will go to this site and it will be there forever, effectively. I’m sure that moving it from its current location will mean that the long-neglected task of preparing for a permanent disposal site will only be further delayed and ignored.

As other speakers have mentioned, low-level waste is mostly personal protective equipment and it contains limited amounts of long-lived radioactive substances. It needs to be stored for a few hundred years in what are described as near-surface facilities. At the moment, it’s stored in 200-litre drums in a big shed at Lucas Heights, and presumably it would be not dissimilarly stored at a site in South Australia if that’s where it went. Intermediate-level waste is something quite different. Intermediate-level waste comes from spent and reprocessed nuclear fuel and the residue from parts of the radioisotope production process. It does not decay in a way that makes it acceptable for near-surface-level disposal. You get a sense of the toxicity of intermediate-level waste when you consider the time frame that’s involved.

The proposal here for the permanent disposal of low-level waste is for it to be stored and for the facility to be actively operated for a period of 100 years and then ‘institutionally monitored’—that is the phrase in the explanatory memorandum—for a further period of 200 years. Intermediate-level waste, by contrast, needs to be stored for thousands of years. It remains toxic for thousands and thousands of years. It needs to be buried deep in the ground.

I also make the point that there is no permanent disposal site for high-level waste anywhere in the world. At the time when members of the government are going around spruiking the take-up of nuclear power in Australia—in defiance of all logic, in defiance of the international trends away from nuclear and in defiance of the economic evidence and the energy needs of this country—let’s remember that this is a 70-year-old industry. It’s been around for 70 years, and the industry still is incapable of dealing with its most toxic waste.

In relation to this site, I want to make a few points about how we’ve got here. It has taken 40 years and, as I said, cost $55 million to get to the point of nearly selecting a site. Departmental officials came before the Energy and Environment Committee when we were inquiring into nuclear energy, and they gave us some very rough estimates of what the construction of the site itself would cost. That will be somewhere around $340 million to $350 million. That’s for the construction of the site, and that was described to us as a conservative estimate. Bizarrely, there is no current process underway with even a single dollar of government resources going towards the issue of a permanent disposal site for intermediate-level waste. It’s quite strange. It’s almost hard to believe that, when it’s taken us 40 years to get to the brink of a permanent site for low-level waste, there is not yet any departmental group or any taskforce on this and there’s not a single dollar going to the process of site selection, engineering design or anything else around the question of a permanent disposal site. We actually have an answer on notice from the then Department of Industry, Innovation and Science on that issue:

A government decision on the entity responsible for the waste management technical coordination function—in relation to intermediate-level waste—has yet to be determined and is required before an Intermediate Level Waste disposal project timeline and budget can be determined.

So, while we’ve taken 40 years and $55 million to get to the brink of a permanent low-level waste disposal site, no process is advancing by a single hour, let alone a day or a year, towards what the department itself said will likely be another 30- or 40-year process.

So this bill says, ‘Let’s send intermediate-level waste to South Australia for temporary storage.’ What does ‘temporary storage’ mean to the average person? Do you think it means 30, 40, or 50 years or forever? I doubt that very much. But that is, in effect, what this bill seeks to do with intermediate-level waste, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

The government, in the material, suggests there are reasons for the waste being moved, and a lot of the members from the government have said that they’re running out of space at Lucas Heights. That might be true for low-level waste. It is not true for intermediate-level waste. Like the previous speaker, I’ve been into the enormous shed. It’s bigger than the chamber in which I stand—well, it’s about the same size as the chamber in which I stand—and there’s a canister of intermediate-level waste. There’s one of them. There’s another one due back before long. There is plenty of room in that interim storage facility, so there’s no issue with space as far as intermediate-level waste is concerned, and there’s no issue in relation to safety or health concerns either. That is really important. If anyone is suggesting that there are health and safety reasons for moving intermediate-level waste to South Australia, they should point to the evidence of that, and then they should answer the question of how it came to be there in the first place, because we started receiving intermediate-level waste, the reprocessed fuel rods, back in 2015. There was a proper process, supervised by ARPANSA, that saw that waste come and be stored at Lucas Heights, and there’s never been any suggestion whatsoever that there is a safety or health concern about the location of intermediate-level waste at that site.

If the government is in possession of any evidence to that effect, they should share it with the public. The member who spoke previously said that he walked up and gave the canister a hug. I was there and I found that quite strange to observe. But where is the evidence that there is any problem with the intermediate-level waste staying where it is, as it should do, until the government of Australia identifies and resources an appropriate permanent disposal site for intermediate-level waste?

When the interim facility was set up, there was no suggestion it was only for a few years. The licence that exists for the storage of the intermediate-level waste at Lucas Heights runs to 2055. ARPANSA itself addressed this issue in the submission that it made to the Senate inquiry. I want to quote from it, because this is important:

ARPANSA is aware that some stakeholders have interpreted ARPANSA’s decisions regarding the IWS—which is the intermediate-level storage—as a requirement for relocation of the waste stored in the IWS, even suggesting that there is an urgent need for relocation. This is not correct. ARPANSA has not raised safety concerns regarding storage of waste at the IWS. ANSTO seems to share this view. ANSTO has indicated to ARPANSA that the mandatory recertification of the TN-81 casks every 10 years can be carried out at the IWS …

But the claims that the government and government members in this place have made that intermediate-level storage needs to go to South Australia because there’s no room for it and that there are health and safety concerns about where it is currently are rubbish. And so it should stay where it is as a spur to the government to get on with the process, which currently hasn’t even started, of finding and resourcing a permanent-level disposal site. That is not occurring, and that’s one of the chief flaws of this bill.

The government is going about this important task the wrong way. Labor supports a permanent national radioactive waste facility. We know it needs to be created. We just think the government should do it in the right way. They shouldn’t steamroll over the issue of community acceptance and community engagement, and they don’t need to. If they do that, they are going to put social licence at risk, and that will be even worse if they move intermediate-level waste to South Australia. They need to immediately start and resource the process of a permanent disposal site for intermediate-level waste. They should commit to maintaining that waste where it is currently stored, which is another reason for an inquiry on this issue.

More broadly, the government needs to recognise that the social licence for nuclear technology is fragile at best. And that’s for good reason. We have our own chequered history in this country. We allowed the British to detonate 10 nuclear bombs in this country, all of which were as big or bigger than the bombs dropped on Japan. That didn’t go through a parliamentary process. What’s worse, we allowed the British government to explode nuclear material just to see what would happen if an aeroplane carrying nuclear material was shot out of the sky. That meant that radioactive material was strewn over South Australia, the clean-up efforts for which didn’t conclude until the early part of this century, and cost millions and millions of dollars, that the British government only very reluctantly contributed to. We know there are problems with uranium mining. We’ve watched events like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Yet there are members of the government running around saying that nuclear power should be part of our energy mix in our communities across Australia. That, frankly, is not only deeply irrational but ridiculous and unhelpful in the task this bill presents to us.

This bill is not a sensible or appropriate way in which to move towards the waste storage solution. It puts the program at risk. That’s why we don’t support the bill.

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