SA nuclear Royal Commission is a snow job

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The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (RC) will release its final report on May 6. It was established to investigate opportunities for SA to expand its role in the nuclear industry beyond uranium mining.

Before his appointment as the Royal Commissioner, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce said little about nuclear issues but what he did say should have excluded him from consideration. Speaking in November 2014 at a Flinders University guest lecture, Scarce acknowledged being an “an advocate for a nuclear industry”. Just four months later, after his appointment as the Royal Commissioner, he said the exact opposite: “I have not been an advocate and never have been an advocate of the nuclear industry.”

Other than generalisations, and his acknowledgement that he is a nuclear advocate, Scarce’s only comment of substance on nuclear issues in his 2014 lecture was to claim that work is “well underway” on a compact fusion reactor “small enough to fit in a truck”, that it “may be less than a decade away” and could produce power “without the risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns.” Had he done just a little research, Scarce would have learnt that Lockheed Martin’s claims about its proposed compact fusion reactor were met with universal scepticism and ridicule by scientists and even by nuclear industry bodies.

So the SA government appointed Scarce as Royal Commissioner despite knowing that he is a nuclear advocate who has uncritically promoted discredited claims by the nuclear industry. Scarce appointed an Expert Advisory Committee. Despite claiming that he was conducting a “balanced” RC, he appointed three nuclear advocates to the Committee and just one critic. The bias is all too apparent and Scarce’s claim to be conducting a balanced inquiry is demonstrably false.

Given the make-up of the RC, it came as no surprise that numerous questionable claims by the nuclear industry were repeated in the RC’s interim report released in February. A detailed critique of the interim report is available online, as is a critique of the RC process.

The RC’s interim report was actually quite downbeat about the economic prospects for a nuclear industry in SA. It notes that the market for uranium conversion and enrichment services is oversupplied and that a spent fuel reprocessing plant would not be commercially viable. The interim report also states that “it would not be commercially viable to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant in South Australia in the foreseeable future.”

In a nutshell, the RC rejected proposals for SA to play any role in the nuclear fuel cycle beyond uranium mining. But that still leaves the option of SA offering to store and dispose of foreign high-level nuclear waste (HLW) and the RC strongly promotes a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of HLW for storage and deep underground disposal.

SA as the world’s nuclear waste dump

The RC insists that a nuclear waste storage and dumping business could be carried out safely. But would it be carried out safely? The RC ought to have considered evidence that can be drawn upon to help answer the question, especially since Kevin Scarce has repeatedly insisted that he is running an evidence-based inquiry.

So what sort of evidence might be considered? The experience of the world’s one and only deep underground nuclear waste dump ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in the U.S. ‒ is clearly relevant. And Australia’s past experience with nuclear waste management is clearly relevant, with the clean-up of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in SA being an important case study.

But the RC completely ignores all this evidence in its interim report. We can only assume that the evidence is ignored because it raises serious doubts about the environmental and public health risks associated with the proposal to import, store and dispose of HLW.

WIPP is a case study of a sharp decline in safety and regulatory standards over a short space of time. A chemical explosion in a nuclear waste barrel in February 2014 was followed by a failure of the filtration system, resulting in 22 workers receiving small doses of radiation and widespread contamination in the underground caverns. WIPP has been shut down for the two years since the accident. Costs associated with the accident are likely to exceed US$500 million. A U.S. government report details the many failings of the operator and the regulator.

At a public meeting in Adelaide Town Hall in February 2016, Scarce said that WIPP was ignored in the RC interim report because it involved different waste forms (long-lived intermediate-level waste) of military origin. In fact, the waste that the RC recommends that SA import is vastly more hazardous than the waste managed at WIPP, so Scarce’s argument is hard to fathom.

Moreover the RC has overlooked the fundamental lesson from the WIPP fiasco – initially high safety and regulatory standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting in the space of just 10–15 years. The RC notes that HLW “requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years”. How can Scarce be confident that high safety and regulatory standards would be maintained over centuries and millennia when WIPP shows that the half-life of human complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting is measured in years or at most decades?

There is no logical reason to believe that the SA government would perform any better than the U.S. government. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that nuclear waste management would be more difficult here given that the U.S. has vastly more nuclear waste management expertise and experience than Australia.

While completely ignoring the world’s one and only existing deep underground nuclear waste dump, the RC talks at length about deep underground repositories under construction in Finland and Sweden. According to the RC’s interim report, those two countries “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” for nuclear waste. But in fact, neither country has completed construction of a repository let alone demonstrated safe operation over any length of time.

Mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA

The RC has also ignored the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA. A radioactive waste repository at Radium Hill, for example, “is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice” according to a 2003 SA government audit. And the ‘clean-up’ of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s was a fiasco:

  • Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.” (See Parkinson’s videos here and here.)
  • Scientist Dale Timmons said the government’s technical report was littered with “gross misinformation”.
  • Dr Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said that the ‘clean-up’ was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups”.
  • Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston (now with ARPANSA) noted that there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project”.

The RC’s interim report claims that “South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel”. But SA has a track record of mismanaging radioactive waste (Radium Hill, Maralinga, etc.) and no experience managing HLW. The RC’s claim that SA has “a mature and stable political, social and economic structure” needs to be considered in the context of the longevity of nuclear waste. Australia has had one profound political revolution in the past 250 years (European invasion) and is on track for 1,200 political revolutions over the 300,000-year lifespan of nuclear waste.


The RC’s interim report presents speculative and implausible figures regarding potential profits from a nuclear waste storage and dumping industry. The Australia Institute crunched the numbers presented in the interim report and wrote a detailed factual rebuttal. Scarce responded on ABC radio on 31 March 2016 by saying that the RC will “take apart” the Australia Institute’s report “piece by piece”. When asked if such an aggressive attitude was appropriate, Scarce said: “I’m a military officer, what would you expect?”

And that says all that anyone needs to know about Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce and his Royal Commission. Critics are taken apart piece by piece, or ignored altogether. On the other hand, Scarce uncritically repeats Lockheed Martin’s discredited claims about its ‘compact fusion reactor’ and the RC’s interim report repeats many other nuclear industry falsehoods. Scarce ignores the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA (Radium Hill, Maralinga etc.) and he ignores the failure of the world’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump while claiming that Sweden and Finland “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” by partially building deep underground dumps.

A year ago the Adelaide Advertiser published a Friends of the Earth letter likening the RC to a circus and Kevin Scarce to a clown. Events over the past year have only confirmed the illegitimacy of the RC. The RC’s bias would be comical if the stakes weren’t so high, particularly for Aboriginal people in the firing line for a HLW dump.

The Aboriginal Congress of South Australia endorsed the following resolution at an August 2015 meeting:

“We, as native title representatives of lands and waters of South Australia, stand firmly in opposition to nuclear developments on our country, including all plans to expand uranium mining, and implement nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our land. We view any further expansion of industry as an imposition on our country, our people, our environment, our culture and our history. We also view it as a blatant disregard for our rights under various legislative instruments, including the founding principles of this state.”

The Aboriginal-led Australian Nuclear Free Alliance is asking organisations in Australia and around the world to endorse a statement opposing the plan to turn SA into the world’s nuclear waste dump. Organisations can endorse the statement online at

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.  

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  • Mark

    The stupidity of mankind never ceases to amaze me. HLW is more dangerous than a nuclear reactor in full meltdown. HLW requires cooling ponds that must be constantly maintained. Imagine a couple of giant Olympic swimming pools. If for any reason the plant is unattended and the pumps fail due to electricity failure or diesel supply, within days you will have full meltdown. HLW is called High level waste because of decay heat. It’s still highly radioactive and super hot. A typical nuclear reactor has at any moment in time a few hundred tons worth of nuclear fuel. An HLW facility can have a few thousand tons! Nuclear energy is based on one fundamentally flawed premise. That the world and civilisation as we know it will continue as usual. As a constant. Hopefully we know that history has proven how scarily ridiculous this premise is. So assume a scenario where for example a pandemic breaks out and wipes out say 80% of the population. In Australia at least, who is manning the cooling ponds? Of course globally it’s pretty much game over already. One reactor at Chernobyl almost took out Europe. Can you imagine what an HLW facility meltdown would do. It’s small comfort to note that with or without this SA facility mankind has already signed it’s own death warrant. There are around 500 nuclear reactors and hundreds of HLW waste facilities around the globe. All requiring constant management and attendance by humans. We have built the Doomsday machine without even realising it.

    • Ian Hore-Lacy

      This is complete rubbish, as even a little research rather than creative imagination would show. Thankfully the royal commission has had access to both people and facilities worldwide which make its findings well-based. People can like them or hate them, and maybe question the projections, but there won’t be much room for argument on substance.

      • Mark

        I have researched it and read numerous engineering reports on the consequences of unmanned reactors and HLW facilities. I have also read in depth on Chernobyl. Fukishima btw is far from over. The terrifying aspect with Chernobyl is that it was just one reactor! I repeat. The assumption with nuclear (and assumption is the mother of screwups) is that the status quo is maintained. That no major catastrophe will strike. But what if it does? Spanish flu 1918 or worse, EMP, Economic collapse etc. I would appreciate it if you could share your scientific knowledge and prove me wrong. Believe me I want to be wrong. Considering what is at stake here the comment “This is complete rubbish..” is asinine at best.

        • No you haven’t researched it. If you had you would know that for all of Chernobyl’s vaunted awfulness, there have been 9 deaths from cancer in 25 years. 50 people total. If you had researched it you would know that there are many places naturally far more radioactive than Fukushima at the peak where people go for vacations. What you call research is reading drivel written by nutcases and dingbats who not only don’t know what they are talking about, but deliberately lie.

          Think about this. Every cubic mile of ocean has enough U-235 in it naturally to make a couple of Hiroshima-sized bombs if you could collect it. There are over 13 tons of uranium dissolved in every cubic mile of seawater.

          • JeffJL

            Nine deaths from cancer. I think you mean nine deaths of workers at Chernobyl from cancer (not all may have been due to their exposure). Easy to discount those premature deaths due to the expelled radio active materials from the blast as linking them directly to Chernobyl is impossible. Same argument as used by smoking advocates.

            Long term deaths are still debatable but to claim none as you are inferring is worthy of denier status.

          • greenthinker2012

            Epidemiologists are very skilled at detecting increased illness rates from things that most people consider safe.
            They can clearly detect the increase in cancer from drinking beer, BBQing food etc. The fact that they have not detected any increase from Chernobyl means that it has had less effect that the other everyday dangers I mentioned.

          • JeffJL

            Of course you only have to pick the epidemiology reports that support your beliefs, yet pay off the ones that don’t.

          • greenthinker2012

            Or you could look at what mainstream science says and form your beliefs based on the facts accepted by scientists across different fields and from different countries.

          • No. There have been 9 excess deaths from cancers of any kind. All of them are thyroid cancers. I-131 is the only radionuclide that delivers significant radiation to any organ from what comes out of a nuclear plant.

          • Just staggering the absolute certainty you say that. And yet we read last week that the Belgian and Dutch governments are about to make available 25 million iodine pills to people living within 100kms of two Belgian plants. Now, why would they do that?

          • Punk Weasel

            And I just heard on RT about another major nuclear accident in the US back in the 50s that no one ever mentioned. It’s pretty scary how they control the media and seem to have a full time army of trolls on the payroll.

          • Yes, Russia Today, the most trustworthy news network on earth. You do realize that most of the malarkey on Fukushima, etc. starts its news cycle at RT? Has it ever occurred to you to follow the money? Yes, Virginia, the Russians have reaped a multi-billion dollar per year windfall replacing Japan’s nuclear plants with fossil fuel. Do the math.

          • Two reasons: 1. It’s politics. With so much noise from the ignorant, it’s an attempt to do something symbolic. It is also something pushed by anti-nuclear activists so they can point to it and say “Now, why would they do that?” 2. The only radionuclide that matters is iodine-131. No epidemiological effects from anything else. Iodine tablets should be distributed close by if there is a meltdown.

            It’s not staggering, it’s just that I am actually educated. Read my book and it will step you through it.

          • Mark

            I see the pro nuclear trolls are out in force. If you want to commit suicide be my guest. Please don’t take the whole planet with you especially on this topic. Your commentary on Chernobyl is nonsense. People only absorb your rubbish because they hate stories they don’t have a happy ending. The problem with being an Ostrich is your ass is sticking up in the air. LOL your commentary on seawater is particularly ludicrous and essentially proves you are a troll. Activated uranium in a core is a completely different animal to naturally occurring uranium. There is mercury in sea water to Why don’t you drink some mercury. Or how about a nice long holiday in Pripyat.

          • I see that you are not suggesting there isn’t enough U-235 in San Francisco bay to make 5 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs, nor that there is enough in Tokyo Bay to make over 20. Good. That’s a start. So, you have some basic understanding that highly diluted radionuclides and low-level radiation don’t matter.

            Look. I was an anti-nuclear activist way back there for a bit. I leafleted and walked around talking about it because I was naive and thought that anyone who was that sure of themselves couldn’t be wrong. But, people asked me questions I couldn’t answer. So I went to the UC Berkeley library and found books on it. What I found there had nothing to do with what I had been told by the activist group I leafleted for. I found myself rather astonished.

            These days, there’s really no excuse. We have used radiation as treatment for so long there’s little question. Believing in all the ridiculous drivel that gets pumped out endlessly is no different than denying global warming. If anything, it’s even worse, because it pretends to be caring about what happens to the globe.

            I have no ties to the nuclear industry. I never have. Read my book. I know you probably won’t because you are too wedded to your beliefs. But, I have to try.

          • Mark

            When you have finished your glass of seawater and your holiday at Pripyat name one place with higher radiation normally than Fukishima where people vacation. I can’t wait to hear your next load of BS.

          • 1. Permian basin of the Lodeve River in France. 876 mSv per year. (almost a full Sievert). Natural source.
            2. Ramsar, Iran, 260 mSv per year. Much of it from radium. Natural source. It’s a health spa with a long history.
            3. Guarapari beach, Brazil. 70 mSv per year. It’s a popular vacation spot.
            4. Fukushima, Japan. The hottest hot spot outdoors, if a person stayed there for the first year would deliver 40 mSv. Today it is much lower.
            5. The Kerala province of India averages 35 mSv per year.

            The central evacuation zone at Chernobyl was measured at 438 mSv per year in the first year. Today it is also much lower, well below Ramsar.

            Here’s another thing though. Most hot springs have zero interest in being measured for radioactivity. Most of them should be higher. People go to hot springs all over the world. This doesn’t do them harm.

          • Punk Weasel

            This is classic out the box propaganda 101 BS spewed out on virtually every pro nuclear web site. The classic white lie propaganda approach. Find an element of truth and then overplay it. Natural background radiation has been with us since the planet was formed. There are higher and lower levels around the world. There are different types of radiation but more importantly different sources. Some deadly some relatively harmless. In the cases you mention the source is relatively harmless. On the other hand in a nuclear meltdown the radionuclides emitted in huge quantities include large percentages of the isotopes strontium-90 and cesium-137, the so called Bone Seekers. These isoptopes are the problem. Sieverts are just part of the story. More of an indicator of an issue than necessarily an issue unless extremely high. Furthermore you are referring to external sources of natural radiation. In a nuclear fallout scenario you would be breathing or ingesting (internal) these radionuclides resulting in an extremely unpleasant death. Chernobyl was just one reactor and many people died to keep it contained. Apparently with people like you around, in vain. There are hundreds of reactors around the world which makes the misinformation you peddle here criminal.

          • There is very little Sr-90 from a meltdown for a very simple reason. There isn’t much there. There isn’t evidence Sr-90 causes cancer at anything like those doses. Strontium, like radium, goes to bone, but less than radium. If you look at a periodic table, you can see why. They are in the same column as calcium. But as you go down the energy of reaction is higher. Approximately 60% of absorbed strontium goes to bone. That is based on studies of 4 millicurie Sr-90 injections (e.g. 100% absorption) to treat cancer. Sr-90 leaches out because of natural turnover, faster than radium does except in things like tooth enamel.

            Cesium-137 does not “seek bone”. Cesium is in the column with potassium. It goes into solution fairly equally through the body. It will wash out fairly fast. Cs-137 has a half-life of 30 years. If you do nothing at all, half the cesium in your body will flush out in urine every 70 days or so. If you consume sodium-potassium chloride salt (used for hypertension) it will flush out faster. But in any case, the dose is so low it doesn’t matter.

            There is incredible mythology about radionuclides in fallout. Part of that mythology is these stories about hundreds and thousands of people dying. Firemen died. Most of those did not die of radiation.

      • atomikrabbit

        Good to see you on a Disqus discussion regarding this important topic, Ian, I hope you will leap into more.

        I have benefited more than once from your exhaustively researched reference articles such as:

        • Mark

          The old troll with different logins trick complimenting themselves. You people are sick.

          • atomikrabbit

            What nuclear industry work do you do Mark?

  • Ian Hore-Lacy

    The Royal Commission’s interim report is a sufficient rejoinder to Jim Green, and I expect its final report will be more so for anyone who reads it. The RC heard from a very wide range of people and was able to reject views based on fear, ignorance or error. Its reporting takes the nuclear energy and fuel cycle discourse in Australia to the highest level at least since the 2006 UMPNER report.

  • Mark

    As a side note the anti nuclear debate needs to move away from glib comments about the lifespan of nuclear waste or the the half life or whatever you want to call it. People have become immune to that because they see it as isolated. They don’t understand the different levels of waste. It actually downplays and belittles the dangers of HLW. A HLW waste facility is just as dangerous if not potentially more dangerous than a fully functioning nuclear power station. They can melt down and achieve criticality. The notion that nuclear waste is nasty but we can stick in concrete barrels in a hole somewhere is the biggest myth that needs to be dispelled if we want to tackle the morons currently running the planet.

    • So, you do understand that there is over 13 tons of uranium per cubic mile of ocean, right? And similar amounts in many rocks? You do know that granite countertops are radioactive?

      The response of living organisms to radiation is also something that most people don’t understand at all. Read this book. It’s very carefully sourced.

      • Punk Weasel

        Don’t get your radioactivity tied up in knots troll. You know full well there is a huge difference between naturally occurring radiation and the radio isotopes emitted in a meltdown. There is a radioactivity in a banana!

    • Ian Hore-Lacy

      Mark, HLW facilities are not dangerous, beyond the obvious and straightforward need to shield radiation. Spent fuel loses its heat and radioactivity very rapidly. For instance, in unit 1 at Fukushima when the tsunami hit nearly one hour after shutdown, the fuel was producing about 33 MW of decay heat, down from about 1400 MW of heat when running, an hour previously. Two months later that was less than 2 MW. It’s not hard to remove that from 68 tonnes of fuel in any HLW facility – initially the pool at the reactor. That’s 29 kW per tonne and diminishing.
      After a few years when the heat and activity has dropped to one tenth of that, such (undamaged) fuel might be put into dry casks – for this amount (400 BWR fuel assemblies), 4.5 of them, and each cask can have up to 46 kW heat load. It’s still HLW (anything over 2 kW/m3 is defined thus), but it’s relatively easy to handle and certainly won’t melt down.

      • Mark

        After a few years…… You either a troll or the mother of all optimists.

        • Ian Hore-Lacy

          Look at any decay curve for spent fuel (or separated HLW from used fuel) – it’s been happening and providing the basis of waste management for 60 years! Typically spent fuel can be put into dry storage at about the 5-year mark. It’s matter of demonstrated and observed fact, not optimism. It’s being done safely all the time – totally boring, really.
          Bear in mind that from shutting down a nuclear power reactor to remove the fuel, and 50 years thence which is accepted as a good time for geological disposal, the heat generation and radioactivity decays by a factor of about 1000, to 0.1% of original.

          • Punk Weasel

            I don’t particularly care about one or two reactors. I’ll take your word for it. What I do care about is emergency plans that assume all reactors will be manned. So if a virus breaks out or war or an emp, within days, full meltdown of all reactors around the globe. You don’t have years or months if reactors are unmanned. You have hours. To assume a catastrophic event will never happen is ludicrous given the risk.

  • you beauty

    Jim Green your comments are not based on fact, it’s just emotional dribble!

  • Pfitzy

    In the shrill bunfight that has (unsurprisingly) ensued in the comments, I think the biggest point about the facility’s existence had been missed.

    Forget about the safety of the facility itself; think instead about the risks encountered during waste transport, to get it from wherever, to Australia.

    Whatever we’re charging per kilogram for storage, I hope the shipping company is charging a damn sight more for freight, with appropriate guarantees…

  • Robert Comerford

    It is amazing how the anti-nuclear trolls on this site are all into denial of peer reviewed research but make big statements about climate change denialists doing the same thing. I’ll try to form my opinions from science not emotion.