Australia's Policy On Nuclear Waste Is All At Sea

28/10/2015 6:28 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
The BBC Shanghai cargo ship leaves the habour on October 15, 2015 in Cherbourg-Octeville. The vessel, whose security has been questioned, delivers nuclear waste back to Australia after its reprocessing in France. AFP PHOTO / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

It sounds like a radio station but instead it's a radioactive shipment. And it's on its way to Sydney. The BBC Shanghai is a general-purpose cargo ship that left the French port of Cherbourg in October carrying a thankfully rare cargo -- 25 tonnes of radioactive waste generated at Lucas Heights, treated in France and now heading back to Australia.

The ship is headed for Port Kembla, where it is hoped it will make an incident-free arrival in early December. What happens then is a test for the federal government and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), and an issue of lasting importance for all Australians.

Put simply, Australia has dropped the ball badly in relation to responsible radioactive waste management. For over 20 years, successive federal governments have repeatedly tried and failed to 'solve' this issue by imposing a national nuclear facility on unwilling remote communities. Apart from causing unnecessary and deep community stress, this approach has delivered little.

In late 2015 we have no national waste facility nor have we identified a possible future site. And we have a ship that is literally bringing this issue back home at a rate of knots. Instead of trying to dump this waste on remote Aboriginal land, a better solution can be found by referencing that most understated example of Aboriginal technology -- the boomerang. It may come as a surprise to some but Lucas Heights is actually the most appropriate place for this waste to be stored.

ANSTO's Lucas Heights facility has secure tenure and is actively policed. The site is fenced and patrolled and both generates and is home to the majority of Australia's radioactive waste. The facility is also home to Australia's highest concentration of nuclear expertise and technology.

Furthermore, after an Aboriginal-led campaign saw Muckaty Station in the NT removed as a possible waste site during a Federal Court trial last year, ANSTO has improved its ability to store waste at Lucas Heights with a new dedicated and purpose built on-site storage facility.

Key parties including ANSTO, industry lobby group The Australian Nuclear Association, and federal regulator The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency all agree that the secure management of radioactive waste at ANSTO is feasible and credible. And in a rare case of consensus on matters nuclear, national environment groups agree.

Two decades of short-term political 'fixes' for a long-term environmental and human challenge have delivered very little. Extended interim storage at the site of production at Lucas Heights offers the least-worst solution and provides a circuit breaker in a long running but scarcely advanced public debate.

It gives us the assurance and ability to do what Australia has never done and clearly needs to do. We need an evidence-based and open review into the best options to most responsibly manage Australia's radioactive waste.

In the interest of all, including future Australians, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to waste.

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