Nuclear Freeways Campaign

The Nuclear Freeways Campaign is part of the broader campaign to prevent the federal government imposing a nuclear waste dump on unwilling communities in the Northern Territory. The Nuclear Freeways Campaign is focussed on supporting communities along potential transport routes between the main waste producer - the Lucas Heights nuclear plant in Sydney - and the NT.

The Nuclear Freeways Campaign is time- and resource-intensive and Friends of the Earth welcomes support from anyone and everyone - wherever you live. If you'd like to help, please contact us:

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The issues

The following paper explains the government's proposal and the problems associated with it, and then outlines a responsible approach to nuclear waste management.

The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor plant in southern Sydney is responsible for a large majority of the waste the government wants to dump in the NT. There is no reason why the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) cannot continue to manage waste at Lucas Heights.

Trucking is the most likely mode of transportation although options for rail or marine transportation are also being considered.

Three sites are being assessed in the NT – Mount Everard near Alice Springs, Harts Range to the north-east of Alice Springs, and Fishers Ridge near Katherine. A fourth site called Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek, may also be considered. None of the four sites was considered suitable when environmental and scientific criteria were used to locate potential dump sites in the 1990s, and there are serious doubts as to the suitability of all of the sites.

The government plans to bury lower-level wastes in shallow, unlined trenches. For higher-level wastes, including spent nuclear fuel reprocessing wastes, "interim" above-ground storage is planned followed by deep geological disposal. Since no progress has been made in relation to deep geological disposal, "interim" storage in the NT would stretch many decades into the future.

Dumping on democracy

In July 2004, the government abandoned its plan to establish a dump in South Australia, unwilling to further antagonise South Australians in the lead-up to the 2004 federal election. The government promised not to impose a dump on Northern Territorians before the election, but reneged on that promise in July 2005.

The government has ignored legislation passed in the NT Parliament which seeks to ban the imposition of nuclear dumps - the Northern Territory Nuclear Waste Transport, Storage and Disposal (Prohibition) Act 2004.

Draconian legislation was pushed through the federal parliament in December 2005 to by-pass normal decision-making processes in relation to the proposed dump. This legislation – the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 – undermines environmental, public safety and Aboriginal heritage protections.

Further draconian legislation was pushed through the parliament in late 2006, further weakening already inadequate processes. The 2006 Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Legislation Amendment Act clearly states that a nuclear dump site nomination is legally valid even without consultation with and consent from Traditional. It also removes the right to appeal under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 and it removals rights to "procedural fairness".

The federal government also has a track record of ignoring opposition along proposed nuclear waste transport corridors. For example, a unanimous, cross-party report of the NSW Parliament in 2004 recommended that the federal government's plan to dump waste in SA should be abandoned and that the associated transport proposals should also be abandoned. (See the Committees page at <>.)

From 1998-2004, 16 of the 18 local councils between Lucas Heights and the proposed dump site in SA passed resolutions opposing the unnecessary trucking of nuclear waste through their communities, only to be ignored by the federal government.

Nuclear waste hazards

Measured by radioactivity, waste arising from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from reactors at Lucas Heights accounts for over 90% of the waste the government wants to dump in the NT.

Spent nuclear fuel meets the heat and radiological criteria for classification as high-level waste when it is first removed from the Lucas Heights reactor. Over time the heat level drops and it is then classified as long-lived intermediate-level waste, but the spent fuel - and the reprocessing wastes - still contain a toxic soup of nuclear fission products and transuranic elements such as plutonium.

It is not widely known that the federal government intends to dismantle three Lucas Heights reactors (MOATA, HIFAR, OPAL) and to dump the radioactive reactor components in the NT. This waste will comprise thousands of cubic metres of dismantled reactor components, some of it meeting the criteria for classification as long-lived intermediate-level waste.

Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson has warned that the proposed NT dump would be attractive to terrorists wanting to make a 'dirty bomb', a radioactive weapon delivered by conventional means. ''If terrorists can raid a nuclear waste repository or store and steal radioactive material, they can easily spread it by conventional explosives,'' Mr Parkinson said.

Such hazards also apply to nuclear waste transportation. In July 2006, a reporter from the UK Daily Mirror succeeded in planting a fake bomb on a train carrying nuclear waste in north-west London.

The federal government has acknowledged problems with a number of overseas dumps, stating that: "Facilities established in the past were not always established under strict environmental guidelines and licensing. This has resulted in some facilities, for example three repositories in the US, being closed because of a lack of environmental control."

Risks of nuclear transportation

When the government planned to dump nuclear waste in SA, it calculated a 23% risk of one truck accident shifting the existing stockpile of waste to the proposed dump site. This was based on readily-available data on the frequency of truck accidents. The risks associated with transportation to the proposed NT dump are of a similar magnitude.

ANSTO acknowledged in its submission to the 2003-04 NSW Nuclear Waste Inquiry that each year there are 1-2 accidents or 'incidents' involving the transportation of radioactive materials to and from the Lucas Heights reactor plant.

There have been countless accidents and scandals involving nuclear waste transportation around the world. To give just a few examples:
* Shipments of high-level waste to Germany were suspended in 1997 after greatly elevated radiation emissions.
* In 1997, a train carrying 180 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste derailed in France.
* In 2004, a truck spilled strontium-90 onto Highway 95 in Roane County, Tennessee, and the US Department of Energy estimated the clean-up cost at over US$1 million.

Australia's nuclear agencies - a track record of mismanagement and secrecy

The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) is the government department leading the push to establish a nuclear waste dump in the NT, just as it was from 1998-2004 with the push to build a dump in SA. (2010 update - the government agency responsible for nuclear waste management is now located within Martin Ferguson's Department of Resrouces, Energy and Tourism.) DEST was also responsible for the botched 'clean-up' of the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site in SA.

DEST's ability to manage the proposed SA nuclear dump project was seriously challenged by nuclear scientists who had first-hand experience of the Department during the Maralinga 'clean-up'. DEST was notorious for misleading South Australians about its nuclear dump plans and the Department continues to make misleading statements.

If the government succeeds in establishing a dump in the NT, it plans to transfer operational control of the dump to the Lucas Heights nuclear agency ANSTO. ANSTO's credibility has been strongly challenged by nuclear scientists. For example, Tony Wood, former head of ANSTO's Divisions of Reactors and Engineering, has criticised ANSTO for its "misleading public statements" and for "sugar-coating" its information.

A culture of secrecy undermines community confidence in ANSTO. This secrecy has been the subject of frequent criticism, e.g. from the 2001 Senate Select Committee Reactor Inquiry, by the President of the Australian Nuclear Association, and even by the federal government itself.

Lastly, the 'independent' regulator could hardly be less independent. The then head of ANSTO was directly involved in selecting the founding head of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) in the late 1990s. ARPANSA was the subject of an extremely critical review by the Australian National Audit Office in 2005 (<>).

More information on the nuclear waste the government wants to dump in the NT

It's important to distinguish between volume and radioactivity when considering radioactive and nuclear waste - sometimes very small volumes of nuclear waste are extremely radioactive, and much larger volumes of lightly-contaminated materials can be far less radioactive.

As mentioned, measured by radioactivity the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing waste accounts for over 90% of the waste the government wants to dump in the NT although the volume of this waste is relatively small - some tens of cubic metres.

The following table lists some of the radionuclides contained in nuclear fuel reprocessing waste, simply to demonstrate the longevity of this waste. (The half-life is the amount of time it takes for the nuclear waste to become half as radioactive as it originally was.)

Plutonium-238      88 years
Americium-242m   152 years
Americium-241     432 years
Americium-243     7,380 years
Plutonium-239      24,065 years
Uranium-234        244,500 years
Uranium-235       703 million years
Uranium-238       4.46 billion years

Other waste from Lucas Heights that the government wants to dump in the NT includes:
* About 10 cubic metres of solidified molybdenum-99 long-lived intermediate-level waste. As with the spent fuel, this is highly radioactive compared to most of the other waste. As with the spent fuel, this 'moly' waste contains uranium fission products and transuranics such as plutonium.
* Approximately 130 drums per year of radioactive 'compactable low level solid waste', e.g. vials, gloves etc (Lucas Heights).
* Approximately 20 drums per year of drums of solidified radioactive 'sludge'
produced in the treatment of reactor wastewaters (Lucas Heights).
* Several thousand cubic metres of radioactive 'non-compactable contaminated items', e.g. materials from the decommissioned old Lucas Heights reactor, pipes, machinery etc. The exact amount of waste will be determined by the reactor decommissioning option chosen by ANSTO.
* A stockpile of over 5,000 drums of low-level radioactive waste.
* A stockpile of over 200 cubic metres of intermediate-level solid waste, some with 'unknown radioactive inventory'.
* Over 800 drums of 'historical wastes' including radioactive thorium,
beryllium and uranium.
* Over 2,000 litres of radioactive contaminated charcoal.
* Hundreds of used air filters containing radioactive contamination.

Waste from sources other than Lucas Heights includes:
* Over 2000 cubic metres of radioactive contaminated soil currently stored at Woomera (although some of this waste may be reclassified as non-radioactive for regulatory purposes and hence would not be destined for the NT dump).
* Other Commonwealth Defence Department and CSIRO 'historic' radioactive waste. Approximate volumes are 210 cubic metres of low level radioactive waste and 35 cubic metres of intermediate level radioactive waste. Routine annual arisings are expected to be in the order of 1-2 cubic metres.

What's the difference between nuclear waste and radioactive waste? The terms are used extremely loosely. It makes sense to describe waste arising from the operation of nuclear reactors as nuclear waste - it contains a plethora of fission products and the long-lived transuranic radionuclides such as plutonium. All other wastes are best described as radioactive waste.

A responsible approach

1. Waste minimisation.

Before producing radioactive waste, it needs to be demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the risks. The NH&MRC Code of Practice for the Near-Surface Disposal of Radioactive Waste in Australia (1992) requires that "No practice involving exposures to radiation should be adopted unless it produces sufficient benefit to the exposed individuals or to society to offset the radiological detriment it causes."

The government has not even attempted to demonstrate a net benefit for the proposed nuclear dump. The proposal could not possibly pass a net-benefit test since the benefits are so meagre and the hazards persist for thousands of years.

Likewise, the government has never credibly established the case for building the new reactor at Lucas Heights which will generate a large fraction of the waste to be dumped in the NT (measured by radioactivity). The 2001 Senate Select Committee Reactor Inquiry concluded that "... no conclusive or compelling case has been established to support the proposed new reactor and ... the proposed new reactor should not proceed."

The government's claim that most of the waste to be sent to the NT is a by-product of nuclear medicine is false. As the Medical Association for the Prevention of War has noted, the government has been "peddling a lie" by claiming that the nuclear dump would in any way facilitate the practice of nuclear medicine. Australia does not even need a research reactor for medical isotope supply let alone a nuclear waste dump. (See: <>.)

2. On-site storage facilities must be adequately constructed and regulated whether or not centralised waste management facilities exist.

Even if centralised facilities exist, waste is inevitably stored at the site of production, often for long periods.

3. Assessment of management options needs to consider the option of storage at the site of production.

With adequate on-site storage facilities, the case for centralised facilities is weakened, especially considering the progressive decline of the radioactivity and toxicity of radioactive waste. Storage at the site of production has other, obvious advantages:
    * It avoids altogether the risks of transportation.
    * It is the best way to get radioactive waste producers to get serious about minimising waste production.
    * Conversely, the provision of an out-of-sight-out-of-mind disposal option, as with the federal government's planned dump in the NT, is likely to lead to more profligate waste production.

Importantly, all of the key proponents of a nuclear waste dump in the NT have conceded that ANSTO can manage its own waste at Lucas Heights:
    * Dr Ron Cameron from ANSTO, when asked if ANSTO could continue to manage its own waste, said: " ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time. There is no difficulty with that."
    * ARPANSA CEO John Loy says he is "satisfied" that ANSTO can manage its waste at Lucas Heights.
    * The federal government's Department of Education, Science and Training says "... ANSTO has the capacity to safely store considerable volumes of waste at Lucas Heights ..."
    * Dr Clarence Hardy from the Australian Nuclear Association says: "It would be entirely feasible to keep storing it [radioactive waste] at Lucas Heights ..."