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