Critical Issues in Importing Radioactive Trash – South Australia’s Environmental Defenders Office

South Australia nuclear toilet

Possibility of a high level nuclear waste facility in SA  Environmental Defenders Office (SA) IncThe environment’s legal team since 1992 – protecting the public interest – evening the odds 10 Feb 16 

As our nuclear industry, insofar as it exists is principally focused on mining and not on the generation of electricity there would have to be a large amount of new legislation that would have to be enacted in order to establish a high level nuclear waste facility in SA.  There are issues regarding environmental impacts, workplace safety, the imposition on aboriginal land, the impact on future generations, the potential for technological changes and security concerns.

 Some of the major issues.

Impacts on the environment There are many environmental concerns with nuclear waste disposal.  An extensive environmental impact assessment would  be needed. The US has produced a long and extensive generic impact statement regarding the storage of spent fuel.

Aboriginal Land  Adelaide University’s submission to the Royal Commission argues that the processes regarding consultation over a facility to store toxic waste on indigenous peoples’ lands must be done in accordance with existing and developing international legal norms, and Australia’s international legal obligations. These standards require free, prior and informed consent, articulated in this way by the UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in 2006: “it is generally considered that a voluntary process is essential to ensure equity, efficiency and the likelihood of successfully completing the process. There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community

This idea that the legal rights of the indigenous communities located at the proposed sites may provide some logistical, if not legal (insofar as international law constitutes a legal system) grounds for the refusal of a high level nuclear waste dump.

This part of the submission focuses on “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC), which is adopted from the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.   Though this is not a legally binding piece of international law (not a treaty), it is a compilation of rights obtained from a number of binding treaties.

The submission goes on to suggest that this concept could become an international standard and part of customary international law.  It demonstrates the likelihood of this occurring by looking at the incorporation of these aspects of the UN Declaration into the policies of multiple international financial institutions.  This in itself  could have an effect on the financing of such projects, in that the banking community’s adoption of the laws may be an effort to safeguard against financial exposure to unsuccessful waste-disposal ventures as a result of indigenous opposition (such as those that have occurred in South Australia already).

Safety  Safety for workers at a facility and those that reside in surrounding communities could be a concern. The creation of a radioactive waste storage facility could have unforeseen costs arising from safety concerns and these should ideally be addressed via preemptive legislation. Health risks from exposure to radiation is an area that lacks clarity but would appear obvious if a nuclear waste disposal facility went ahead. As was the case with say, asbestosis, the effects of increased exposure to nuclear waste could have consequences that take years to develop.  This is coupled with the fact that the storage is potentially indefinite. If the materials used to store the waste degrade (obviously they would be designed not to, but in the event that they did), then it may be possible that it could take years before the material becomes unsafe, and could potentially enter the water supply etc.  The safety regulations regarding the building of a repository would therefore have to be extremely rigorous. In addition to the facilities themselves, the transportation of the fuel could create greater risks to larger population areas.

Security The security of spent nuclear fuel is another critical legislative issue.  Security concerns would take into account a need for changes to Federal law, including to the Customs Act 1901. The security concerns with regards to the transportation of nuclear waste would constitute a national issue. Protection of nuclear material from getting into the hands of terrorists is obviously an important issue.  Australia currently has a good track record with regards to its security of nuclear material (Australia is according to the “Nuclear Threat Initiative Nuclear Security Index ranked number one in the world) following ARPANSA’s Code of Practice regarding the security of radioactive sources.Given this, it appears that the security of nuclear material is well addressed currently, though an increase in the amount of material through importing waste could change this as more people and materials are involved.

Future Generations Another critical  issue is the idea of storage for extremely long periods of time and the need to demonstrate in a satisfactory way to future generations the dangers present in an inactive nuclear waste depository.

Technological Advancement The accessibility of nuclear waste (particularly in long term deep geological storage) could become an issue as time goes on and new technologies are developed and the supply of uranium is depleted. Reuse of the waste could become a standard part of the “nuclear fuel cycle”.  This could lead to potential legal problems regarding the ownership of the waste. Would Australia be buying the world’s nuclear waste if it were to establish a repository, or would it be granting access rights, leasing the space in the facility? These questions would obviously need to be carefully considered. According to the Atomic Energy Agency, the definition of nuclear waste is: ‘material that contains, or is contaminated with, radionuclides at concentrations or activities greater than clearance levels established by the regulatory body, and for which no use is foreseen’ – The Principles of Radioactive Waste Management, IAEA, Vienna, 1995.

International Obligations  The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management

  • Ratified in 2003 – timing with respect to Woomera?
  • International instrument ratified by the Commonwealth Government that pertains to the disposal of nuclear waste.
  • CEO of ANSTO wrote to the Federal Government after the 2008 meeting (which was no doubt awkward) about Australia’s failure to establish a nuclear waste facility.

This Convention has both similar and different ramifications to the international law referred to above. While it emphasises the need for consultation and consent (FPIC), it also requires the establishment of a nuclear waste disposal strategy.


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