Today I was invited to join ABC Bush Telegraph to discuss an issue of ongoing challenge for Australia: the siting of a centralised facility for low-and-intermediate level radioactive waste.

As a factual starting point, the current situation is, in technical terms, what we call a “dog’s breakfast”. This material is currently stored in over 100 sites around Australia. Most nations involved in nuclear science, medicine, engineering and energy have licensed, operating sites for this type of material. That Australia doesn’t is really not a good thing.

That’s particularly true since we now have arguably the best reactor in the world for the production of critical nuclear pharmaceuticals. Our production will expand to serve growing markets as other nations in the Asia-Pacific develop the modern medical systems that countries like Australia take for granted.

The show opens with an interview with an entirely pragmatic pastoralist, John Armstrong, who is considering applying to host the facility. He’s eloquent and well-informed; I was feeling a little redundant as I listened to him! His response to the question of health impacts (at 5.15 “…………health???”) was priceless. Voices like his have the potential to be very important in these discussions

I was joined by Peter Karamoskos. Peter is someone I would regard as a determined nuclear misinformer. I have never seen him lie, however he uses the truth in a particular way, principally to make everything sound as bad, dangerous, scary and poorly managed as he possibly can. That he also serves as the “Person to represent the interests of the general public” in the ARPANSA radiation health committee is disappointing. That role should indeed be questioning and sceptical one, but there’s a line and, in my opinion, Peter is way past it.

So, in this interview, I was pleased to challenge Peter both on points of fact, and also on process. For example, his use of terms like “trench”, “storehouse” and “shed” are used very deliberately to make Australian authorities and experts sound like lazy idiots in the way they will go about this, when they are nothing of the kind. This type of conduct, particularly from someone who knows better, needs to be called out.

When asked about the risk of the facility itself, he (perfectly factually) speaks about the possibility of migration of the radio-nuclides and the role of weathering processes, saying “wind and water are the enemy”, but never get’s around to committing to a position about the risk to the hypothetical pastoralist (e.g. John Armstrong). In that case I was happy to drive home the fact that, as Peter well knows, the material will be conditioned to vitrified (glass) and synroc (rock-like) form before being packed in robust containment and transported for interim storage in a properly engineered facility. So the risk? Fundamentally nil.

Finally, Peter speaks about the need for international best practice and a bottom-up approach to site a geological repository for final disposal of the intermediate level waste, as though he is a champion of this approach. In this case I really was pleased to ask him “What do you want???”. Peter seemed to be proposing that nothing can be done until that bottom-up process has been delivered and the final solution is established for the intermediate level waste. That serves absolutely no-one in the Australian community, except those who actually benefit from the continued perception of nuclear as being riddled with intractable problems.

Make no mistake, the Peter’s of the world don’t want solutions to nuclear challenges because then they lose their greatest fear-mongering weapon. A properly delivered bottom-up approach will take time. That’s the nature of voluntary, consultative process. That’s doesn’t diminish our need for a centralised facility in the next few years. We can use such a facility to greatly improve our management of the material while a good process is undertaken.

The supreme irony is that while we need to consolidate our legacy material into one location, the main ongoing waste stream will be from the production of high-tech medicine, the type of life-saving diagnostic pharmaceuticals and treatments that are an indispensable part of modern health care.

Peter is a representative of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. Perhaps they should re-badge to Medical Association for the Prevention of Medicine.

Here is the link to listen to the show.

http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2014/10/bth_20141009.mp3

12 comments

  1. Where are the voices of the generators of this nuclear waste? Are low and mid level nuclear waste streams truly a problem worthy of urgent and expensive action or are we discussing the exotic, expensive personal preferences offered by armchair generals who have no skin in the game?

    This discussion involved a grazier, an academic/consultant from SA and an academic/medical practitioner from Vic, but nothing from those who own the problem, or even if there is a problem and if so, what its dimensions are.

    Since most of this waste comes from either the medical industry or the geotechnical investigation industry, what are their positions? Who are their spokespersons? How much money will they save by using a centralised solution as against the status quo? They own the many temporary storage sites, some of which are located within our CBD’s and cities. Is it reasonable to assume that these knowledgeable folk are not concerned, because they understand that the risks due to current mid-level and low level storage is very low and that even seemingly unsophisticated current storage arrangements pose extremely low risks to the users and to the general public? What is the problem that we are trying to solve? Is it only the noise from the sidelines?

    If this was about project management, then a standard project management approach would have solved it many years ago, ie to implement the option which addresses the problem (which is…?) with the lowest cost/benefit ratio. Sadly, the debate has for many years been entirely between those with least skin in the game. In football parlance, the Grand Final has been stopped while the teams of cheerleaders battle on the sidelines to decide the result.

    Let’s hear from the players.

    1. Good call.

      Much of this issue is legacy, and the players don’t really exist anymore. The others are so small and disparate they are hardly representative. This is a fringe issue for them, not core business or concern

      The main player today is ANSTO. I think this report from them is an absolutely excellent document. Plain English, puts the Australian situation in international context.

      http://www.ansto.gov.au/cs/groups/corporate/documents/webcontent/mdaw/mday/~edisp/acstest_040440.pdf

      I don’t know their policy on media but I would like to hear more from them too.

      In the meantime, my independence brings certain freedoms of expression to the table, and media like that.

  2. I’d say Gilnockie Station will probably get the nod. The owner will face fierce resentment from those who missed out on the benefits and hatred from the usual crowd. I hope the haters grasp that they are using a lot of fossil fuel to get to the outback for protests. Note some copper-uranium concentrate passes by rail through Katherine NT the route being Olympic Dam – Pt Darwin – Guangdong. If there is ever a medal for eco-pragmatism farmer John Armstrong should be nominated.

  3. Yes I listened, impressed, to Mr Armstrong and had to wonder how you were going to top that. But you were on fire and didn’t let the debate be dragged down to mere confusion and semantics – standard strategy of the opposition to displace information and perspective within a limited timeslot.

  4. When a grazier talks with more common sense than a professional about nuclear issues there really is a problem…and not with the grazier!

    I was with my kids in the old HIFAR in the recent school holidays, and there’s a big concrete plug that needs to be lifted out of there and stored for a very long time, but will probably end up on site until this issue is solved.

    Well done Ben, you delivered some more of the common sense to counter this particular brand of professional fear-mongering.

    (btw, not only is the OPAL doing great work with medical isotopes, and all the neutron beams for research, but the other big earner is doping silicon for high voltage transistors and we saw them lifting several big cylinders out of the pool the day we were there.)

  5. Like yellowcake shipments from Pt Adelaide there seems to be a bit of secrecy about how the HIFAR material left Australia. This link tells little
    http://www.areva.com/EN/operations-1379/nuclear-used-fuel-shipment-from-australia-to-europe.html
    I gather it was loaded onto an approved ship somewhere like Port Botany. If it has to come back to there it would be easier to take the sealed material to central NSW. Logistically it would seem easier to unload material destined for Gilnockie Station at Pt Darwin. It would be strange if it got a noisy reception while the truly deadly cargoes of live cattle destined for Asia are ignored.

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