Nuclear Citizens’ Jury: an ethical case for importing nuclear wastes

This article first appeared on Online Opinion

The South Australian government will call another Nuclear Citizens’ Jury, on October 29 – 30. This time the jury must answer this question:

Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?

That set me thinking. The main “circumstance” for recommending this “opportunity” is the State Government’s plan to eventually bring in a pot of gold for the State. This is explained in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission South Australia’s Final Report. It estimates the revenue at over $257 billion, – total annual revenue of $5.6 billion a year over the first 30 years of operation and about $2.1 billion a year until waste receipts were notionally planned to conclude 43 years later. • over the life of the project, a net present value of profits of more than $51 billion at a discount rate of 4 per cent (p 105)

There really is no other argument for this project in the Report. In the 320 page report any arguments about Aboriginal issues, safety, environment, health, are aimed at rebutting criticism of the plan. They provide no argument on the plan actually improving health or environment, and are in fact quite defensive about Aboriginal impacts.

However, nuclear lobbyists have for a long time been promoting the idea that Australia has an ethical responsibility to import nuclear wastes. Terry Grieg, of the Australian Nuclear Association  expressed it clearly on Robyn Williams’ Ockham’s Razor show, in 2013.:

We export yellowcake to over 20 countries…..we have a responsibility to take back their waste—it has come from our yellowcake—for final disposal.

Australia would take its rightful place as a leader in the growing world nuclear power-generating industry and we would capture the moral high ground on the previously thought intractable problem of waste disposal

This ethical argument is supported only by enthusiastic nuclear lobbyists. Even the World Nuclear Association is clear on the question of responsibility for nuclear wastes:

There is clear and unequivocal understanding that each country is ethically and legally responsible for its own wastes, therefore the default position is that all nuclear wastes will be disposed of in each of the 50 or so countries concerned.

So – the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury seems to be left with only one real circumstance under  which it has the “opportunity” to store and dispose of nuclear wastes from other countries –  the projected financial bonanza.

There are many serious critics of the economic argument, such as in submissions to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (NFCRC) by Senator Scott Ludlam , by Mothers For A Sustainable South AustraliaDr Mark Diesendorf, and by more recent articles such as the economic briefing by Independent Environment Campaigner, David Noonan. The current South Australian Parliamentary Inquiry has also criticised the economic plan. Senior Liberal MP Rob Lucas, a former state treasurer and the opposition’s Treasury spokesman suggested that:

we, the taxpayers of South Australia, will be spending tens and maybe hundreds of ­millions of dollars on fool’s gold — fool’s uranium, fool’s nuclear waste dumps.

The NFCRC personnel and the Weatherill government will put up their case for  developing the nuclear waste import scheme as an economic bonanza for South Australia. And perhaps they’re right.

But what if they are wrong?

 Perhaps there IS an ethical argument for South Australia to import nuclear waste. I’m not referring to the uranium lobby’s hope that by Australia importing waste it will make their industry look good, and thus help to save its current decline. 

While all countries with nuclear reactors have problems in dealing with their radioactive wastes, for some countries the waste crisis is exceptionally serious. The best example of this is Japan. Japan now has over 17,000 tons of highly radioactive waste. As a highly populated land, Japan does not have many choices in areas suitable for burial of these wastes. It’s a land vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and with a population very aware of, and opposed to the risks of new nuclear facilities. The government is considering constructing a disposal facility under the seabed, but that is an idea fraught with problems. Their other solution – nuclear reprocessing, still leaves wastes for burial, and after decades of effort, is proving to be a failure.

At present Japan’s Shinzo Abe government is set on reviving the nuclear industry. However, there is much popular opposition to this, and Japan might well later move to the opposite policy. Interestingly, following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in 2013, Japan held a “deliberative poll” – a type of “citizens’ jury’, which resulted in this conclusion:

 As a direct result of the deliberative polling process, Japan’s national government has pledged to have zero percent dependency on nuclear energy after 2030.

Here is where an ethical argument comes in.  If Japan took the decision to keep its nuclear reactors closed, to close down the two that are now operating, and abandon the nuclear goal, it would still have to solve the radioactive waste problem.

Japan would need help, in many ways, to achieve that goal.   It would indeed be an ethical decision for a country such as Australia, to help.  With more space, and a more stable geology, there could be a good case for Australia accepting Japan’s nuclear waste, in this situation.

The present plan, for nuclear waste to be imported into South Australia, is based on the idea of helping South East Asian countries to set up their nuclear power projects, by conveniently solving their “back end” problem.  It is above all, a plan to the benefit of the global nuclear industry, which is at present in quite a crisis.

If indeed, the waste importing idea were conditional on a Japanese plan to close down the industry, and help Japan overcome its very serious dilemma, this could be one big move towards halting the global  nuclear industry juggernaut, with its undoubted connection to nuclear weapons.  Japan could pay a reasonable amount to the waste host country, without being ripped off, without that country expecting to become mega wealthy.   That would be one circumstance in which it would be an ethical choice for South Australia to import and dispose of nuclear waste.

Pie in the sky! – I hear your cry.

Yes, sadly so. Is there any chance that such an ethical decision would ever be made?   I doubt it.  The Nuclear Citizens’ Jury is left with the question of whether or not to support the NFCRC’s plan for a nuclear waste bonanza, or to risk possible State bankruptcy in the event of it all going wrong.




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