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How South Australians dumped a nuclear dump

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Last November, two-thirds of the 350 members of a South Australian-government initiated Citizens’ Jury rejected “under any circumstances” the plan to import vast amounts of high-level nuclear waste from around the world as a money-making venture.

The following week, South Australian (SA) Liberal Party Opposition leader Steven Marshall said that “[Premier] Jay Weatherill’s dream of turning South Australia into a nuclear waste dump is now dead.” Business SA chief Nigel McBride said: “Between the Liberals and the citizens’ jury, the thing is dead.”

And after months of uncertainty, Premier Weatherill has said in the past fortnight that the plan is “dead”, there is “no foreseeable opportunity for this”, and it is “not something that will be progressed by the Labor Party in Government”.

So is the dump dead? The Premier left himself some wriggle room, but the plan is as dead as it possibly can be. If there was some life in the plan, it would be loudly proclaimed by SA’s Murdoch tabloid, The Advertiser. But The Advertiser responded to the Premier’s recent comments ‒ to the death of the dump ‒ with a deafening, deathly silence.

Royal Commission

It has been quite a ride to get to this point. The debate began in February 2015, when the Premier announced that a Royal Commission would be established to investigate commercial options across the nuclear fuel cycle. He appointed a nuclear advocate, former Navy man Kevin Scarce, as Royal Commissioner. Scarce said he would run a “balanced” Royal Commission and appointed four nuclear advocates to his advisory panel, balanced by one critic. Scarce appointed a small army of nuclear advocates to his staff, balanced by no critics.

The final report of the Royal Commission, released in May 2016, was surprisingly downbeat given the multiple levels of pro-nuclear bias. It rejected ‒ on economic grounds ‒ almost all of the proposals it considered: uranium conversion and enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication, conventional and Generation IV nuclear power reactors, and spent fuel reprocessing.

The only thing left standing (apart from the small and shrinking uranium mining industry) was the plan to import nuclear waste as a commercial venture. Based on commissioned research, the Royal Commission proposed importing 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel from power reactors) and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste.

The SA Labor government then established a ‘Know Nuclear’ statewide promotional campaign under the guide of ‘consultation’. The government also initiated the Citizens’ Jury.

The first sign that things weren’t going to plan for the government was on 15 October 2016, when 3,000 people participated in a protest against the nuclear dump at Parliament House in Adelaide.

A few weeks later, on November 6, the Citizens’ Jury rejected the nuclear dump plan. Journalist Daniel Wills wrote: “Brutally, jurors cited a lack of trust even in what they had been asked to do and their concerns that consent was being manufactured. Others skewered the Government’s basic competency to get things done, doubting that it could pursue the industry safely and deliver the dump on-budget.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Citizens’ Jury, the SA Liberal Party and the Nick Xenophon Team announced that they would actively campaign against the dump in the lead-up to the March 2018 state election. The SA Greens were opposed from the start.

Premier Weatherill previously said that he established the Citizens’ Jury because he could sense that there is a “massive issue of trust in government”. It was expected that when he called a press conference on November 14, the Premier would accept the Jury’s verdict and dump the dump. But he announced that he wanted to hold a referendum on the issue, as well as giving affected Aboriginal communities a right of veto. Nuclear dumpsters went on an aggressive campaign to demonise the Citizens’ Jury though they surely knew that the bias in the Jury process was all in the pro-nuclear direction.

For the state government to initiate a referendum, enabling legislation would be required and non-government parties said they would block such legislation. The government didn’t push the matter ‒ perhaps because of the near-certainty that a referendum would be defeated. The statewide consultation process led by the government randomly surveyed over 6,000 South Australians and found 53% opposition to the proposal compared to 31% support. Likewise, a November 2016 poll commissioned by the Sunday Mail found 35% support for the nuclear dump plan among 1,298 respondents.

Then the Labor government announced on 15 November 2016 that it would not seek to repeal or amend the SA Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000, legislation which imposes major constraints on the ability of the government to move forward with the nuclear waste import proposal.

Economic claims exposed

Implausible claims about the potential economic benefits of importing nuclear waste had been discredited by this stage. The claims presented in the Royal Commission’s report were scrutinised by experts from the US-based Nuclear Economics Consulting Group (NECG), commissioned by a Joint Select Committee of the SA Parliament.

The NECG report said the waste import project could be profitable under certain assumptions ‒ but the report then raised serious questions about most of those assumptions. The report noted that the Royal Commission’s economic analysis failed to consider important issues which “have significant serious potential to adversely impact the project and its commercial outcomes”; that assumptions about price were “overly optimistic” in which case “project profitability is seriously at risk”; that the 25% cost contingency for delays and blowouts was likely to be a significant underestimate; and that the assumption the project would capture 50% of the available market had “little support or justification”.

The farcical and dishonest engineering of a positive economic case to proceed with the nuclear waste plan was ridiculed by ABC journalist Stephen Long on 8 November 2016: “Would you believe me if I told you the report that the commission has solely relied on was co-authored by the president and vice president of an advocacy group for the development of international nuclear waste facilities?”

The economics report was an inside job, with no second opinion and no peer review ‒ no wonder the Citizens’ Jury was unconvinced and unimpressed.

Prof. Barbara Pocock, an economist at the University of South Australia, said: “All the economists who have replied to the analysis in that report have been critical of the fact that it is a ‘one quote’ situation. We haven’t got a critical analysis, we haven’t got a peer review of the analysis”.

Another South Australian economist, Prof. Richard Blandy from Adelaide University, said: “The forecast profitability of the proposed nuclear dump rests on highly optimistic assumptions. Such a dump could easily lose money instead of being a bonanza.”

The dump is finally dumped

To make its economic case, the Royal Commission assumed that tens of thousands of tonnes of high-level nuclear waste would be imported before work had even begun building a deep underground repository. The state government hosed down concerns about potential economic losses by raising the prospect of customer countries paying for the construction of waste storage and disposal infrastructure in SA.

But late last year, nuclear and energy utilities in Taiwan ‒ seen as one of the most promising potential customer countries ‒ made it clear that they would not pay one cent towards the establishment of storage and disposal infrastructure in SA and they would not consider sending nuclear waste overseas unless and until a repository was built and operational.

By the end of 2016, the nuclear dump plan was very nearly dead, and the Premier’s recent statement that it is “not something that will be progressed by the Labor Party in Government” was the final nail in the coffin. The dump has been dumped.

“Today’s news has come as a relief and is very much welcomed,” said Yankunytjatjara Native Title Aboriginal Corporation Chair and No Dump Alliance spokesperson Karina Lester. “We are glad that Jay has opened his ears and listened to the community of South Australia who have worked hard to be heard on this matter. We know nuclear is not the answer for our lands and people – we have always said NO.”

Narungga man and human rights activist Tauto Sansbury said: “We absolutely welcome Jay Weatherill’s courageous decision for looking after South Australia. It’s a great outcome for all involved.”

Reflections

The idea of Citizens’ Juries would seem, superficially, attractive. But bias is inevitable if the government establishing and funding the Jury process is strongly promoting (or opposing) the issue under question. In the case of the Jury investigating the nuclear waste plan, it backfired quite spectacularly on the government. Citizen Juries will be few and far between for the foreseeable future in Australia. A key lesson for political and corporate elites is that they shouldn’t let any semblance of democracy intrude on their plans.

The role of the Murdoch press needs comment, particularly in regions where the only mass-circulation newspaper is a Murdoch tabloid. No-one would dispute that the NT News has a dumbing-down effect on political and intellectual life in the Northern Territory. Few would doubt that the Courier Mail does the same in Queensland. South Australians need to grapple with the sad truth that its Murdoch tabloids ‒ The Advertiser and the Sunday Mail ‒ are a blight on the state. Their grossly imbalanced and wildly inaccurate coverage of the nuclear dump debate was ‒ with some honourable exceptions ‒ disgraceful. And that disgraceful history goes back decades; for example, a significant plume of radiation dusted Adelaide after one of the British bombs tests in the 1950s but The Advertiser chose not to report it.

The main lesson from the dump debate is a positive one: people power can upset the dopey, dangerous ideas driven by political and corporate elites and the Murdoch press. Sometimes. It was particularly heartening that the voices of Aboriginal Traditional Owners were loud and clear and were given great respect by the Citizens’ Jury and by many other South Australians. The Jury’s report said: “There is a lack of Aboriginal consent. We believe that the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions.”

Conversely, the most sickening aspect of the debate was the willingness of the Murdoch press and pro-nuclear lobbyists to ignore or trash Aboriginal people opposed to the dump.

Another dump debate

Traditional Owners, environmentalists, church groups, trade unionists and everyone else who contributed to dumping the dump can rest up and celebrate for a moment. But only for a moment. Another dump proposal is very much alive: the federal government’s plan to establish a national nuclear waste dump in SA, either in the Flinders Ranges or on farming land near Kimba, west of Port Augusta.

In May 2016, Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Regina McKenzie, who lives near the Flinders Ranges site, wrote:

“Last year I was awarded the SA Premier’s Natural Resource Management Award in the category of ‘Aboriginal Leadership − Female’ for working to protect land that is now being threatened with a nuclear waste dump. But Premier Jay Weatherill has been silent since the announcement of six short-listed dump sites last year, three of them in SA.

 “Now the Flinders Ranges has been chosen as the preferred site and Mr Weatherill must speak up. The Premier can either support us ‒ just as the SA government supported the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta when their land was targeted for a national nuclear waste dump from 1998-2004 ‒ or he can support the federal government’s attack on us by maintaining his silence.”

Perhaps the Premier will find his voice on the federal government’s contentious proposal for a national nuclear waste dump in SA, now that his position on that debate is no longer complicated by the parallel debate about establishing a dump for foreign high-level nuclear waste. He might argue, for example, that affected Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over the establishment of a national nuclear waste dump ‒ precisely the position he adopted in relation to the international high-level waste dump.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter.  

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  • Rod

    “South Australians need to grapple with the sad truth that its Murdoch tabloids ‒ The Advertiser and the Sunday Mail ‒ are a blight on the state.”

    Yes, infuriating. Their treatment of Renewables is also appalling.

    • Joe

      Here in Sydney we have Rupert’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ which never reports anything positive about RE. Even items on climate change are scarce but we get to read the odd story when something can be turned into a Liberal Party bat to whack The Greens or Labor . Rupert’s ‘The Australian’ is a Liberal Party newsletter disguised as a newspaper. I find the Fairfax owned ‘The Sydney Morning’ is very good at drilling into all things related to RE and Climate Change but sadly it looks to be on borrowed time as the internet does the business on print media.

    • MaxG

      Simply don’t read their sh!t. If everybody would, they would be out of business.

      • Rod

        After my $1 digital Month ran out I bailed ASAP
        Unfortunately they still have influence over the masses.

        • MaxG

          I wish people would spent their subscription on a free outlet; they rely on donations as the corporations do not found or sponsor them; real news; even for a $1 a week, every dollar counts.

  • Pete

    I rate the Friends of the Earth anti-radioactive storage campaign on par with the pro-coal power campaign in Australia. They have been equally successful at ensuring nothing logical can be achieved and many a great opportunity missed.

    • onesecond

      So the lesson is that you are obviously not good at rating. 🙂

    • Rod

      This never made economic sense to me.
      SA taxpayers were expected to stump up billions to build the storage facility before one drum was delivered?

      • MaxG

        Sure, this is how it works… publicise cost, privatise profits. It is so obvious… and people wonder every day what that is…

  • Eastern Trisha

    I was a member of the Citizen’s Jury and it was clear from the outset that they had one answer in mind – proceed with the proposal. They took every opportunity to move the jury towards that predetermined outcome. But the more they pushed, the more the jury became suspicious. They were dismissive and disrespectful of ordinary South Australians at every turn. I learnt a great deal about the nuclear fuel cycle, but I also saw first hand the lengths those in favour of nuclear were prepared to go to win. It was not pretty and it has left me extremely distrustful of the nuclear industry and in awe of the power of local democracy.

    • onesecond

      Thanks for speaking up!

    • Shane White

      Any discussion of Thorium, out of interest?

      • Horst

        ..or copper bracelets against rheumatism?

        • Shane White
          • Horst

            Thorium is like the hydrogen car, superficially a good idea, but if you delve a little deeper it’s pretty obvious that it is uneconomic.
            That paper is from 10 years ago, we know what solar and wind have done since then, how is thorium going?

          • Shane White

            Gosh, how on earth were the atomic bombs invented? They must’ve cost a lot? I wonder which company had to bear the burden of the debt? Were they profitable in the end?

            Yes over the last 10 years our energy has become very clean and the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has reduced in accordance.

            As you well know Horst, not only are on track to meet the Paris Accord’s objectives, but the task to ensure we return to a safe climate now seems certain.

            Not; in fact the biggest Not in the history of all Nots.

            How’s your climate going?

            Aren’t you lucky the scientists and engineers that brought the solar PV panel into existence didn’t have the prejudice and lack of objectivity you and most people seem to have?

          • Shane White

            Do you know more than Hansen? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/nuclear-power-paves-the-only-viable-path-forward-on-climate-change
            If so then I certainly feel privileged to be having this conversation.

          • Jim Green
          • Shane White

            A quick scan revealed a biased article with broken links and subjective statements. I’ll keep it open and read it fully in the next day or two. Can’t recall if I’ve ever read a credible article using the word “lousy”… doesn’t bode well.

          • Shane White

            Regarding the title: Why label Hansen’s proposed solutions a fantasy? This is emotive.

            What was the source for this statement? : “…in other words, efforts to split the environment movement have failed”

            You stated – “Barry Brook falsely claimed the vote must have been rigged by anti-nuclear and climate action groups. “I can think of no other logical explanation – statistically, such a result would be nigh impossible” ”

            But omitted this from Brook – “There were many large organised groups there (anti nuclear and climate action groups), and I suggest that the vast majority of them had made pacts to pretend to be undecided so as to later give the impression that they’d be swayed by the negative’s arguments.”

            You state: “global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning”. Kharecha and Hansen ignore renewables and energy efficiency, setting up a false choice between fossil fuels and nuclear.”

            That last sentence doesn’t make any sense. The nuclear plants provided a quantity of energy that if had been provided by burning fossil fuels would’ve caused the emission of 64 GtCO2e. What do you mean “ignore”? The only way to ignore this would be to throw away the keys to our Tardis and dispense with plans to travel back in time and replace the nuclear plants with solar PV and wind.

            This article is thus far full of emotion and leading and bizarre statements, and would take too long to correct. A heavy edit is needed.

            Same old anti-nuke story.

    • Alastair Leith

      Thanks for sharing, comes as little surprise but great to be acknowledged in public, Trisha.

  • Dennis Abbott..

    The Adelaide Advertiser printed some bizarre claims, such as, “South Australians will no longer need to pay income tax “(when a nuclear waste repository is built)
    “Ever wanted a tram to stop at your front door, now you can have two”.
    A high % of letters to the editor printed are pro coal pro nuclear and anti RE.

    • Rod

      Yes, they even cherry pick the online comments section for anti RE comments then publish them on the letters page.
      At least a 10 to 1 ratio anti vs pro RE and as we have seen in various polls it just ain’t so.