05 May 2015
by Anica Niepraschk

Australia's call for volunteers to host a radioactive waste facility

Over the coming weeks and months we will find out whether the Federal Government's new approach to finding a radioactive waste storage and disposal site will be more successful than past efforts.

Australia does not produce any high-level radioactive waste. It does however produce moderate amounts of low-level waste that could be disposed of in a shallow repository to be monitored for several hundred years, and long-lived intermediate-level waste that will need to be carefully managed for some thousands of years.

After more than 20 years of flawed and failed attempts to impose a dump on communities in South Australia and the Northern Territory, the Government has finally realised that a matter of such importance and extraordinary risks can't be imposed on communities but has to be the result of a voluntary process.

In March, Industry Minister Ian McFarlane called on landowners across Australia to nominate their land to host a radioactive waste management facility. The two-month nomination period ends this Tuesday, May 5, which could give a first indication on where the Government is heading with its new approach.

It is worth having a look at how the process is set out and if it is really as voluntary as the Government claims. Let's assume some landowners are really keen to store and dispose of radioactive waste – with all the risks associated – on their land and submit an application. This does not mean their land is actually suitable, as a number of geological and socio-economical criteria need to be fulfilled, including community well-being, a stable environment, environmental protection, health, safety and security and economic viability.

Following the end of the nomination period, a desktop study will take place to assess all the nominated sites. This will result in a short-list of sites, which is currently expected for July. Once the short-list is approved by the Minister and publicly released, a two-month public comment period will take place. This phase is followed by further site characterisation studies to determine if the sites are geologically suitable to host a radioactive waste facility. A final decision on the siting is expected to be made mid next year.

This is a rather short lay out for a process that has shown to take decades in most countries. It seems as if the Abbot Government is trying to put a quick fix to a complex and controversial issue before the end of its term. This rush comes with a series of compromises. The process is in fact not as voluntary and democratic as it might seem at first glance.

Australia is rather original in its approach of calling landowners instead of communities or municipalities to volunteer to host the waste facility. As nuclear waste is unique in its properties and cannot simply be handled as other waste materials, it has far stretching environmental, health and socio-economic impacts on the wider surrounding of a facility, way beyond the piece of land it is situated on. It therefore requires the involvement of the local and even neighbouring communities and, to be truly voluntary, their consent. What if a pastoralist nominates a particular piece of land but the Traditional Owners of that land object, or vice versa? What about local communities who might be directly affected (e.g. radiological risks or radiological contamination in the event of an accident) or indirectly affected (e.g. land devaluation)?

The Australian approach does indeed incorporate community engagement aspects; they are, however, limited to informing the community about the impacts and various technical aspects of a nuclear waste facility and the negotiation of a community benefit package. The latter can be seen as a compensation for the hosting community for rendering a 'service to the nation' but can there ever be an appropriate compensation for the risks and responsibilities associated with such a facility for thousands of years?

Although the Government stresses that it does not want to impose a nuclear waste facility on any community, there is no guarantee that this Government (or a future one) will not revert to earlier habits of doing trying to do so. Community consent is in fact not a prerequisite for its siting decision. The process (and the relevant legislation) is lacking clear participatory, deliberative mechanisms, meaning that the community and wider civil society are not given an arena for actually influencing the decision-making.

South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory have legislation in place prohibiting the storage of radioactive waste from outside the state or territory. This means that the legality of nominations coming from these states or territories is compromised. The Federal Government, however, calls onto all Australian landowners fulfilling the criteria to submit applications, as the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 allows the Minister to override state legislation if conflict arises. The question is just how voluntary the siting would be in that case, given that it undermines democratically made decisions?

Landowners should think through their decision to apply, as they cannot withdraw their nomination from the time the short-list has been approved. This is rather early in the process as most countries enable the option to withdraw until right before the facility is going to be built. Once again, this contradicts the apparently voluntary character of the process.

A voluntary approach is a welcome shift in the Government's handling of the radioactive waste issue in Australia but it is compromised by the factors outlined above. As siting experiences in other countries such as the UK, Belgium and Sweden show, only truly voluntary and participatory processes will allow a siting project to be successful.

There is no one-fits-all solution at hand on how to design such a process but it has been evident that community engagement and finally consent and an open timeframe are essential elements of successful approaches. The Australian National Radioactive Waste Management Project is in its early phases, so there is still enough time to make the adjustments needed to create an inclusive, transparent process. Let's hope this opportunity to finally deal with the waste won't be wasted itself.