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Successive federal governments have attempted to manage Australia's radioactive waste by keeping the issue as low on the political radar and as far from the public eye as possible.
This approach has meant that instead of developing a credible process to identify the range of best management options they have been obsessed with a finding a vulnerable and politically powerless postcode to host the nation's radioactive waste.
We now have the reality of radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisations nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney set to make the long trip back from European reprocessing plants in the coming years.
The Australian Conservation Foundation campaigns to remove Australia from its involvement in the global nuclear trade. We want to end uranium mining — the asbestos of the 21st Century — and are working to halt federal government plans to dump radioactive waste on contested Aboriginal land at Muckaty in the Northern Territory.
For some, ACF's conditional support for the idea of radioactive waste being stored in Sydney is surprising. However, if coupled with a comprehensive public inquiry into how best to manage Australia's radioactive waste, housing the waste at Lucas Heights may offer the 'least worst' option for dealing with this waste.
All nuclear activities create nuclear waste. The waste in question is a contaminated cocktail of radioactive elements and isotopes, some of which pose a very significant radiological and human health hazard and require long term active intervention and management.
It makes sense to store such material in the place where the waste was produced, a place that has clear tenure, comprehensive security, the highest concentration of nuclear expertise in the country and is already host to larger volumes of similar waste. Lucas Heights fits that description.
Given that nothing about nuclear waste is desirable, storing the material at ANSTO's nuclear facility — pending the outcomes of a genuine and open assessment of what is the best long term approach — is at least sensible.
The key point is the need for a credible, robust and public inquiry into Australia's waste management options. This has not happened to date and is a big part of why the divisive approach of the former Howard government, which has been enthusiastically followed by the current portfolio Minister Martin Ferguson, has failed to deliver a site or a solution.
A public inquiry into Australia's radioactive waste management options would be the long overdue circuit breaker to help restore some sound science, procedural integrity and community confidence.
We can't take the heat out of radioactive waste but we can — and must — take the heat out of the debate over its management. There are clear international examples of such processes leading to far more considered, consensual and lasting waste management approaches and the Australian government needs to step up to its responsibilities in the long term interests of all.
Remote centralised storage of radioactive waste is Minister Ferguson's preferred position. This is indeed one option, but it is certainly not the only one and very arguably not the best one. Instead of sterilising management options and placing further pressure on already marginalised Indigenous communities in the NT the federal government needs to now accept what its 'Sydney solution' really means: that the current approach has failed.
When it comes to radioactive waste management in Australia, it's now time to do things differently and better. It is time to stop the posture and bluster and bring the legitimate concerns of diverse stakeholders out of the private trenches and to the public table.
interim storage of returning waste at ANSTO's site — under the strictest conditions and with the highest standards and scrutiny - provides the space for this to happen. It would be a deep disservice to the people of the region if this chance was squandered.
We now have the opportunity to develop a mature, effective, inclusive and responsible approach to radioactive waste management - an approach that is in the interest of all Australians, now and long into the future. It is up to our politicians to demonstrate that they have the capacity and courage to meet this long term challenge. The next step along this path starts with asking the right questions.
Dave Sweeney is a nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation.
This article was originally published on ABC environment.