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.