Australia begins search for National Radioactive Waste Management Facility

On March 2, 2015, the Australian Government announced that it had opened the process for voluntary site nominations for a future “National Radioactive Waste Management Facility” that will be designed to handle 4,248 cubic metres of low level and 656 cubic metres of intermediate level nuclear waste. The Australian Nuclear Association, in summarizing the government’s proposal, outlined the key objectives of the initial site identification phase which include: community well-being, equity, environmental protection, security, and economic viability.

Australia’s recent past with nuclear waste has been fraught with debate. In 2010, the Australian government passed the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill. The Bill paved the way for what some media outlets called a highly controversial plan to store nuclear waste in Muckaty Station, a northern Aboriginal community.

The Muckaty Station plan fell apart, and in response the government amended the Bill in 2012 with provisions for a new voluntary land nomination process. This shift to a voluntary process, in addition to the increased protection for Aboriginal communities, quelled the initial controversy over the 2010 Bill. However, with the nomination process now underway, the media and public’s attention has shifted to a number of new issues.

In an article posted March 7, 2015, Cameron England of Australia’s Sunday Mail discussed the government’s announcement and the broader political, economic, and social debate over nuclear waste storage in South Australia.  England argues that:

“Currently Australia is only involved in the first stage of the nuclear fuel cycle – that is, we mine uranium and ship it overseas for others to use. Like many other commodities, such as iron ore and wheat, we miss out on the lucrative ‘value adding’ that is involved in making the raw commodity a useful product.”

Citing a paper commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development in Australia, England argues that this involvement in the full nuclear fuel cycle, including reprocessing and long-term disposal, could boost the value derived from uranium by about 250 per cent.

Alternately, Mark Parnell, a South Australian Greens leader, is quoted in the article as pointing out the potential negative impact on public health and tourism in the region and the industry’s lack of development and deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs). In addition, Parnell argues that nuclear’s role in our energy future is uncertain due to the rise of and public preference for alternative energy sources.

Australia is not alone in its current development of nuclear fuel storage plans. In Canada, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), a federally mandated body created in part with Ontario Power Generation Inc. and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, is currently evaluating proposals for a number of nuclear waste storage sites in Ontario and one in Saskatchewan.

A recent feature article in The Globe and Mail takes a decidedly critical look at the development of a future Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for long-term spent-fuel storage. Another article, published March 9, 2015 in The London Free Press, covers much of the same ground on the issues surrounding the DGR site selection process. This local story, in part, starts in 2002, when the Canadian Federal government passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which mandated the creation of the NWMO and the development of a waste disposal strategy. The preamble to the Act explicitly calls for a “comprehensive, integrated and economically sound approach” to the management of nuclear fuel.

The Canadian Act, and much of the NWMO’s own goals, mirror the same Australian policy objectives highlighted in the introduction: balancing economic, environmental, and social responsibility. If we can highlight a single take-away from the media articles noted above, it is that industry and government must do anything and everything possible to make the process as transparent and open as possible. That means not just education but conversation, and a balanced approach to discussing not only how important nuclear energy is to our current energy system, but what role it will play in the future. Such efforts can not only shift the substantive outcome of the selection process, picking the best and safest site for nuclear waste management, but also inform and shape the integrity of the process itself.


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