As Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane prepares to announce a shortlist of possible sites to host Australia’s radioactive waste, challenges facing the goal of responsible radioactive waste management remain, writes Dave Sweeney

Albert Einstein reportedly described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. By this definition, a line of Australian ministers from both major parties have long been card-carrying crazies when it comes to radioactive waste management.

For more than two decades, successive federal governments have repeatedly tried – and repeatedly failed - to impose a dedicated national radioactive waste dump on unwilling Aboriginal communities in regional and remote Australia.

Over multiple years and across multiple sites in both South Australia and the Northern Territory, the charter flights and Comcars have transported visitors from Canberra who brought in promises and photo opportunities and left behind dismayed and divided communities.

From these communities emerged spirited campaigners who built alliances with other Aboriginal groups, environmentalists, public health bodies, trade unions and a range of state and local government to shape and sustain powerful and successful community resistance campaigns.

The ubiquitous call of “No Dumps” has turned into a hard won reality and right now we are at a pivotal point in this long running issue.

After decades of division and secrecy Australia has a real chance to do things differently and better and maybe – hopefully - we will.

Whether we do or not will in large part be determined by the position taken by the federal government in the next weeks and months. Following last year’s spectacular failure of the long contested federal push to dump radioactive waste at Muckaty in the Northern Territory, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has revised the government’s approach.

Unfortunately, long standing calls for an independent, evidence-based examination of responsible radioactive waste management options from groups including the ACTU, the Central Land Council and the Public Health Association of Australia were not acted on.

However the Minister’s revised approach is based on the key principles of non-imposition and voluntarism. This, along with assessing the suitability of potential sites based on transparent criteria rather than political expedience, is welcome.

But many in the community remain cautious and concerned and there are some significant challenges that risk the realisation of responsible radioactive waste management in Australia.

These doubts include just how the federal government interprets volunteerism. How wide is the net cast and who gets asked - is this glow in the dark beauty solely in the eye of an individual landholder?

And another unanswered question is how the federal government intends to address the fact that jurisdictions including South Australia, West Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales have democratically derived existing state laws that ban the very sort of facility that Canberra is seeking to develop?

Another challenge is time. Radioactive waste lasts for a very long time, politicians do not.

There is a real risk that Minister Macfarlane’s self-imposed truncated timeline may not allow for meaningful community consultation. If this is the case, Canberra’s political imperatives will again have been prioritised above good public policy, the national interest and a lasting result.

A further complication is the likely conflation of national and international radioactive waste issues.

In March this year, Minister Macfarlane called for nominations from landholders willing to host a national waste facility. In the same month, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill launched a state Royal Commission into options to expand the increasingly becalmed nuclear trade, including exploring international high level radioactive storage and disposal in SA.

Many environmental and Aboriginal organisations see the Royal Commission being used by nuclear proponents as a toxic Trojan Horse to advance this hotly contested global dump plan. Reluctance to open the door for possible international radioactive waste dumps might also see the door kept shut to any planned national facility.

Nothing about radioactive waste management is straightforward or easy, but everything about it is important.

It is also important to understand that the approaches of the past – secret deals, the emotive linking of the separate issues of nuclear waste and nuclear medicine, commercial-in-confidence ‘agreements’ and carrot and stick politics – have failed. 

It is pivotal that these mistakes are not replicated when Minister Macfarlane releases his shortlist of possible sites. We need to restore trust, community confidence and consent, good science, good process and a clear acceptance that social and human concerns need to be genuinely addressed alongside technical criteria.

The need for such an approach is certain. Whether the revised federal process will have the necessary resources, time and procedural credibility to deliver this remains anything but.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.