SA’s Nuclear Waste Boom: A Hot Story Requires Cool Heads

As the alluring prospect of a nuclear waste storage boom fades a little in our minds, attention needs to turn to the risks associated with large–scale radioactive waste storage.

We need to ask ourselves, what responsibility do we have for the world’s waste? To date, the prevailing view is that nations should take responsibility for their own radioactive waste, a position that makes a great deal of sense. As players in the nuclear fuel cycle we must take responsibility for safe and secure storage and management of our own radioactive waste. As an exporter of uranium we cannot ignore the end products of its use. We are all bene ficiaries of medical applications of radiation. Wherever it takes place the storage of radioactive material must be done as safely and securely as possible – in a way that ensures no harm is done, ensuring the most stringent conditions are applied and met. Failure is not an option. What of the Royal Commission’s claims about the prospect of a nuclear Eldorado? There appears to be some substance to the Commission’s arguments but they need to be subject to thorough expert review. There are very few sites in the world offering safe and secure storage of radioactive waste. As a consequence, any jurisdiction willing to build a facility is likely to be able to demand a large premium over the cost of construction and operation. The Commission’s estimate of $1.5 million per tonne for used fuel (around three times the current world price of uranium metal) is probably around the mark. It is di fficult to estimate what market share a South Australian facility might secure, so I think the Commission’s estimates might prove to be over-optimistic. If the proposition is as attractive as the modeling provided by the Commission suggests, then you would expect a range of players to enter the market at the same time as Australia does. Economic and employment bene fits owing to South Australia from major projects like this are greatly in fluenced by the extent to which local suppliers are involved in project delivery. This is a complex project requiring partnering with nations that have much more experience than we have in the storage and management of radioactive waste. Complex knowledge/technology and skill transfer arrangements will need to be put in place to maximise the involvement of local companies and workers. There are costs in our federated structure for an increase in the state’s so called own source revenue. Higher tax revenue flowing from the existence of a waste storage facility like this would play out in calculations of our future GST revenue. Some of the financial bene fit flowing to the state would be clawed back through a reduction in our GST share. We need to understand what the net impacts on the South Australian budget are likely to be. Maximising economic bene fit from a project like this requires the right policy framework and bold decisive action from government to extract bene fit by leveraging income that flows to the state from any facility. An SA Innovation and Infrastructure Fund supporting a network of industry diversi fication institutes, startups and strategic infrastructure investment is worth considering. Looming large in making a well-informed decision is a comprehensive assessment of risks including safety, national security, environmental/social and cultural impacts. Despite the support for the Commission’s initial conclusions on waste storage from the State Government and the Opposition, cracks in the united front are likely to appear when exposed to a strong coalition opposed to the idea. This is one of the most complex and controversial major projects in South Australia’s history. The stakes are high, the risks are signi ficant and we are more desperate than we should be. A smart next step would be to establish a community consultative forum comprising multiple viewpoints that is resourced to respond to the Commission in terms of the costs, bene fits and risks. The forum will need access to expert advice. We cannot rely on a radioactive storage facility to deliver short-term bene fit. The lead times on a project like this are long and will be complicated by the need for very thorough and accurate geological, environmental, social and economic impact assessment. Community attitudes will be shaped by this as it unfolds. In the meantime, we must guard against seeing the Commission’s findings as the foundation for some kind of nuclear Eldorado. The prospect of great riches and jobs flowing from being a storehouse for radioactive material is seductive at a time when job losses in the automotive, mining and steel industries loom large. We must be convinced rather than seduced by the case for a storage facility in South Australia. Future generations will not forgive us if we get this one wrong. John Spoehr is Director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University @JohnSpoehr

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