By KIERAN FINNANE
A national nuclear waste facility will not be imposed on an unwilling community, a public meeting in Alice Springs last night was repeatedly told by a representative of the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
So what will you report back from this meeting, for or against? a man from the floor wanted to know at the end. The questions, challenges and inevitable commentary from those who had spoken had been overwhelmingly sceptical, critical or vehemently opposed.
The department’s Michael Sheldrick didn’t want to be so black and white: the feedback from the meeting would be “reflected back” to the decision-makers.
More weight will be given to the views of neighbours closer to the nominated facility, the Aridgold Date Farm on the Old South Road, Hale, some 75 kilometres from Alice Springs (at left, photo courtesy of the department).
Consultation meetings had been held earlier this week with the neighbours. They include Oak Valley where the Le Rossignol family are traditional owners and have an olive tree plantation (Robert Le Rossignol pictured below with their locally processed oil). Aaron Le Rossignol told the Alice meeting that he had attended the consultations at Oak Valley, Walkabout Bore, Santa Teresa, and Titjikala: the response to the proposal from all of these was a resounding no.
But the consultation process doesn’t end with this series of meetings. Personal submissions can be made and a professional survey company will soon be conducting a “statistically valid” phone survey. Amongst the neighbouring landholders, where English may not be their first language, face to face interviews will be conducted.
The facility will be for low and intermediate level solid waste. The latter is generated by Australia’s sole nuclear reactor, at Lucas Heights in Sydney, for use in nuclear medicine, scientific research and other applications. At present this waste is stored on site, while low level waste is kept at more than 100 sites around the country: more than half of it at Woomera in South Australia, and the rest in various hospitals and universities. “World’s best practice”, the meeting was told, is to store it in a single facility with all the right management processes in place.
The Australian Government has been looking for such a site for many years. The most recent push, to have it hosted on Muckaty Station in the Barkly, collapsed in 2014 when its nomination was withdrawn following an eight year campaign and the commencement of legal proceedings by traditional owners.
The low level waste is made up of things like equipment and protective clothing used in the industry, for instance the gloves and gowns of medical staff, and hard materials such as concrete rubble from dismantled facilities.
The intermediate waste consists of materials generated by radiopharmaceutical production and reactor operations at Lucas Heights. (No high level waste is generated in Australia.)
The facility is for the long-term storage – 200 to 300 years – of low level waste, the radiation from which after 100 years will be no more than “background level”.
For the intermediate waste, the facility will provide only interim storage.
What will happen to it in the long-term was the concern of more than one questioner, including local resident Penelope McDonald, who was thinking of the generations into the future
At present the volume is small, but in 100 years’ time it will have, of course, increased, the meeting was told. World’s best practice requires it to be stored underground “at medium depth”. The facility being discussed now essentially buys time for the government to look for a suitable site. This process is not active, but there is a plan to progress the search after the first facility is established. In the meantime, processes to deal with the waste are changing “dramatically” and in five years’ time better options may be available.
Would a permanent intermediate waste facility have to be near the long-term low level facility to reduce the risks of transport?
Not necessarily, said Mr Sheldrick, who assured the meeting that transport is not an issue, as 30,000 safe movements of nuclear material in Australia have demonstrated. He later made the distinction between incidents, for instance transport accidents, and impacts on humans. There have never been any human impacts from the transport of nuclear material, neither in Australia, where the quantities are not large, nor internationally, he said.
Initially, the present volume of Australian waste – 4000 cubic metres – would be transported to the chosen site in 40 truckloads. Thereafter waste would be left to be accumulate over five year periods and then be transported in one go by five trucks. “Packages” involving “four layers of defence” are used in the transport, which is what ensures their security.
What route would be used, local resident, mother and grandmother Judy Buckley wanted to know.
For transport to the Hale site, this is not yet known. It would only be looked at in detail if the site were chosen, said Mr Sheldrick (pictured on the microphone at left, with facilitator Professor Ray Kemp). If an upgrade to roads was required this would be factored into the works.
Would the iconic red dirt road be bitumised, Chris Wallace asked. He runs a local solar power company, servicing Alice Springs and remote communities, including Oak Valley.
This road may not have to be used, said Mr Sheldrick, who a few years back enjoyed driving it for leisure himself – “a fantastic trip”. For instance, material being transported from Woomera would not have to come via Alice Springs.
Risk to our underground water resources was another concern, from an Alice resident, previously living at Finke community and with an interest in the Lake Eyre Basin as well as the local aquifer.
The primary safeguard comes with the design process, the meeting was told, with all possible scenarios being taken into account. It would not be envisaged that any liquid come into contact with the waste material, but if somehow it did, it would be captured and monitored before any release into the environment.
The date farm site is close to some “units” of the Alice Springs aquifer, but they are uphill from the site, in the James Ranges, and water does not flow uphill.
The geological assessments to date have been at a regional level to see if any broad geological impediments exist. If the Hale site moves to the next phase – a shortlist of two to three sites where there is sufficient community support – then more detailed site-specific study will be done.
If it’s all so safe, then why not store it in one of the capital cities, came a challenge, from Domenico Pecorari, Alice resident and architect. Why not under Parliament House? Applause.
It’s a surface facility, said Mr Sheldrick, and following world’s best practice, a suitable site would be one where alternative uses of the land are less likely. Heckles.
Talking of land use, what will become of the date farm if it is acquired for the facility? The answer didn’t quite stipulate that the palms will go but that was implied: the site would become Commonwealth property. Questioner Alex Nelson, long term resident with a keen interest in horticulture, pointed out the loss that would represent: not only of years of horticultural experience, but the public investment that supported development of the farm, and this at a time when the Territory government is once again talking up horticultural development (including date production) in the Centre.
But the palms could well go, with or without the facility. The farm has been on the market for over three years with no takers, owner Tim Micklem (pictured at left) later told the Alice Springs News. He wants to retire and ultimately will turn off water to the trees if no other option presents itself.
What had guided selection of the date farm site in the first place? Michael La Flamme, local resident and scientist, pointed out that this information had not been shared with the community. How could the community then give fully informed prior consent?
Dr La Flamme said such consent is part of international best practice as required by the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, an internationally binding treaty.
There was no real answer to this question in relation to the date farm nomination (people could go and get information elsewhere, it was suggested), but the meeting was told that the process was being conducted under the legal framework provided by the National Radioactive Waste Management Act, 2012. Mr Sheldrick also noted that communities are not locked in to anything at this stage of the process.
Jimmy Cocking of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (pictured at right) wanted to know why Mr Micklem was nominated without talking to his neighbours first? He pointed out that Mr Micklem was in the room, although Mr Micklem did not take the opportunity to speak.
When the Alice Springs News asked him later why he hadn’t consulted with his neighbours, he answered with a question: at what stage should he have consulted with them? He said he didn’t know if there had been one or one thousand nominations, and hence what his chances were. He said the government “didn’t really come back to me” until they made their public announcement and that his neighbours may have learned of it sooner than he did. He wished he had had a chance to talk it over with them but got caught out by the timing of the announcement.
Mr Cocking also wanted to know what would prevent the facility being sold to private concerns down the track, noting the sale of two Territory public assets without any prior warning over the past four years (TIO and the Darwin port).
Mr Sheldrick said the economics simply wouldn’t stack up for the Australian facility: it would be too small in scale. There are some privately operated facilities internationally but they are “massively large” in comparison.
Acceptance of the facility would come with a once-off $10m sweetener for use as a “community benefit fund”. The community concerned would be asked about what kind of infrastructure projects that money should go towards.
A question from Natalie Wasley of the Beyond Nuclear Initiative, also a local resident with a babe in arms, wanted to know if it was being used already to provide incentive payments to community organisations to keep them involved in the process. Mr Sheldrick denied this.
Ms Wasley also asked whether the states will have to pay back that money. Mr Sheldrick explained: the Commonwealth will establish the fund up front once a site is selected. The states – with the exception of the hosting state and the Commonwealth itself – would pay fees for use of the storage facility and these will go into the fund. The Commonwealth would then be able to draw down on the fund, but not below the level of $10m. As for the expenditure of the $10m, the Commonwealth Minister would have ultimate sign-off.
Barbara Shaw (pictured with the microphone at left), local resident, of the Shaw family prominently associated with Tangentyere Council and Mount Nancy Town Camp, and co-chair of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, wanted to put the $10m into perspective, noting that the recent $100m spend on town camps “has not changed our lives”.
She also wanted to know about radiation measurements from international nuclear waste dump sites (the meeting had been shown photographs of facilities in the UK, France and Spain).
Radiation from the international sites is monitored and the results published, the meeting was told, as is done for the Lucas Heights reactor and would be for the storage facility. At Lucas Heights only background to 100th of a percent more than background level radiation is detected at the perimeter.
The claims made in the department’s information sheet about the widespread use of nuclear medicine in Australia came under challenge from the floor, by a medical doctor. The claims resulted from ignorance at best, he said, misinformation at worst. He wanted to know what the evidence was for one in two Australians – in other words, 12 million people – requiring nuclear medicine services in their lifetime. He said the supporting reference to scans ignored the fact that the most common scans do not use radiation, and neither do the treatments for many cancers. Huge applause.
One of the visiting experts clarified: the one in two Australians claim was “statistically speaking”.
There is no connection between the national waste storage facility and the possibility being floated for South Australia – with lucrative returns – of a facility to take international high level waste.
It is expected that a single site will be chosen to go forward by the end of 2016, with construction commencing in 2020, following receipt of regulatory approvals.
And, what if all the presently nominated six sites say no?
The Minister will decide.