Council asked to consider spectre of transport accident involving radioactive waste

The NT Fire and Rescue Service in their HAZMAT suits. Their role is to ‘identify, isolate and contain’. Photo courtesy NTFRS. 

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

The Alice Springs Town Council was challenged at last night’s meeting to take action regarding the proposed radioactive waste dump at Muckaty, Aboriginal land 120 kms north of Tennant Creek.

The key issue put to councillors was that local emergency services do not have the capacity to respond to an accident involving radioactive waste material on Alice’s road or rail networks.

This was argued by a deputation from the NT branch of United Voice (a workers union), the Public Health Association and the Beyond Nuclear Initiative.

The Alice Springs News Online asked the NT Fire and Rescue Service to comment on this proposition. We received this statement in reply:

“The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Division is responsible for management of radioactive waste.

“However if, for example, a transport incident occurred involving radioactive waste on a Territory road or railway, a multi agency response would be activated in accordance with existing Emergency Response plans to identify the material, isolate and contain until such time as the lead agency takes over management.

“The NT Fire and Rescue Service has equipment and training to undertake their duties of ‘identify, isolate and contain’.”

The deputation want council to support their call for an independent enquiry into long-term nuclear waste storage, “to get it right from the beginning”. The current proposal to store waste at Muckaty does not, they say, achieve world best practice nor is it based on scientific principle.

The key point regarding best practice is that the proposal will see long-lasting intermediate level waste being stored above ground while international best practice requires it to be stored underground. The above ground storage is an interim solution, they say, pending the establishment of a “deep underground geological disposal facility”.

As the government has made no progress on this to date, they argue that “‘interim’ storage in the NT is set to last many hundreds of years”. How ‘”to date” runs to “many hundreds of years” was not explained.

The failure of the proposal as they see it with respect to “scientific principle” is that Muckaty was not on the short-list as a “suitable” site when a national repository site selection study was undertaken in the 1990s.

It has become the only site under current consideration because it was nominated by the Northern Land Council, supposedly on behalf of traditional owners (one family group within the Ngapa clan).

The legal basis of this nomination is being challenged in the Federal Court on behalf of dissenting groups of the Ngapa clan. The Federal Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson is on the record (Australian Financial Review, March 14, 2012) as saying the government will respect the decision of the court.

If the court rules that the nomination is illegal, then it will be back to square one as Mr Ferguson is also on the record that a site can be considered only if it has been volunteered, an important difference, he says, between the laws of his government and the Howard government.

Arguably, however, the consent of one small group of traditional owners would not dispose of the issue, as the waste would have to travel across vast distances in Australia to reach the site and there can never be a risk-free transport route (the deputation point to recent incidents involving hazardous material, such as the derailment at Edith River in December last year). As world best practice for radioactive waste disposal also requires “informed consent”, they say, they are approaching local councils along the possible transport routes, to elicit their support for the independent enquiry.

The group argues that the waste from nuclear medicine should continue to be stored locally at the hospitals where it is used. The radioactivity of most of it is very short-term and breaks down very quickly, after which the waste is disposed of in local landfills. The small amount of long-term waste generated should be stored at Lucas Heights in Sydney, where it is produced, thus avoiding the problem of transport altogether, they argue.

Councillor Jade Kudrenko, a member of the Greens, suggested to her fellow aldermen that the issues, particularly in relation to the impact on emergency services, should be put on the agenda for council’s next committee meeting.

Cr Eli Melky wanted to know what else the deputation would like council to do.

BNI spokesperson Lauren Mellor suggested council could also write to the Federal Government to ask when local governments will be consulted on the issues. (Minister Ferguson has said that as soon as the litigation concludes, he will “consult widely with the parties that have rights, interests or legitimate expectations with respect to any nomination”.) She also suggested that council could push for the Local Government Association of the NT (LGANT) to raise the issues with the Federal Government  and that the council could consider itself the formation of a committee to oppose the waste facility.

 

Pictured, above left: The anti-nuclear lobby in Alice is persistent and well-organised. Here they take part in a festival parade in 2009. From the Alice News archive.

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8 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Bob Durnan
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Thanks Jim (Posted October 30, 2013 at 6:18 pm). Do you know of any accidents involving the transport of radioactive wastes in Australia?

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  2. Jim Brough
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    As someone who was responsible for the shipment of radioactive materials for medical and industrial use I knew the standards required for the transport of them by any means.
    The packages are robust and are proven to be so by extensive testing. They are designed and proved to prevent leakage.
    The dangers of transport are nil but the word radioactive elicits alarm beyond belief.
    The world is naturally radioactive. I am and you are so take care before you talk about the danger of transporting or storing radioactive waste.

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  3. Posted August 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for raising a few important issues.
    I agree that it is important that any concerns about the broad detriments of the nuclear industry are put into perspective, and that we should focus on the significant hazards and harms presented by this particular action.
    This waste isn’t tiny, but once a dump is set up, any future movements will be infrequent and irregular. The “train loads of dangerous materials being transported on a constant basis through our town” is a feature of BHP’s plans to expand Olympic Dam, not the Commonwealth nuclear waste dump.
    I’m glad you acknowledge the importance of being “prepared for any emergency that might arise because of that transport”. The relevant workers, through their union (emergency service workers in the NT are represented by United Voice) have clearly stated that the NT just does not have capacity to handle any such incident.
    Your cyanide story prompts two points:
    First of all, two wrongs don’t make a right. if you’re genuinely concerned about other transport actions, I trust you’ll see that they’re followed up appropriately.
    But secondly, and more importantly, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these materials – including the most highly radioactive waste produced in this country – present a unique and unmatched hazard to both human health and the environment. Unlike chemical contaminants like cyanide, radioactive isotopes cannot be neutralised: and the longevity of these hazards makes their management a challenge like no other. That’s why these materials are subject to stringent environmental and occupational safety regulations, including dedicated legislative instruments and a dedicated independent regulator. To dismiss the significant challenge posed by these wastes would be a dangerously ignorant error.
    I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that: “This is a community problem, we are all in it together, we are collectively responsible for both the problem and what we are going to do about it.”
    To me, that says that no one family alone should have the power to decide where a store for nuclear materials is sited. This is a decision that affects many other Australians, and for which all Aussies should recognise some responsibility. Unfortunately, the federal strategy of imposing the unwanted materials on a disempowered, conflicted and defunded community does not reflect your responsible attitude.
    You say that: “In the end those we elected to make these decisions will have to be the final arbiters and we will have to accept that decision – that’s how democracy works.”
    I think that, probably quite by accident, you are selling our democracy short. Far beyond getting to choose between two alternative dictators every three years, Australians have a proud tradition of community participation in decision making. In fact, this is the only way a solution to this seemingly intractable problem may be built. Nuclear waste remains a dangerous hazard for far longer than any government or politician will last: we need to develop community owned agreement around siting and management plans that has the best chance of standing the test of time. If we left it all to an elected leader, we’d be back where we started not long after their term of leadership.
    The Federal minister recently admitted that the first tranche of reprocessed waste returning from overseas will be stored at Lucas Heights in NSW. Of course, he’d originally planned to have a dump built and operating at Muckaty by now, but the total lack of progress has forced him to admit that the reactor program is perfectly capable of managing the waste for as long as it takes to develop social license for an alternative management plan. With the heat taken out of the debate, we now (for the first time in over 20 years) have an opportunity to follow international best practice, and pursue the same kind of community-owned process that has been successful in a couple of other nations.
    I believe that it is only by sharing that decision making power with all stakeholders can we hope to develop a durable solution.

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  4. Russell Guy
    Posted August 2, 2012 at 11:20 am

    When Mcdouall Stuart got to Brinkley’s Bluff in the 1860s, he only had horses and kept going north, but when Todd caught up to him in 1872, he had wagons for the OTL gear and couldn’t get through, so he sent a party looking for a way around. They discovered the waterhole where the Overland Telegraph Station is today.
    The Stuart Highway doesn’t have to be widened through the town. It could be diverted from south around the town and join up further north, with a ring-road, feeder loop into Alice. This has happened several times with the north-south realignment.

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  5. Hal Duell
    Posted August 2, 2012 at 7:49 am

    @Bob
    It would cost a bit, but the highway could be widened without too much drama from Dixon Road north to the DMV, and south from the landfill to the turn-off to Adelaide.
    But what do you have in mind for the Gap?
    I’m not disagreeing. Just asking.

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  6. Steve Brown
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    As usual this debate is more about anti nuclear politics than any science based concern. The anti nuclear lobbyists pointed out that apart from a few initial train loads of radioactive soils from test sites, the amount of waste being generated in Australia is “tiny” and capable of being stored at Lucas Heights.
    This hardly equates to train loads of dangerous materials being transported on a constant basis through our town. Still never let the facts get in the way of a good lobby.
    Certainly we should be concerned about any dangerous goods being transported through our town and as much as practically be prepared for any emergency that might arise because of that transport.
    For instance on a daily basis there are loads of extremely dangerous substances such as cyanide, fuel, high explosives being transported through our town and we pay them scant attention, so let’s not get too carried away with the threat level posed by tiny loads of nuclear waste being transported under much greater security and scrutiny.
    I guess that nowhere is anybody keen on being a dumping ground or even being on the route to one, but in the end there has to be a dump somewhere.
    John, we all live in this world and we all take advantage of the conveniences modern life offers, us such as being able to write comments in the Alice Springs News. Along with the benefits there comes some risk and some moral responsibility for producing those risks. It doesn’t make the slightest difference what your skin colour is. This is a community problem, we are all in it together, we are collectively responsible for both the problem and what we are going to do about it.
    For this moment in time it is imperative the stuff is stored somewhere, and that somewhere has to be near someone, doesn’t it?
    In the end those we elected to make these decisions will have to be the final arbiters and we will have to accept that decision – that’s how democracy works.
    I think the discovery and proposed development of the Telus Salt Mine project to the south of town raises some new possibilities for long term storage of these kinds of waste products.
    An option that the nation hasn’t had before. Given that around the world salt mine storage is considered to be the best and most stable long term solution, perhaps we should take a good look in this direction before proceeding with the Mucketty Proposal.
    And no, I am not in anyway advocating storing anything other than our own nation’s waste produced at the absolutely minimal rate required to service “Our” needs.

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  7. Bob Taylor
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    The Alice Springs Town Council could and should be lobbying the Commonwealth Government and all aspiring politicians to the Legisative Assembly to commit to the upgrading of the Stuart Highway through the municipality. With a potential increase in traffic to the new Kilgariff subdivision and through traffic to the booming Top End and any nuclear storage area, the Stuart Highway must be widened to four lanes from the Adelaide turn-off to the MVR. This will not only facilitate the smooth flow of through traffic, but will also enable emergency response crews quicker access to any emergency on the highway or railway corridor through town north or south of Alice.

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  8. John Reid
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Apart from the legal, environmental and scientific arguments against transport of nuclear waste across the traditional lands of Arrernte and Waramungu people, with the inevitable prospects of accidents and spillage occurring (which we the public do not hear about as it is often rapidly covered up and held under the cover of some secret protocols of mining companies and government alike); as a traditional owner and Director of the Native Title Corporation from where most of the uranium comes from Roxby Downs – Olympic Dam, the traditional country of my mob the Kokatha; I worry about the impact on the wellbeing of Arrernte and Waramungu people should something catastrophic happens – like a road / rail side accident where the poison could leak into the ground and cause untold damage – spiritually and environmentally.
    Mining on our country has caused much pain and suffering to my family and clan group, but money talks, and now people are forced into making a value judgement on whether to fight to protect country from further exploitation, like so many of our mob are by opposing the expansion of phase 2 of the Olympic Dam project, and legally challenging the Australian Government’s decision to identify and use Muckatty as a possible site for a nuclear waste dump without real genuine culturally respectful consultation.
    Lets be realistic when we talk about consultation between Aboriginal groups and government – what is really implied is, “we came, we listened – now we will go away and do what we want on your country anyways”.
    In my experience that has always been the way government (particularly the Commonwealth government) has consulted with my mob – the same goes for mining companies.
    Economic development is the driver of most decisions of government, mostly at the cost and to the detriment of Aboriginal people and those others in the community who want to protect the environment against further damage and destruction.
    I believe it is time for the town to unite – both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal interests to work together, to forge a strong alliance to lobby all levels of government to get them to rescind, recant and reject their decision to move the poison from the traditional homelands of one Aboriginal nation (Kokatha), where it was dug up (processed and used in some industry), to transport it across the country of other traditional owner groups (Arrernte – and others), to be dumped in the spiritual lands of the Waramungu people.
    Don’t they understand the emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma they are causing to us and the negative impact this has on our Wellbeing, or is it that they do, but they just don’t care so long as it isn’t dumped in their own backyard.
    Let’s all work together as a community to actively oppose this problematic process imposed on us by government.
    Remember, united we stand, divided we fall, and if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.
    Yours in solidarity, JR.

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