A safe Nuclear Waste Dump? ... No such thing!

An extract from 'Nuclear power: No solution to climate change' by Mel Gregson (CWI - Australia) - Our source: China Worker 16th June 2011

Nuclear waste - problem solved?

The problem of nuclear waste has generally been presented by the industry as resolved. This is in no way true. Not one single country has in place a proven, viable, permanent nuclear waste management plan.

Rather, some of the methods employed in dumping nuclear waste have been frightening.

At the Maxey Flats nuclear waste dump in Kentucky, U.S.A., industry consultants estimated that plutonium buried there would take 24,000 years to migrate one half inch. After just 10 years plutonium was detected 2 miles away.

Australians have no reason to expect any higher standards of nuclear waste management here, if the "clean-up" of the Maralinga nuclear test site is anything to go by. Maralinga was a British nuclear weapons test site in South Australia, where local Indigenous people, Australian servicemen and even British troops were treated as guinea pigs.

Despite government claims that the 1967 Maralinga clean-up was "world's best practice", Alan Parkinson, author of "Maralinga: Australia's Nuclear Waste Cover-up", says the actual approach to dealing with plutonium was "just put a hole in the ground, throw it in."

By the 1980s Australian servicemen and local Indigenous populations were suffering blindness, sores and illnesses such as cancer. A second clean-up had to be conducted again in 2000, costing $108 million.

Land rights or a nuclear waste dump?

The experience of Maralinga is as relevant today as ever, with Parliament debating the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (NRWMB) this month. The ALP bill would give sweeping powers to override state and territory laws and to bypass federal laws. The bill would give the minister powers to override the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act 1984.

This legislation, if passed, will be used to build a radioactive waste dump on contested Aboriginal Land at Muckaty, in the Northern Territory. The Muckaty dump is planned to contain the nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights reactor, the most radioactive waste produced in Australia.

In exchange for dumping radioactive waste on their traditional lands, the Warlmampa Traditional Owners have been offered new roads, housing and education opportunities. The fact that the government is attempting to compensate the local population with services they should be providing anyway, shows how deeply marginalized and dispossessed Indigenous people remain to this day.

Uranium mining

Rural Indigenous populations have long been victims of the nuclear industry. The Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory has been in operation since 1981. During the 'negotiating process' the Mirarr Traditional Owners were told their opposition "shall not be allowed to prevail".

Ranger is located in an excised area amongst Kakadu's extensive wetlands. In the 1998-99 wet season, high uranium concentrations was found in water discharged into the Coonjimba and Magela Creeks. Contaminated water was released into the creeks for three subsequent seasons before the problem was addressed. In 2004, 150 workers were exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the Australian safety standard.

The Beverly Uranium Mine in South Australia has also caused havoc on the local population. It is an acid in-situ leach mine, where the liquid radioactive waste - containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid - is simply dumped into the groundwater, causing untold ecological damage.

Local Indigenous campaigner Mr Artie Wilton said "The Beverley Mine must be stopped, dead stopped. We protest at the treatment of our people being forced into an unfair process of negotiation. We protest because our land is being damaged against our wishes. We protest because Native Title legislation is not helping our country. We protest because the State Government and the Mining Industry refuse to listen to our concerns. We protest because it is our right and our responsibility to look after this country." One of the peaceful protests he was referencing brutally ended, with an 11 year old girl being pepper sprayed by police.

In 1997-2002 a push by the federal government and mining industry to build the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory (also on traditional Mirarr land) was defeated by a determined mass movement. However, the Jabiluka deposit is large and lucrative and the mining industry will continue to exert pressure for mining to commence.

The social cost of mining uranium

Australia holds around 35% of the world's uranium reserves, yet uranium accounts for far less than 1% of Australia's export revenue. The industry makes an even smaller contribution to employment in Australia, employing much less than 0.1% of the population.

Ending uranium mining would have no significant negative effect on employment or the economy, but be a huge relief on communities and taxpayers who bear the brunt of the long-lasting, negative consequences created by the nuclear industry.

Australia's uranium exports have resulted in the production of over 114 tonnes of reactor grade plutonium - enough to build 11,000 nuclear weapons.

Much of Australia's uranium is sold to nuclear weapons states, some of whom have refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, blocked progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, have a history of secret nuclear weapons research, and stockpile plutonium.

Despite government rhetoric, non-proliferation commitments are always subordinated to big business profits. Even South Australian Premier Mike Rann recognises this, stating in 1982 that "Again and again, it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first." Rann himself is now a head cheerleader for uranium mining.

One of the greatest lies of the nuclear power industry is the consistent denial of the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The Australian government repeatedly states that plutonium produced in a power reactor cannot be used for weapons. Even Hans Blix, former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency admits "plutonium of any isotopic composition ... [is] capable of use in a nuclear explosive device."

There remain more than 20,000 nuclear weapons across the globe. The U.S.A and Russia keep around 2,000 nuclear weapons on 'high-alert status' ready to be launched in minutes.

In Australia, the government's $74 billion Future Fund is investing Australian taxpayers' money in foreign companies that make components for nuclear weapons. The fund has $135.4 million invested in 15 companies involved in the design, production and maintenance of nuclear weapons for the United States, Britain, France and India.

The twelve nuclear bomb tests conducted in Australia continue to have negative effects on populations and the environment. Residual radiation from these explosions remains, contaminating water, plants and animals. Survivors are still fighting for recognition of their diseases.

A solution to climate change?

Arguably the two greatest threats to human existence are climate change and nuclear war. To pose nuclear power as the solution to the former only exacerbates the latter. Fatal risks are posed at every level of the nuclear industry; from uranium mining to nuclear power to atomic weaponry to radioactive waste.

Aside from all the significant dangers associated with nuclear power, it is simply too costly, too slow, and too greenhouse intensive (when the whole production process is taken into account) to play any productive role in the move to a carbon neutral society.

At the same time, real solutions to climate change, in the form of already existing renewable energy technology, make any debate on the potential role of nuclear power irrelevant and disorientating.

The 2006 Switkowski report found that building six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia's overall emissions by just 4% if they replaced coal or 2% if they replaced gas. It also established that doubling global nuclear power output by 2050 at the expense of coal would reduce greenhouse emissions by as little as 3.1%. This would require the building of around 850 nuclear reactors with only a tiny reduction in emissions to gain. At the same time, these reactors would create more than 1 million tonnes of nuclear waste.

A much greener, saner and more effective response to climate change is the fast and efficient shift to renewable energy. However, on the basis of capitalism it will remain in competition with the multi-billion dollar coal, gas and nuclear energy industries, and continue to lose out. We can't wait for renewables to become commercially profitable.

The profit driven system of capitalism cannot ensure a solution to climate change. We have to fight for massive public investment into renewable energy, under the democratic control of workers and the community. Only this approach will ensure decisions are made in the interests of ordinary people and the environment, rather than profit motives of big business, like the nuclear industry.