CANBERRA – An almost three decade long, fraught search for an Australian nuclear waste storage facility may be nearing its end, but the Turnbull Government has admitted it will be back to "square one” without community support.
Resources and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has released a shortlist of six freehold sites to possibly store low-to-intermediate nuclear waste, including three in South Australia, one in Queensland, another in New South Wales and the sixth in the Northern Territory.
The proposed 100 hectare storage facility would not hold high level waste nor radioactive material from other countries.
“When we're talking about low-level waste, we're talking about two Olympic size swimming pools worth of waste and much less than that when we're talking about intermediate waste,” Frydenberg told reporters in Melbourne.
If all six communities reject a waste facility, he admitted, “Well, we have to start again.”
“We have adopted a process of requesting these voluntary nominations that’s been different from the past, which has seen some false starts in the past.”
The shortlisted sites, whittled down from 28 nominations, are Cortlinye, Pinkawillinie, and Barndioota in South Australia, Hale in the Northern Territory, Sallys Flat in New South Wales and Oman Ama in Queensland.
None of the proposed sites are subject to native title claims.
Owners of the land chosen would receive up to four times the value of their land and the community would get around $10 million in infrastructure funding.
Proponents, including Dr Adi Paterson from ANSTO which runs Australia’s only nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, are offering assurances on safety,
“These facilities are safe because safety is assured by the regulatory practice that has been established right around the world,” he said.
Critics point out the Queensland site is two hour out of Brisbane and the NSW proposal is close to the regional centre of Bathurst.
Four months of consultation with the affected communities will take now place, and the final decision will made before the end of next year.
“I am confident we will identify one of these six sites to be absolutely suitable and ticking all the boxes,” the Minister told ABC radio.
Environmental groups and some local residents have already voiced concern.
The Australian Conservation Foundation, which is already taking the Government to court over the proposed giant Adani coal mine, is promising increased scrutiny.
“There are no compelling public health or technical reasons to rush any of this waste to another location, “ACF campaigner Dave Sweeney said.
“ACF will support affected communities and closely track every step of this long and contested road.”
Most of the radioactive waste will come from the Lucas Heights reactor, which the Minister said is reaching capacity.
But, more than 100 other Australian sites, including hospitals, also currently store low-level nuclear waste, such as exposed gloves and paper.
“It is in Australia’s interest to put it into one single depository as they do in other countries, like the United Kingdom, like Spain, like France, like South Africa,” Frydenberg said.
“It is world’s best practice, plus it meets our international obligations to store the waste that we, ourselves, create.”
Frydenberg insists the low-to-intermediate nuclear waste proposal is separate to any push for a high level facility.
The South Australian Government is currently undertaking a Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, examining what role it could play in the state economy.