What to do with radioactive waste?

A common-sense approach to radioactive waste involves the following three steps:
1. Minimising the production of radioactive waste;
2. Thoroughly assessing all options for the management of radioactive waste; and
3. Using scientific and environmental siting criteria rather than choosing politically ‘soft’ targets.

Public involvement in decision making, and informed consent to proposals, is also essential if an equitable outcome is to be achieved. Involvement and informed consent are also desirable from a practical point of view. There is a long history of communities successfully mobilising to force the abandonment of nuclear dump proposals. The UK Committee on Radioactive Wast Management emphasises two key principles of “voluntarism and partnership between communities and implementers”. <www.corwm.org.uk>

Before producing radioactive waste, it needs to be demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the risks. Unfortunately, waste minimisation principles are too often honoured in the breach. For example, the plan for a new reactor at Lucas Heights was not subject to thorough, independent analysis under the Howard government.
Much of the debate on waste management options assumes the ‘need’ for off-site stores or dumps. But the option of storing waste where it is produced needs serious consideration:
* Even if centralised facilities exist, waste is inevitably stored at the site of production, often for long periods. On-site storage facilities must be adequately constructed and regulated whether or not centralised, off-site waste management facilities exist. With adequate on-site storage facilities, the case for centralised facilities is weakened, especially considering the progressive decline of the radioactivity and toxicity of radioactive waste.
* Storage at the site of production avoids altogether the risks of transportation.
* It is by far the best (and perhaps the only) way to get radioactive waste producers to get serious about minimising waste production. Conversely, the provision of an out-of-sight-out-of-mind disposal option, as with the federal government’s planned nuclear waste facility in the NT, is likely to lead to more profligate waste production.
* Organisations producing waste must have the expertise to manage it. Conversely, there is no radioactive waste management expertise in the Tennant Creek / Muckaty area of the NT.

In the case of the Lucas Heights research reactor plant, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), it is difficult to see why ANSTO cannot continue to store its waste rather than the current push to dump it in the NT – albeit the case that improved waste management systems and greater transparency are required at ANSTO. All relevant organisations − including ANSTO, the regulator ARPANSA, the Australian Nuclear Association and even Martin Ferguson’s own department − have acknowledged that ongoing storage at Lucas Heights is a viable option.

If a site selection process is required for a waste store or repository, it ought to be based on scientific and environmental criteria, as well as on the principle of community consent. When the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences conducted a preliminary site selection study in the 1990s, based on environmental and scientific criteria, the Muckaty area did not even make the short-list as a ”suitable” site for a nuclear dump, yet Muckaty is the only site now under consideration.