Lucas Heights nuclear wastes – best answer is temporary storage near reactor site


Dave Sweeney, Australian Conservation Foundation, 9 Nov 15 Last week Natalie Wasley (BNI) and myself spent a few days talking to a range of stakeholders in Sydney and Sutherland Shire and this note seeks to provide some context for the ENGO response to this development.

The BBC Shanghai left the French port of Cherbourg in mid-October carrying twenty five tonnes of Australian origin intermediate level waste returning here after reprocessing in France.

There has been controversy about the shipment, including safety and capacity concerns raised by Greenpeace about the vessel and a statement from the Indonesia’s Maritime Security Board that it can not pass through Indonesian waters. There is sure to be more domestic and international media attention when it arrives in Port Kembla (Wollongong), expected to be in early December.

After arrival in Kembla it is planned that the waste – which is in solid form inside a special transport container – will be moved by road to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Lucas Heights reactor facility in southern Sydney.

Some local residents are/will be calling for this material to not be stored in Sydney – this is an understandable response, but it is not one supported by the wider national nuclear free movement and key civil society partners.

We advocate that extended interim storage at Lucas Heights is the current least worst option as:

  • ANSTO is already both the continuing producer of and home to the vast majority of Australia’s higher level radioactive waste
  • ANSTO has certain tenure, a secure perimeter and is monitored 24/7 by Australian federal police
  • Storing the waste at ANSTO means the waste will be actively managed as operations at the site are licensed for a further three decades – it also keeps waste management on the radar of the facility/people with the highest concentration of nuclear expertise and radiation response capacity in Australia
  • Since the government realised in 2012 that the planned national waste dump at Muckaty would not be in place prior to the return of this waste, ANSTO has constructed and commissioned a new purpose built on site storage shed dedicated to housing this waste
  • Extended interim storage at ANSTO helps reduce the political pressure to rush to find a ‘remote’ out of sight, out of mind dump site and increases the chances of advancing responsible management
  • Storage at ANSTO has been publicly identified as a credible and feasible option by ANSTO, the nuclear industry lobby group, the Australian Nuclear Association and the federal nuclear regulator, the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA)

Importantly, this approach also provides the ability to have a circuit breaker in this long running issue in the form of an evidence based and open review of the best longer term management options.

Nothing about the nuclear industry, especially nuclear waste, is clean or uncomplicated and some in the wider community might be critical of this position.

However we believe that extended interim storage is the least worst approach and that coupled with a sustained ENGO call for a wider public review, is the path that is most likely to usefully advance the debate about future management options.

There is also an unusually high level of common acceptance that storage at Lucas Heights is the best option in the current circumstances – as well as ENGO’s this view is shared by the Sutherland Shire Council, local Greens and environmentalists, ANSTO and the Maritime Union.

Given this, pending a safety inspection upon the ship’s arrival, we do not forsee protest action aimed at disrupting the transfer of this waste from the Port to ANSTO – we want to see that happen with as low risk as possible. There are plans for a peaceful presence to witness the arrival and transfer and convey that while we (reluctantly) accept the need for this transport to occur we will not accept these shipments becoming routine and will actively resist moves to impose a national waste dump on remote communities or develop international waste dumps/storage in Australia.

Clearly this is an important message to convey in the context of the South Australian Nuclear Royal Commission and recent comments by PM Turnbull and other senior Coalition figures.

There is also both a real opportunity and need for a clear social and wider media profile at this time on the need for an open review of the best ways to manage this material and to end/reduce its production.


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