SA Nuclear waste dump questions http://chriswhiteonline.org/2016/06/sa-nuclear-waste-dump-questions/
Nuclear un-clear: Some questions that need answers before
South Australia becomes the world’s nuclear waste dump
by Dr Tony Webb June 2016
Where is it coming from and where is it going?
• Where is this waste coming from? The Royal commission speculates about various countries wanting us to take their waste but there’s nothing definite.
• Where will it come into Australia? We’ve heard that it might come in via Darwin (unlikely) or (more likely) through a new specially built port in theSpencer Gulf. If so where is this to be built – and at what cost, paid for by whom?
• Where are the detailed engineering plans for this supposedly ‘secure’ but ‘unguarded’ underground site? No other country in the world has yet found a way to safely dispose of nuclear wastes. Several countries are trying – on a much smaller scale than proposed for South Australia – and for their own waste only.
• How much waste will we be taking? Various estimates have been thrown around about the total waste that we might get from other countries along with estimates for the number of ships delivering this each month and the way it might be transported to the temporary stores and the as yet unproven final dump site. Obviously the more we take the more money we get assuming that there is a fixed price and no other country competes and undercuts us in this. But if they do we may have the same costs but far fewer benefits.
• What will it cost – to build and maintain the ports, storage sites, and the underground dump? Some of these are the ‘fixed’ costs – money that will be spent whether we get a lot or a little nuclear waste from overseas.
• So how much do we hope to benefit and what are the risks? The highly speculative and somewhat inflated estimates of the amount of waste we might get, the amount other countries might be prepared to pay us to take it and the equally deflated estimates of the costs we will incur (no ‘might’ about these) paint a very rosy picture.
• How real is this? What are the risks if any of these figures is wrong? What happens if the waste volume and/or the price we can get is only 50% or even 80% of the inflated estimate? How much do we then lose even if the costs of doing what there is no precedent for doing safely don’t blow out. And if there is one thing we ought by now to have learned about the costs of major projects in this country it is that the costs always do blow out.
We are being told that there are no safety issues. This is either a deliberate lie or wilful ignorance! There is no safe level of exposure to ionising radiation and there is a growing body of evidence that now shows the risks have yet again been seriously underestimated.
• Over the past 70 years the nuclear industry has on many occasions been forced to accept that the risks are greater than those used for setting protection standards. Often many years after the evidence was widely available the exposure limits for workers and the public were eventually lowered.
• Even so, these are not ‘safe’ limits. They merely limit the statistical probability that an individual will die if they receive this limiting dose. In fact, workers routinely exposed at the limit run a one in two hundred risk of dying of cancer over a working lifetime.
• But the critical factor is the collective dose – the total received by all those exposed however this is spread around (however small the doses individual workers or members of the public get). It is this collective dose which determines the total number of cancers and genetic damage to future generations and other possible health effects.
• All of this, which the recent SA royal commission seems to either be blissfully unaware of or chooses to ignore, raises several safety questions about the proposals for handling nuclear waste. How can we ensure safety and security over the various timescales for each stage of the operation?
• Consider the 100-120 years proposed for above ground nuclear waste storage facilities. The past 100 years has seen two world wars, several major nuclear accidents, a growing international threat from terrorist groups – some keen to get access to nuclear material – and an evolving upheaval in the global social and political order as a result of rapid climate change that is displacing whole populations and putting pressures on environments, water, land and food resources as well as communities and cultures. How can we ensure political and social stability for the next 100 years?
• Now consider these challenges over millennia – the hundreds of thousands of years, longer than recorded human history, that this waste will remain dangerously radioactive . . . . Please do consider and let us come up with some sensible answers before we take a decision that we can’t reverse.
• We are still learning about the history of civilisations that preceded our own – mainly by archaeologists finding sites that look interesting and digging them up to find out what is there.
• Can we hope that future generations, long after our civilisation has forgotten that it was highly radioactive material we buried on our dump site, will not do the same?
• If not how will we ensure that information about what we have done with these wastes is passed on?
• What happens if it doesn’t work out as planned? Are we to be left with a large amount of waste we can’t dispose of – taking other countries’ problem and making it ours? Is there to be a ‘return to sender’ clause in the contract and if not why not?
• What revisions to the radiation protection standards are needed to reflect the true risk to workers and the public from any routine exposure or accidental release of radioactive material?
• What degree of certainty or at least range of financial estimates is needed to decide whether the proposal could yield economic benefits that outweigh the costs?
We have several processes either underway or being proposed each with possibilities and problems. The South Australian Royal Commission produced a much criticised pro-nuclear waste dump report. This is now the subject of:
• A South Australian parliamentary inquiry
• A proposed ‘Citizens Jury’ process – with a small group tasked to identify technical issues and present these to a larger group for consideration
• A government commitment to consult aboriginal communities likely to be affected by any dump decision
• Proposed consultations with members of other communities likely to be affected
• A commitment to discuss issues with trade union and Labor movement interests – presumably around economic, employment and safety issues
• Calls from various political groups for a state-wide referendum on the nuclear dump question
• Proposed changes to State legislation that currently prohibits the State spending any money on promoting let alone developing the proposed nuclear waste dump plans
• Controversy at the Federal level – where nuclear matters are regulated under the foreign affairs powers – and where a decision with such long term implications as a nuclear dump would require a bi-partisan approach as a minimum – and where the Federal Labor party has policy unequivocally opposed to allowing any importing of nuclear wastes.
So – in summary at this stage we don’t have any definite plans around which people can be expected to make a decision.
We have a flawed Royal Commission report that failed to address the key questions outlined here. It offered only a pipe dream that we could make a fortune by taking in around a third of the world’s nuclear trash – and do so safely despite a lack of evidence that this could be technically, socially/culturally and politically achievable.
This is a dream that could turn into a nightmare if any of the following happen:
• The deep underground nuclear waste dump cannot be built – or costs too much to build – leaving large volume of highly radioactive waste in long term ‘temporary’ storage even beyond the 100 years already planned.
• The optimistic economic estimates are wrong – because other countries are unwilling to pay the inflated price the current plan is based and/or we take less waste because other countries compete to provide a dump (which is inevitable if and when the technical feasibility problems of building such a dump are overcome) or the costs of providing the proposed port, storage and dump facilities blow out (as they almost certainly will). With any of these scenarios we could end up with an economic (and highly radioactive) white elephant – a burden on the economy for many generations into the future.
• There is a significant burden of collective exposure to the population – something very likely given the proposed amount of nuclear material and the time frames over which people will be exposed in the handling, storage and dumping of these wastes even without accidents or terrorism activity. If so there will be a significant scale of health effects from such exposures – both in terms of cancers and other health problems in the exposed population and the genetic effects transmitted over future generations. How will the public react when the claim that the dump is ‘safe’ is exposed as a lie?
How might answers to these questions be found?
In light of these questions the current proposals to take nuclear waste from around the world in the hope we can safely and profitably store and then dispose of this hazardous material are seriously flawed.
The proposals are lacking in practical answers on matters that need to be fully aired and considered ahead of any process of public consultation and decision-making about becoming the world’s nuclear waste dump.
It is our view that any further progress with the various consultation and decision-making processes in the absence of reliable answers to these questions should cease. On the absence of answers any such processes will be seen as an attempt to ‘manufacture consent’ – which even if it can be achieved in the short term will not hold up into the future. Finding answers to these questions will not be easy. Arguably it was the task of the Royal Commission to address these – or at the very least to present a report that identified these and perhaps others that needed further work and fuller discussion. If this was its task it clearly failed. What we have is a partisan report presenting nuclear industry apologists pipe dreams and those involved in producing this should be debarred from any further involvement in the process.
A genuine commission of inquiry – seeking answers to the key questions of relevance to the decision about how best Australia should manage its own nuclear wastes would seem to be the urgent next step – and establishing such an inquiry with people who can be seen to be impartial and who draw on the wide range of expertise available to come up with practical proposals an essential part of this. These proposals should then be the subject of wide and extended consultation. This is not putting off the inevitable – the fact is that there are facilities already available to manage this level of Australian radiative waste in Australia for the next 15 years. There is no need to rush a decision – particularly not one that will have such far reaching consequences.
As for other countries’ nuclear wastes – these are problems for which they and the world need to carefully consider options and possible solutions. The process of managing our own waste problems, and managing the process by which a national consensus can be reached on how to deal with them, will be a significant part of our contribution to the global problem.
Comments on these questions are welcome
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