- Be informed
- Get involved
- Donate now
- News & media
An independent inquiry can come up with answers to a problem that won’t go away.
Australia generates radioactive waste. If you include the massive amounts of radioactive tailings produced by uranium mining, the volume is staggering.
The proposed Roxby Downs expansion will, if it goes ahead, create a vast toxic legacy and pollute a huge area. If you ignore uranium mining, the volume of radioactive waste is more modest but the threat posed by the material is not.
It remains hazardous to people and the environment for thousands of years.
Recently the federal government announced some of Australia's long-lived radioactive waste currently being treated in Europe would return to Australia in a few years.
This waste was to go to a proposed dump in the Northern Territory, but is now set to be stored at Lucas Heights.
At first glance it may seem strange to store this nasty waste in our largest city. We are a large country and much of our land is sparsely populated. In the old tradition of ``Sydney or the bush'', wouldn't it be better to load the stuff on to trucks or trains and take it to the outback?
This is exactly what successive federal governments have tried and failed to do for two decades.
Australia's approach to radioactive waste management has been driven by the search for a vulnerable postcode rather than informed by a credible process.
It has been drafted by bureaucrats who have little concern for the election cycle, but driven by politicians who have little concern for anything else -- a dangerous combination, as the waste lasts longer than any politician's promise.
The Howard government gave itself powers to override all legislation that might frustrate the establishment of a remote nuclear dump and exempted it from complying with key environment and indigenous obligations.
But these efforts failed because of a sustained campaign by traditional Aboriginal land owners and the wider community. In 2007 the glowing radioactive baton was passed to ALP Resource Minister Martin Ferguson. He has continued the Howard government approach but in a different place, promoting a waste dump on contested Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.
Dumping our longest-lived industrial waste on the land of some of the nation's most marginalised people is not an acceptable approach in the 21st century. In their haste to deal with the residue of divided atoms, successive federal governments have succeeded only in dividing communities and opinions.
A centralised remote dump for Australia's radioactive waste is one way to manage this material. But it is not the only way and arguably it is not the best way.
A remote facility brings its own problems, such as transport and security, and raises questions of whether free, prior and informed consent has been gained from the affected local community.
The government's newly announced ``Sydney solution'' is not ideal but, if coupled with an independent inquiry, it is sensible.
ANSTO has secure tenure of its Lucas Heights site, with patrolled perimeters and a constant police presence. The site has Australia's highest concentration of nuclear expertise. ANSTO officers have repeatedly assured Parliament they can manage the material.
Interim storage at Lucas Heights could be the spur for a genuine and credible independent inquiry into how best to manage our radioactive waste. It offers the chance to be a much needed circuit breaker for us to do things differently and better.
A comprehensive and credible public inquiry will not take the heat out of the waste, but it is our best chance to take the heat out of the debate. It can bring the diverse range of stakeholders out of the trenches and to the table. Sydneysiders and all Australians, current and future, deserve no less.
Professor Ian Lowe is president of the Australia Conservation Foundation
This article was originally published on The Daily Telegraph.