‘Harmless’? The dangerous language around nuclear waste (May 2016)

Terms like ‘harmless’ waste are misleading and downplay the seriousness of the problem with nuclear waste, writes Dave Sweeney.

The striking thing about radioactive waste is that it never goes away. Right now decisions and plans around managing this zombie waste are out of the shadows and back in the public eye.

Last week federal Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg named a possible site for a national radioactive waste facility in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges region – home of the Adnyamathanha people. Meanwhile, the South Australia Royal Commission process is exploring the state hosting between 15-30 per cent of the world’s high level radioactive waste.

The two are separate processes but both clearly share common themes of waste and place – and both require serious public scrutiny.

The national plan is for a co-located facility for the permanent burial of low level waste and the above ground storage of higher level waste pending a future management decision in one to three hundred years. So we are making decisions here that would directly impact generations well beyond our own.

It’s important to name and dispel some of the myths surrounding this plan, including that it is only low level or ‘harmless’ waste constituting little more than what Minister Frydenberg has described as ‘gloves and goggles’. This misleading language downplays the seriousness of the problem.

In fact, any national facility would be home to Australia’s highest and longest lived radioactive waste including reprocessed spent nuclear fuel and the containment structures, pipes and wires of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisations decommissioned previous nuclear reactor.

A further myth is that a single national facility would mean the end of decentralised storage of waste at universities, hospitals and industrial sites. Proponents of the national waste dump talk up the good sense in moving the waste from 120 sites to just one single facility – but in reality this was never the plan and is simply not possible.

In fact, almost every site in Australia that currently uses nuclear material would still need to hold that material securely until national facility collections, expected every two to five years, occurred.

And then there is the confusion and contest over nuclear medicine. All parties agree that reliable access to the full range of nuclear medicine options and procedures is necessary but there are deeply divergent views on what this entails.

By Dave Sweeney, 6 May 2016 – 11:09 AM, as posted on SBS at http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/05/06/comment-harmless-dangerous-language-around-nuclear-waste

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