The royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle was a Trojan horse for potential international radioactive waste disposal in outback Australia, writes Dave Sweeney

Just under twelve months ago South Australian premier Jay Weatherill announced aNuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission to look into opportunities to expand the nuclear industry in his state.

The move surprised many at the time both because SA is a national leader in renewable energy production and also because uranium prices and production had plummeted following the Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima crisis.

But while the commission might have been a surprise, its interim findings – released this week in Adelaide – were not.

But while the commission might have been a surprise, its interim findings – released this week in Adelaide – were not.

The commission, headed by former state governor Kevin Scarce, was tasked with examining development options over four broad areas: uranium mining, expanded uranium processing, domestic nuclear power and the storage and management of high level radioactive waste.

From the start critics of the commission’s pro-industry terms of reference argued that the process was a Trojan horse for a renewed push for international radioactive waste disposal in Australia. This view has been vindicated this week.

The commission has stated it is unconvinced about the chances for any uranium industry expansion and acknowledges nuclear power as not commercially viable in the foreseeable future.

However, like the product involved, the commission was glowing about the opportunities that could come from hosting international high level radioactive waste.

Around the world radioactive waste management is a growing and unresolved management issue and environmental challenge. If managing nuclear waste was so straightforward or lucrative then it would have already been done.

Some countries, most notably Finland, are advancing deep geological burial sites but the cost and complexity is high. After seven decades of commercial nuclear power operations not one nation has a final disposal site for high level waste and the sector is strewn with failed projects, timeline delays and massive cost overruns.

Against this landscape it is hard to see Australia providing the silver bullet, or even some buckshot.

We have limited nuclear industry experience and infrastructure and lack the regulatory framework to manage such waste. Moreover, a range of state and federal laws expressly preclude such an activity, one which has no bi-partisan political support in a deeply sceptical and contested Australian public sphere.

Australia’s dismal track record in relation to managing our own modest stockpile of radioactive waste is also hardly cause for confidence in the commission’s global ambition.

For over two decades successive federal governments have tried, and failed, to convince and coerce remote Aboriginal communities in South Australia and theNorthern Territory to accept a waste site.

A revised national siting approach is currently facing strong community opposition in the six regions under active consideration. Three of these new sites are in South Australia and the commission’s enthusiasm to open the door for an international waste site may well see local communities ever more determined oppose plans for a national one.

With the commission’s atomic waste agenda and global waste aspirations unveiled, the issue now becomes one of politics, especially in this federal election year given the plan’s profound national implications and the critical need for bi-partisan support.

With the commission’s atomic waste agenda and global waste aspirations unveiled, the issue now becomes one of politics

Premier Weatherill has flagged increased engagement with the commonwealth government ahead of the commission’s final report on May 6. He has outlined that while the SA government does not currently have a fixed view he is “prepared to consider such a proposition” and will provide a full response to the state parliament before the end of the year.

Unlike the global nuclear power sector which is dying out due to growing public opposition and costs and the rise of renewables, nuclear waste is like zombie waste – it remains undead.

The stage is now set for a public debate and a community choice as to whether the options are really so scarce that South Australia’s and Australia’s best future economic chance is dependent on hosting the world’s worst environmental waste.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.