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Nuclear Waste Returns, But Where Will It Be Stored?

By Ian Lowe

Australia’s nuclear waste is being returned from France, and New Zealand is finally reporting on the state of its environment.

Australia’s radioactive chickens are coming home to roost. The spent fuel rods from the old HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights, now decommissioned, were sent to France for reprocessing by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). The treatment by the French company AREVA removes useful elements like uranium and plutonium, then places the remaining waste in glass to be returned to Australia. Under French law, the waste must leave France by the end of this year. However, Australia still does not have a repository for the intermediate level waste that will be on its way back here very soon.

ANSTO says that the waste will be transported on “a nuclear-rated ship” to Australia, then taken by truck to a temporary store at Lucas Heights. “Consistent with security requirements and practice established during nine previous export operations, ANSTO will not confirm the destination port, land route, or timing.” But ANSTO does have permission to retain the waste at their site “until the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is sited, constructed and licensed”. Unfortunately, nobody knows where that will be or when it will be available.

With a change in Minister after Malcolm Turnbull displaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, there will be another delay in this long-running saga. The Commonwealth government withdrew its proposal for a waste repository in South Australia in the face of opposition from the State government. It then tried to get approval for a site in the Northern Territory, but the proposal for Muckaty Station was also withdrawn after being challenged in the Federal Court by traditional owners of the land.

The previous Minister, Ian MacFarlane, was confident that there would be several expressions of interest from land-owners or local councils wanting to host the facility, but nothing had come to light before he lost his position as part of Turnbull’s ministerial reshuffle.

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New Zealand has finally recommenced national environmental reporting. Regular reports on the state of the environment have been an obligation since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but New Zealand has been missing in action since 2007. There has been pressure from the OECD for New Zealand to comply, as it has been the only OECD nation not to provide regular reports. Now the Environmental Reporting Act 2015 requires a report every 6 months for one of five specified environmental areas: land, freshwater, marine, air, atmosphere and climate. The sequence will begin with a report on freshwater in mid-2016. A sixth report, to be published every 3 years, will be an overall synthesis report.

Environment Minister Nick Smithsaid: “The new Environmental Reporting Act will back up our clean, green brand with authoritative and independent information on the state of our environment. It will tell us where we match up, where we don’t and give regular updates so we can track long-term changes.”

I was interested to see the approach being taken in New Zealand. Statistics New Zealand will manage the analysis and decide which data sets are sufficiently reliable to include. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, will have a role reviewing the reports. The aim is to ensure that there will be public trust in the validity of the reports, as both the Government Statistician and the Parliamentary Commissioner have guaranteed legal independence.

Apparently this issue of trust has been a problem in the past. Dr Marie Brown, senior policy analyst with New Zealand’s Environmental Defence Society, said that a whole chapter of the 2007 report was “misplaced” as it “said some inconvenient things”. This led to a perception that the whole exercise was political, leading to a public lack of trust in the reports.

The framework being adopted is broadly similar to what has been used in Australia for 20 years. In each area, the report will give information about the pressures on the environment, its current state and the consequences of changes in that state.

My only serious concern is one that Brown has expressed. There is no provision for a report on the state of biodiversity. Biodiversity loss is a global problem. Brown says people don’t know how bad things are in New Zealand. Under this scheme, they still won’t.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.