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Nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush

For years, Australia has been looking at remote Indigenous land to store its nuclear waste. But now that Muckaty is off the table, it’s time to consider big city locations. Caddie Brain/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Right now, radioactive material is stored at more than 100 locations in cities and suburbs across Australia. Yet after the withdrawal of a proposed remote site for a “nuclear waste dump” at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, we’re back to square one to find a longer-term nuclear waste site.

Instead of trying to dump the dump on one remote community, we should be looking in our own backyards – including in the suburbs of our biggest cities – to solve Australia’s growing nuclear dilemma.

Mucking up the process at Muckaty

After years of debate, last week’s withdrawal of Muckaty Station as a possible nuclear waste site was the inevitable outcome of a flawed process.

By failing to trust average Australians for so many years, successive federal governments have been unwittingly co-opted into the role of villains in an orchestrated campaign of radiological fearmongering.

Nuclear technologies are used all over the world, and bring great benefits in generating zero-carbon electricity, as well as applications in health science, food hygiene, industrial processing and fundamental research. Many of those technologies are in use here in Australia, including at hospitals and at ANSTO’s OPAL reactor in Lucas Heights, 40km south-west of Sydney’s city centre

Inside the Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, operated by ANSTO. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Radioactive waste is not automatically more hazardous than others waste. Indeed, it is demonstrably less hazardous than the organo-chlorine pesticides, poly-chlorinated biphenyls and heavy metal mixtures that also feature in Australia’s hazardous waste portfolio.

Our radiological waste is produced for good reasons. The most radiologically hazardous waste is the result of producing life-saving diagnostic medicines (radio-phamaceuticals) that are essential in our health-care system.

That’s why we need a centralised facility to house our waste in Australia. Fortunately, this material is relatively small in volume: about 4500 m3, or roughly the volume of a couple of Olympic swimming pools for the entire country. That waste is predominantly lightly contaminated soil, mostly relatively low in hazard, and well understood with mature techniques for treatment and storage. These are quantifiable facts and it’s an entirely manageable problem.

But our point is this: if the authorities know, as we know, that this waste stream just isn’t that dangerous, why outback Muckaty or similarly remote sites in the past?

How have we ended up with a process that includes only one site, with that site in the middle of nowhere? What message does that send to every Australian about this waste stream?

“Wow. It must be really, really dangerous if we have to put it there”.

And if that’s the message, what might any Australian with an interest in the land in and around Muckaty think about ending up with the facility in their backyard?

“How completely unfair. No way!”

The irony is that while the first statement is dead wrong, the second statement is quite reasonable.

Our cities are already home to nuclear waste

When dealing with any controversial issue – especially something as emotive as a nuclear waste “dump” – fairness eats facts for breakfast.

Once a process is popularly perceived as “unfair” and the proponent perceived as untrustworthy, the facts about the hazard itself are irrelevant. So why have successive Australian governments from both major parties seemed hell-bent on starting a process from that impossible position?

Most of our radioactive material can and should be transported and stored safely above ground in a suitably dedicated centralised storage facility for use on an intermediate basis (that is, for some decades). The identification of suitable sites for this storage facility ought to be principally a matter of infrastructure and zoning. Suitable sites for open discussion could and probably should be in the outer industrial areas of our capital cities.

That’s right. Australian capital cities.

That’s where it’s stored today, at more than 100 location in the major population centres, while it awaits long-term disposal. But this dispersed and disorganised arrangement is less than ideal; a centralised repository makes sense.

Our cities are peppered with facilities managing all manner of wastes. They range from mundane but potentially hazardous municipal garbage, to the pretty unpleasant and decidedly toxic liquid wastes from commercial and industrial facilities, to the aforementioned intractable wastes for which there is no firm solution.

We would never, as a society, consent to shipping this material from our cities to the outback. Even if we secretly wanted to, we know it would fail the fairness test. Proposing to treat one specific waste stream in this way only succeeds in tagging that waste stream as dangerous. That’s hardly helpful.

A protest march about the Muckaty proposal earlier this month, before the site was withdrawn. AAP Image/Neda Vanovac

The French and Finnish solutions

If a suitable intermediate site is not available in a capital city then perhaps it could be found near a regional centre or a rural centre.

Yes, the remote option is also available in Australia. But a process that begins and ends with a remote location is, by definition, a bad process. Bad, unhelpful and completely unnecessary.

Countries that have had the good sense to deploy nuclear energy have a radiological waste stream that is larger and more hazardous than Australia’s. Yet reprocessed French nuclear fuel is stored in an above ground facility a mere 300 kilometres from Paris. We don’t see Australians cancelling their trips to France.

Eventually, some of this waste material warrants more permanent disposal. At that stage, specific environmental characteristics become of paramount importance.

Over a period of decades, Finland treated their population to such transparency and respect that two communities, shortlisted from four sites, were actively competing for the right to host Finland’s underground spent fuel repository. The winning town’s council voted 20:7 in favour and celebrated the decision.

A 2012 International Atomic Energy Agency visit to the underground rock characterisation facility (ONKALO), a nuclear waste repository at Olkiluoto in Finland. IAEA, CC BY-NC-ND

Getting it right

Muckaty was reportedly being offered a A$12.2 million “compensation package” for hosting the facility. Like any contract of that value, we should be opening the process up to competition.

Good, transparent process, focused on consultation, information sharing and education could identify dozens of locations around Australia that would look seriously at taking on a facility in return for a negotiated package of benefits to be shared across the community.

In this case we are not likely to be looking at capital city locations. But it need not automatically be the most remote location possible.

Australians are as capable of making rational decisions as any other nationality. But like everyone else our willingness to engage in a rational discussion is tied inextricably to perceptions of fairness, trust and transparency.

On the road in France, passing a nuclear power station. Lassi Kurkijärvi/Flickr, CC BY-NC

A question of trust

Risk communication legend Peter Sandman says this:

The problem isn’t that the public doesn’t trust my clients. The problem is that my clients expect the public to trust them. They keep asking to be trusted, instead of working to be accountable so they don’t need to be trusted. And the problem is that my clients don’t trust the public.

So, a message to our politicians and authorities from two people who understand and are not frightened of radiation: you can’t tell Australians something is not dangerous while trying to park it in the deep outback.

Many people may be wrong about the radiological hazard it poses, but they are dead right about your behaviour. It’s inconsistent with perceptions of fairness, trust and transparency and they will hang you for it, ably assisted by those ideologically opposed to all things nuclear – even sensible solutions.

The type of technical knowledge experts trade in is next to worthless when the true currency of trust is in short supply.

Until Australia’s political leaders and relevant institutions are prepared to trust the bulk of Australians to engage with radiation issues as grown-ups, and until they are prepared to commit the time, resources and evidence-based practice to make this happen, they should prepare themselves to remain at the mercy of narrow and committed interests who will drive every bad process to its inevitable bad end.

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