Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Hands Up If You Want to Store Our Nuclear Waste

By Ian Lowe

The federal Government has called for volunteers to site a nuclear waste repository.

I recently saw a strange announcement by the Australian Government that indicated “the Government’s intention to consider opening a nationwide volunteer process for land owners to nominate land for Australia’s radioactive waste management facility”. This is the latest episode in a long-running saga.

About a decade ago, the Howard Government decided to establish a national radioactive waste repository in South Australia. That looked a safe bet. Successive SA governments have been happy to host the world’s largest uranium mine at Roxby Downs, producing much greater volumes of low-level radioactive waste that would have been stored in the proposed national repository. Despite this, the Rann Government opposed the proposal for waste storage in the State. The specific proposal was also opposed by local indigenous people.

Faced with opposition from a State government, the Commonwealth withdrew the proposal and tried instead to locate the repository in the Northern Territory, as territory governments don’t have the same constitutional standing as states.

Then there was a legal dispute about whether there was genuine support from local traditional owners for the waste facility at Muckaty Station. After a battle that went all the way to the Federal Court, that proposal was also withdrawn.

The Abbott Government then announced it would invite Aboriginal Land Councils in the Northern Territory to volunteer to host the radioactive waste.

I suspect this latest announcement means they have not been flooded with responses. The government is now saying that “interested parties” have until 10 November to comment on the proposal to allow “land owners in all states and territories” to volunteer a site “for further technical consideration”. The media release assures us that the government “will consider any comments provided before making a decision”.

Watch this space.

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Adelaide recently hosted a 1-day forum on migration. Some local decision-makers are unhappy that South Australia’s population is growing more slowly than other mainland states. I reminded them that Adelaide has fewer problems than other cities. It is doing better at maintaining quality of life. Because it has a lower rate of growth, it is less difficult to provide extra infrastructure.

I was reminded of a report produced in 2012 on urban planning by the Council of Australian Governments Reform Council. It found that Adelaide meets ten of the twelve criteria used by CoAG to judge the effectiveness of city planning. Sydney was judged to satisfy only one of the criteria fully, while Melbourne did not meet any of them.

Chair of the Reform Council, Paul McClintock, said in launching that report that bigger cities always find it harder to coordinate planning. Adelaide had the advantage of growing more slowly than Sydney and Melbourne, he said, so it has avoided many pressures affecting the larger cities.

The report was the culmination of a process begun in 2009 by CoAG. It decided to examine planning “to ensure cities are globally competitive, productive, sustainable, liveable and socially inclusive and are well-placed to meet future challenges and growth”. So the study considered whether planning was integrated and hierarchical, provided for nationally-significant infrastructure, addressed population growth and climate change, allowed for ordered land releases, encouraged world-class urban design and architecture, and contained performance measures, among other factors.

While Sydney was consistent with just one criteria it was largely consistent with three and partially consistent with a further seven. It failed on performance measures. As the report said, the system “contains strong planning and policy content” but “lacks the hard-edged accountability, performance and implementation measures to drive these policies”.

Melbourne was largely consistent with four criteria and partially consistent with seven. It too was judged to fail on the accountability front as well as facing “significant challenges accommodating future growth in freight”, the report said.

The Reform Council’s expert panel was chaired by former Deputy Prime Minister, Brian Howe. He argued that our cities were originally built around railways, then reoriented around roads. He said that cities now need a new model built around knowledge and ideas, with a strong commitment to improved public transport.

So he would have been profoundly disappointed with the Australian government’s recent restructuring of the Infrastructure Council, which appears to give it a last-century emphasis on roads.

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