Australia as the world’s nuclear waste dump?

Some argue that Australia should establish a deep geological repository and accept high level nuclear waste from overseas. A variation of the argument is that Australia should accept high level waste arising from the processing of Australian uranium.

It is argued that Australia would be making a contribution to global non-proliferation efforts by accepting nuclear waste from overseas. However it is not clear that non-proliferation efforts would be advanced. It would depend on many factors, not least whether the waste contains weapons-useable plutonium. Spent fuel contains plutonium, but the high level waste stream from reprocessing does not. Globally, power reactors have produced about 2000 tonnes of plutonium (enough for 200,000 weapons). Australia’s uranium exports have produced over 120 tonnes of plutonium (enough for 12,000 weapons).

It is argued that Australia has a responsibility to accept waste arising from the processing of uranium exports. However the larger share of the responsibility lies with the countries that make use of Australian uranium. Moreover, while uranium mining companies arguably ought to take some responsibility for the waste arising from their exports, it is not clear that responsibility lies with Australia as a whole. One plausible scenario is uranium being mined on Aboriginal land regardless of Aboriginal opposition, and high level waste being dumped on Aboriginal land, again without consent.

The argument that Australia should accept high level nuclear waste imports rests on the questionable assumption that it would be carefully and responsibly managed in Australia. To give a fairly recent example of mismanagement of radioactive waste in Australia, the ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s was botched. Even after the ‘clean up’, tonnes of plutonium contaminated waste remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology. As nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’ on ABC radio on August 5, 2002: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.” Nuclear physicist Professor Peter Johnston noted that “there were … very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project by [the Department of Education, Science and Training].”

There are serious environmental and public health risks associated with high level nuclear waste. Professor John Veevers (1999) states: “[T]onnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000 kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes − of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk.”

Dr Mike Sandiford (2009) from School of Earth Sciences at University of Melbourne writes: “Australia is relatively stable but not tectonically inert, and appears to be less stable than a number of other continental regions. Some places in Australia are surprisingly geologically active. We occasionally get big earthquakes in Australia (up to about magnitude 7) and the big ones have tended to occur in somewhat unexpected places like Tennant Creek. The occurrences of such earthquakes imply that we still have much to learn about our earthquake activity. From the point of view of long-term waste disposal this is very important, since prior to the 1988 (M 6.8) quake, Tennant Creek might have been viewed as one of the most appropriate parts of the continent for a storage facility. Australia is not the most stable of continental regions, although the levels of earthquake risk are low by global standards. To the extent that past earthquake activity provides a guide to future tectonic activity, Australia would not appear to provide the most tectonically stable environments for long-term waste facilities. However, earthquake risk is just one of the ‘geologic’ factors relevant to evaluating long-term integrity of waste storage facilities, and other factors such as the groundwater conditions, need to be evaluated in any comprehensive assessment of risk.”