No takers for national nuke waste at public meeting

p2311-Nuke-waste-public-mee

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

A national nuclear waste facility will not be imposed on an unwilling community, a public meeting in Alice Springs last night was repeatedly told by a representative of the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

 

So what will you report back from this meeting, for or against? a man from the floor wanted to know at the end. The questions, challenges and inevitable commentary from those who had spoken had been overwhelmingly sceptical, critical or vehemently opposed.

 

The department’s Michael Sheldrick didn’t want to be so black and white: the feedback from the meeting would be “reflected back” to the decision-makers.

 

p2310-Hale-nuke-dump-palmsMore weight will be given to the views of neighbours closer to the nominated facility, the Aridgold Date Farm on the Old South Road, Hale, some 75 kilometres from Alice Springs (at left, photo courtesy of the department).

 

Consultation meetings had been held earlier this week with the neighbours. They include Oak Valley where the Le Rossignol family are traditional owners and have an olive tree plantation (Robert Le Rossignol pictured below with their locally processed oil). Aaron Le Rossignol told the Alice meeting that he had attended the consultations at Oak Valley, Walkabout Bore, Santa Teresa, and Titjikala: the response to the proposal from all of these was a resounding no.

 

But the consultation process doesn’t end with this series of meetings. Personal submissions can be made and a professional survey company will soon be conducting a “statistically valid” phone survey. Amongst the neighbouring landholders, where English may not be their first language, face to face interviews will be conducted.

 

p23010-nuke-waste-RossignolThe facility will be for low and intermediate level solid waste. The latter is generated by Australia’s sole nuclear reactor, at Lucas Heights in Sydney, for use in nuclear medicine, scientific research and other applications. At present this waste is stored on site, while low level waste is kept at more than 100 sites around the country: more than half of it at Woomera in South Australia, and the rest in various hospitals and universities. “World’s best practice”, the meeting was told, is to store it in a single facility with all the right management processes in place.

 

The Australian Government has been looking for such a site for many years. The most recent push, to have it hosted on Muckaty Station in the Barkly, collapsed in 2014 when its nomination was withdrawn following an eight year campaign and the commencement of legal proceedings by traditional owners.

 

The low level waste is made up of things like equipment and protective clothing used in the industry, for instance the gloves and gowns of medical staff, and hard materials such as concrete rubble from dismantled facilities.

 

The intermediate waste consists of materials generated by radiopharmaceutical production and reactor operations at Lucas Heights. (No high level waste is generated in Australia.)

 

The facility is for the long-term storage – 200 to 300 years – of low level waste, the radiation from which after 100 years will be no more than “background level”.

 

For the intermediate waste, the facility will provide only interim storage.

 

What will happen to it in the long-term was the concern of more than one questioner, including local resident Penelope McDonald, who was thinking of the generations into the future

 

At present the volume is small, but in 100 years’ time it will have, of course, increased, the meeting was told. World’s best practice requires it to be stored underground “at medium depth”. The facility being discussed now essentially buys time for the government to look for a suitable site. This process is not active, but there is a plan to progress the search after the first facility is established. In the meantime, processes to deal with the waste are changing “dramatically” and in five years’ time better options may be available.

 

Would a permanent intermediate waste facility have to be near the long-term low level facility to reduce the risks of transport?

 

Not necessarily, said Mr Sheldrick, who assured the meeting that transport is not an issue, as 30,000 safe movements of nuclear material in Australia have demonstrated. He later made the distinction between incidents, for instance transport accidents, and impacts on humans. There have never been any human impacts from the transport of nuclear material, neither in Australia, where the quantities are not large, nor internationally, he said.

 

Initially, the present volume of Australian waste – 4000 cubic metres – would be transported to the chosen site in 40 truckloads. Thereafter waste would be left to be accumulate over five year periods and then be transported in one go by five trucks. “Packages” involving “four layers of defence” are used in the transport, which is what ensures their security.

 

What route would be used, local resident, mother and grandmother Judy Buckley wanted to know.

 

p2311-Nuke-waste--SheldrickFor transport to the Hale site, this is not yet known. It would only be looked at in detail if the site were chosen, said Mr Sheldrick (pictured on the microphone at left, with facilitator Professor Ray Kemp). If an upgrade to roads was required this would be factored into the works.

 

Would the iconic red dirt road be bitumised, Chris Wallace asked. He runs a local solar power company, servicing Alice Springs and remote communities, including Oak Valley.

 

This road may not have to be used, said Mr Sheldrick, who a few years back enjoyed driving it for leisure himself – “a fantastic trip”. For instance, material being transported from Woomera would not have to come via Alice Springs.

 

Risk to our underground water resources was another concern, from an Alice resident, previously living at Finke community and with an interest in the Lake Eyre Basin as well as the local aquifer.

 

The primary safeguard comes with the design process, the meeting was told, with all possible scenarios being taken into account. It would not be envisaged that any liquid come into contact with the waste material, but if somehow it did, it would be captured and monitored before any release into the environment.

 

The date farm site is close to some “units” of the Alice Springs aquifer, but they are uphill from the site, in the James Ranges, and water does not flow uphill.

 

The geological assessments to date have been at a regional level to see if any broad geological impediments exist. If the Hale site moves to the next phase – a shortlist of two to three sites where there is sufficient community support – then more detailed site-specific study will be done.

 

If it’s all so safe, then why not store it in one of the capital cities, came a challenge, from Domenico Pecorari, Alice resident and architect. Why not under Parliament House? Applause.

 

It’s a surface facility, said Mr Sheldrick, and following world’s best practice, a suitable site would be one where alternative uses of the land are less likely. Heckles.

 

p2311-Nuke-Tim-Micklem-2Talking of land use, what will become of the date farm if it is acquired for the facility? The answer didn’t quite stipulate that the palms will go but that was implied: the site would become Commonwealth property. Questioner Alex Nelson, long term resident with a keen interest in horticulture, pointed out the loss that would represent: not only of years of horticultural experience, but the public investment that supported development of the farm, and this at a time when the Territory government is once again talking up horticultural development (including date production) in the Centre.

 

But the palms could well go, with or without the facility. The farm has been on the market for over three years with no takers, owner Tim Micklem (pictured at left) later told the Alice Springs News. He wants to retire and ultimately will turn off water to the trees if no other option presents itself.

 

What had guided selection of the date farm site in the first place? Michael La Flamme, local resident and scientist, pointed out that this information had not been shared with the community. How could the community then give fully informed prior consent?

 

Dr La Flamme said such consent is part of international best practice as required by the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, an internationally binding treaty.

 

There was no real answer to this question in relation to the date farm nomination (people could go and get information elsewhere, it was suggested), but the meeting was told that the process was being conducted under the legal framework provided by the National Radioactive Waste Management Act, 2012. Mr Sheldrick also noted that communities are not locked in to anything at this stage of the process.

 

p2311-Nuke-waste-Jimmy-CockJimmy Cocking of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (pictured at right) wanted to know why Mr Micklem was nominated without talking to his neighbours first? He pointed out that Mr Micklem was in the room, although Mr Micklem did not take the opportunity to speak.

 

When the Alice Springs News asked him later why he hadn’t consulted with his neighbours, he answered with a question: at what stage should he have consulted with them? He said he didn’t know if there had been one or one thousand nominations, and hence what his chances were. He said the government “didn’t really come back to me” until they made their public announcement and that his neighbours may have learned of it sooner than he did. He wished he had had a chance to talk it over with them but got caught out by the timing of the announcement.

 

Mr Cocking also wanted to know what would prevent the facility being sold to private concerns down the track, noting the sale of two Territory public assets without any prior warning over the past four years (TIO and the Darwin port).

 

Mr Sheldrick said the economics simply wouldn’t stack up for the Australian facility: it would be too small in scale. There are some privately operated facilities internationally but they are “massively large” in comparison.

 

Acceptance of the facility would come with a once-off $10m sweetener for use as a “community benefit fund”. The community concerned would be asked about what kind of infrastructure projects that money should go towards.

 

A question from Natalie Wasley of the Beyond Nuclear Initiative, also a local resident with a babe in arms, wanted to know if it was being used already to provide incentive payments to community organisations to keep them involved in the process. Mr Sheldrick denied this.

 

Ms Wasley also asked whether the states will have to pay back that money. Mr Sheldrick explained: the Commonwealth will establish the fund up front once a site is selected. The states – with the exception of the hosting state and the Commonwealth itself – would pay fees for use of the storage facility and these will go into the fund. The Commonwealth would then be able to draw down on the fund, but not below the level of $10m. As for the expenditure of the $10m, the Commonwealth Minister would have ultimate sign-off.

 

p2311-Nuke-waste-Barb-ShawBarbara Shaw (pictured with the microphone at left), local resident, of the Shaw family prominently associated with Tangentyere Council and Mount Nancy Town Camp, and co-chair of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, wanted to put the $10m into perspective, noting that the recent $100m spend on town camps “has not changed our lives”.

 

She also wanted to know about radiation measurements from international nuclear waste dump sites (the meeting had been shown photographs of facilities in the UK, France and Spain).

 

Radiation from the international sites is monitored and the results published, the meeting was told, as is done for the Lucas Heights reactor and would be for the storage facility. At Lucas Heights only background to 100th of a percent more than background level radiation is detected at the perimeter.

 

The claims made in the department’s information sheet about the widespread use of nuclear medicine in Australia came under challenge from the floor, by a medical doctor. The claims resulted from ignorance at best, he said, misinformation at worst. He wanted to know what the evidence was for one in two Australians – in other words, 12 million people – requiring nuclear medicine services in their lifetime. He said the supporting reference to scans ignored the fact that the most common scans do not use radiation, and neither do the treatments for many cancers. Huge applause.

 

One of the visiting experts clarified: the one in two Australians claim was “statistically speaking”.

 

There is no connection between the national waste storage facility and the possibility being floated for South Australia – with lucrative returns – of a facility to take international high level waste.

 

It is expected that a single site will be chosen to go forward by the end of 2016, with construction commencing in 2020, following receipt of regulatory approvals.

 

And, what if all the presently nominated six sites say no?

 

The Minister will decide.

 

 

 

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6 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. Hal Duell
    Posted February 22, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    One of the most valid reasons not to proceed with a national nuclear waste facility for Australian generated waste has been answered with an assurance that only low and intermediate level Australian generated waste would ever be stored at the proposed facility.
    Another valid objection awaits an environment impact study. Where is it? Until that is presented, I have still heard no compelling reason not to choose the site on the Old South Road.
    Less emotion and more facts, please.

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  2. Evelyne Roullet
    Posted February 21, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Quote: And, what if all the presently nominated six sites say no? The Minister will decide. End of quote.
    If this happens, it will be another proof that Australia is not a democratic country.
    In the dictionary definition, democracy “is government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.”
    In the phrase of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
    The majority of us didn’t want the GST or for our troops to go to Iraq but it did happened.
    The majority is against a large nuclear dump but we like it or not it will happen.

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  3. Michael LaFlamme
    Posted February 20, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    The government scientists gave no information about the site other than a 20x25km satellite photo, but asked citizens for their comments.
    In 2014 the CLC was similarly asked to nominate a waste site with no information. David Ross said: “We have told the government since 2005 that its process and the legislation were incompatible with the principle of prior informed consent. No one does business on this basis.”
    At the same time, other countries are requiring informed consent, such as Canada, Europe, the US (e.g. The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act), as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It is international best practice.

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  4. Jungarrayi
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    The police complex in Yuendumu I am told cost $7.6m. The contract for the Wadeye police complex was let if I recall correctly for $24m.
    As Barbara Shaw pointed out, $10m isn’t much if seen in such a context.
    As for community consultations, I’ve seen it often enough how Government officials operate. They never take NO for an answer. They’ll come back again and again until the exhausted community caves in, or fails to turn up at a critical poorly advertised meeting.
    They’re very good at “smoke and mirrors” and rarely address pertinent questions that don’t fit in with their pre-determined outcomes.

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  5. Trevor Shiell
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Unfortunately I had to leave prior to questions, of which I had two.
    Firstly, at Olympic Dam in SA has many kilometers of unused mined out tunnels from which radioactive ore has been extracted largely for our use.
    These tunnels are in Proterozoic rocks of the Gawler Craton about 2000 million years old and they host several other mines (prominent Hill, Challenger etc) which may be suitable also.
    There is no chance of aquifer pollution and the inserted radioactivity may well be less than that of the ore extracted.
    Secondly no mention was made of the radioactive elements involved nor their half lives. The short-sightedness was again shown when the medium level waste would have to be exhumed in 100 years for replacement and that would be at a cost in all probability many times the initial one.
    I am not comfortable with leaving this to my grandchildren, but in a recent discussion with some scientifically literate friends it was claimed that the nuclear industry now is in the same state of development as the car industry was in 1920.
    We can only hope that this is so.

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  6. Pariah Tuck
    Posted February 17, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    A dump was prevented near the historic goldfields of central NSW by concerted community action. There were signs everywhere around Hill End.

    Proof of concept research is progressing, regarding extremely long storage of spent rods.

    What scares me off is just how vulnerable people are to a military belligerent, which could hold a government hostage if capable of acting on a threat to compromise such a facility.

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