Dumped: the nuclear waste facility at Kimba decision thrown out by judge

The Federal Court has ruled in favour of the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation in a dispute around the proposed nuclear waste dump at Kimba, on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

The court overturned former federal resource minister Keith Pitt’s decision to build the facility at Napandee, near Kimba, saying it was affected by “bias”.

The proposed National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF) was going to store low-level radioactive waste permanently, and intermediate-level waste temporarily.

Both sources of waste are generated in Australia, and currently stored in hundreds of locations around the country: low-level waste is usually laboratory items like gloves, paper, and plastic, while intermediate-level waste often comes from making nuclear medicines.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney is a major source of this intermediate waste, which is currently being stored on site.

The Morrison government decided to build the storage facility at Kimba in November 2021, but the Traditional Owners, the Barngarla people, did not provide consent, and said they were excluded from a “community ballot” which had found locals tentatively in favour.

Current federal resources minister Madeleine King said in a statement that “Labor worked with the Barngarla People in the last term of Parliament to ensure they secured the right to seek judicial review of the decision to acquire the site.”  King is reviewing the decision but will not comment further as some matters are still before the courts.

It’s not the first time community concerns have shut down planned nuclear waste facilities.

“The problem with what’s happened here at Kimba, is that it has happened before,” says Associate Professor Nigel Marks, a physicist at Curtin University.

“It’s crazy that we can’t find a way to do it, because it’s not dangerous in any health sense.”

With appropriate shielding, low and intermediate level waste doesn’t yield any extra radiation risk. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, long-term waste storage facilities needs to be in geologically stable areas, with low population density and low flood risk.

“It doesn’t need to be even that remote. It could be 10 or 15 kilometres from a town. It wouldn’t hurt anyone,” says Marks.

“All the government’s really looking for is a place to collect all [our nuclear waste] in one place, rather than having it spread all over the country. That should be an easy thing to do. But what has happened here, and it’s happened so many times before both in Australia and around the world, is that government makes a decision without there being local buy-in first.”

Marks cites Muckaty station in the Northern Territory, and current problems the US government is facing with a proposed site at Yucca Mountain, as examples of this.

“Storage of nuclear waste is always going to be a problem while governments adopt the ‘decide and defend’ approach,” agrees Professor Ian Lowe, an emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.

“Attempts to impose a storage site have repeatedly failed in the UK and the US, because local communities have understandably mobilised to object to the imposition on them of what is seen as dangerous material.

“The only countries which have made real progress are Finland and Sweden, who have involved local communities in the process of choosing sites and working out the way to store the waste.”

Marks also believes that the Finnish and Swedish models are a sensible way to find suitable places for nuclear waste storage.

“I’d ask people to put their hand up. Say: ‘who wants it?’ That’s exactly what the Scandinavians did.”

Swedish towns bid for the nuclear waste storage facility, with Forsmark, roughly 130 kilometres from Stockholm, eventually being chosen.

“We have a special problem in Australia,” says Lowe.

“The local Indigenous people were never consulted when the Menzies government allowed testing of British nuclear weapons in South Australia and Western Australia.

“Indigenous people suffered from the radiation released by those bomb tests, so they are hostile to proposals for imposing radiation risks on them.

“Since any site chosen by one of our governments will be on the land of the relevant Traditional Owners, an objection is almost certain. Unless local people are genuinely involved in the process of determining where waste will be stored, the problem will not be solved.”

Both Marks and Lowe point out that the nuclear submarines promised by the AUKUS deal are going to create more nuclear waste that will need to be dealt with.

“Because the US Virginia Class submarines use highly enriched nuclear fuel that is weapons grade, the waste from their reactors contains a more intractable mix of nuclear isotopes than the waste from the research reactor at Lucas Heights,” says Lowe.

“Neither the US, which has been operating nuclear submarines for seventy years, nor the UK with sixty years of operation, have yet figured out how to manage the waste produced,” he adds, calling the Morrison government’s decision to acquire the submarines “bizarre”.

Marks believes that better education and consultation, prior to deciding on an appropriate site for nuclear waste, would yield more positive results.

“As you’re not putting it near the water table, and it’s nice stable geology, there’d be so many suitable places in Australia for putting something like this,” he says.

“You’ve just got to make sure that the local people want it. To me, that is the first point. If people want it, but the geology isn’t suitable – well, you move on. But the very first thing has to be whether or not there’s any local appetite.”

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