In the second half of next year France will be sending nuclear waste to Australia for permanent storage. The waste comes from uranium and plutonium exported to France between 1999 and 2004 to run its nuclear power plants. It’s coming home because of an international agreement that states that Australia — as the nation of origin — must take the spent fuel back. This same agreement means we’ll also be taking waste back from the UK sometime before 2020.
The bulk of the French waste consists of unrecycled nuclear fuel mixed into molten glass to form what’s known as a durable product. This will be accompanied by six drums of intermediate level refuse including gloves, protective clothing, and old equipment, embedded in cement. All this makes a total volume of about 13.2 cubic meters, roughly one third the size of a shipping container, with a half-life of 24,000 years.
Despite having known about this arrangement since the '90s, Canberra now has just 17 months to build something deep, strong, and stable enough to house 14 tons of radioactive rubble. And to make matters worse, no one even knows where to put it.
The most recent storage option was Muckaty, 110km from Tennant Creek, NT. It's not red dust sexy enough for tourism campaigns, so up until 2007 it was simply a part of the monotonous scrub alongside the Stuart Highway which veins through the center of Australia.That year, a 225-hectare portion of the south-east section of the Muckaty Aboriginal Land Trust was carved out as a nuclear storage site by the then Howard Government, legislating to bypass NT laws in the process. Federal Labor Opposition at the time said it would repeal the decision when it came to government but somehow never got around to it.
The issue that brought the plan undone was that the government never properly negotiated with the land's traditional owners. Muckaty has the overland telegraph built on it, has at times had cattle on it, as well as the Stuart Hwy across it. But for tens of thousands of years it’s belonged to the Warlmanpa Aboriginal people. That fact brought the issue to head in the Federal Court where it was eventually thrown out last month.
To celebrate, a party was thrown at Tennant Creek's Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre for what was a reclaiming of land for its traditional custodians. During the event a 20-year old muso and Milwayi woman, Kylie Sambo, sang her song “Muckaty.”
"Don’t waste the Territory, this land means a lot to me,"she sang proudly. "Been living here for centuries. This place we call Muckaty."
This sentiment makes sense to anyone who lives anywhere. Former NSW premier, Bob Carr, who comes from a markedly different background from Kylie, similarly resisted the waste being stored at Sydney's Lucas Heights. "The Federal Government has got to look at locations that are remote, geologically stable, and dry,” he told Canberra back in 2005. “The optimal locations are going to be outside NSW.”
Both cases are textbook examples of the not-in-my-backyard philosophy. And as it turns out, if a long-term solution can't be cobbled together before next December, the waste will most likely end up in Lucas Heights anyway — a fact which a whole new bunch of Sydney residents are now fighting.
Someone who has tried to rise above this discussion, while volunteering his own state land, is former NT powerbroker and independent for Nelson, Gerry Wood. His position is that storing nuclear waste really isn't such a big deal.
“The facts are the waste is something we can store, and it is our responsibility as a mature nation to store it and it is beyond belief that in a country as big as Australia with a small population that we can’t find a place to store it,” he said.
Plenty of space for sure, but as Muckaty confirms, it's all owned by people entitled to oppose carcinogenic waste dumps in their backyards. Yes, it's ludicrous to afflict indigenous Australians in the NT, but then it's also ludicrous for suburban Sydney to store it temporarily, permanently. Maybe the best option is what's already happening: The states and territories handball the waste around like a time bomb until finally, somewhere, the fuse runs out.