The initial findings of a royal commission into the merits of South Australia becoming a hub for uranium mining and waste storage raised as many questions as they answered. By Max Opray.

South Australia ponders nuclear waste options

Adjusting his luminous orange tie, royal commissioner Kevin Scarce took a deep breath and stepped up to the podium. Framed by the enormous pipe organ that looms over the marble-pillared auditorium of Adelaide Town Hall, the 63-year-old former South Australian governor was on stage to preach the Good News, but as he was no doubt well aware, the 500-odd congregation assembled below were of decidedly mixed faith. 

“I know this is an emotive issue for many people,” he said, “but I ask that we respect one another.” 

Just how ambitious that request was became clear when Scarce put forward a premise even more audacious than his necktie – that South Australia’s seemingly hopeless descent into economic oblivion could be reversed by importing 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste from all over the world, reaping $445 billion in profits over 120 years. 

Cue the incredulous guffaws, the cries of indignation, and the gradual tightening of Scarce’s jaw. It was going to be a long week. 

Monday night in Adelaide was just the first of four presentations of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s initial findings, a whistlestop tour of South Australia that culminated on Thursday in Mount Gambier.

The royal commission’s brief was to examine the feasibility of South Australia mining more uranium, processing it, using it for nuclear energy and then storing the waste – turning the state into a value-adding, vertically integrated hub of radioactivity.

The initial findings, based on interviews with 128 witnesses and more than 250 submissions, will be out for public comment for a five-week period before informing a final report due on May 6.

What the royal commission’s expert panel determined was that there is potential to expand mining, but little scope for processing in an already oversupplied market, and insufficient electricity demand in South Australia for nuclear energy at present. 

Where an opportunity was identified, however, was within the casks of hazardous nuclear waste accumulating in the temporary storage sites of countries where nuclear power is up and running.

Scarce pointed to Finland and Sweden, where massive underground storage facilities are set to hold the respective country’s radioactive leftovers.

“South Australia offers a unique combination of attributes well suited to being able to do this safely,” he said.

“Stable geology, relatively low levels of seismic activity across large parts of the state, the arid environment, a stable economic and political structure, and pre-existing sophisticated frameworks for securing long-term agreements.”

The only thing lacking is the high-level radioactive material to store in the first place – domestically, Australia produces low- and mid-level waste mostly related to nuclear medicine, for which the federal government is seeking a storage site in a separate process.

The initial findings of the royal commission indicate that for an outlay of $145 billion, South Australia could set itself up to take 13 per cent of the world’s high-level nuclear waste, generating 1500 jobs during a construction period of 25 years and a further 600 jobs in operation.

By offering a waste storage solution, the initial findings indicated South Australia could potentially find more customers for its uranium via fuel-leasing mechanisms – a kind of yellowcake rental service, where countries take Australian uranium and as part of the deal Australia manages the spent fuel. 

Scandinavia did not just serve as a model for how to store the waste, but also in how to make money out of it. 

Just as Norway established a lucrative sovereign wealth fund from its oil resources, the royal commission has proposed a similar scheme that grows out of the profits to be gleaned from becoming a global nuclear repository.

Scarce urged attendees in Adelaide to contemplate the state’s future, but when question time arrived, the locals appeared to be thinking further ahead than he had in mind.

There was Maureen Graney, who described herself as being from a group of mothers concerned about jobs for their children and future generations, but “not at any price”. 

Graney asked: “How can you guarantee the safe containment of toxic, high-level nuclear waste for thousands of years to come?” 

To speak of millennia is not hyperbole – by the royal commission’s own admission, some of the waste in question will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.

Craig Wilkins, chief executive of Conservation Council SA, an organisation that has actively questioned the impartiality of the royal commission, said the overall time frame needed to be taken into account not just in an environmental sense but an economic one. 

“The commission acknowledges that nuclear waste needs to be isolated from the environment for ‘many hundreds of thousands of years’ yet there is no attempt to cost the management of waste over those time frames,” he said.

“If there’s one thing we know, the nuclear industry is expert at overstating the benefits and radically understating the costs and risks.”

Peering into the distant future, the royal commission is vague by necessity – bureaucratic bodies can’t reasonably make projections for a time period that extends several times longer than recorded history.

The tentative findings thus only hint at a “post-closure monitoring phase” that begins 120 years after a final decision is made to proceed with development.

What the document does claim, however, is that within the geological conditions found in many parts of South Australia, the engineered barriers developed for use in the projects of Finland and Sweden would safely contain waste over its journey to natural levels of radioactivity. 

But then there is the actual journey – the transportation of waste internationally across oceans, and then through ports and populated areas, before arriving at a temporary above-ground dump site, where it will have to remain until enough funds have been accrued from such imports to invest in a large-scale underground facility.

As the attendees noted, communities all along the route would need to offer consent, along with anyone living near the final destination.

The royal commission is under no illusions, rating the difficulty of obtaining community consent as an even greater challenge than the extraordinary technical obstacles facing such a long-term nuclear waste disposal project. 

For decades, South Australia has been mooted as a suitable location for radioactive waste, but local resistance has been consistently fierce, particularly in the remote-area Indigenous communities that suffered radiation poisoning following the nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga in the 1950s. 

If the fiery atmosphere in Adelaide Town Hall was anything to go by, it will be just as difficult a sell this time, but that’s not to say there wasn’t some diversity of opinion in the room.

There was the woman who suggested the world would be a safer place if the waste was secured deep underground in Australia rather than sitting in temporary locations scattered around the globe. 

Then there was the man who criticised the proposal from a pro-nuclear perspective, arguing that yet-to-be-realised Generation IV reactors would use radioactive waste for fuel, and therefore countries would be unlikely to pay South Australia to dispose of a potentially valuable resource. 

As Scarce was keen to stress throughout the evening, the royal commission was offering not recommendations but initial findings, and he encouraged formal submissions from those at the town hall, with recommendations to be presented to the state government once the public’s views had been taken into account. 

At that point, it will be in the hands of politicians. Premier Jay Weatherill broke ranks with federal Labor in commissioning this inquiry in the first place, but as of last week he secured the qualified support of federal opposition leader Bill Shorten. The state Liberal opposition leader, Steven Marshall, has signalled that there are possibilities for bipartisanship on a nuclear waste dump. The Greens are firmly opposed.

On the release of the initial report this week, Weatherill said only that his cabinet would not make any decisions in relation to royal commission findings until the end of the year. 

There’s plenty to chew over. Living as they do in a system of three-year election cycles, politicians are well used to enacting policies that impact on future governments, but rarely are they called to contemplate a legacy that promises to outlast civilisation as we know it.

With that in mind, it is no wonder the premier insists on taking his time. In the context of 100,000 years, 10 months is barely the blink of an eye.

This piece was modified on February 24, 2016, to correctly name Maureen Graney.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "Nuclear cloud".

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