Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Radioactive waste: the problem that will not go away

LIZ JACKSON: Today on Background Briefing, radioactive waste, the problem that won't go away, and in fact, the waste dumps just keep growing larger and larger, all round the world, and naturally, no-one wants one on their doorstep. This week, the Sutherland Shire Council in New South Wales won their fight to stop radioactive waste being transported into their shire, to stop what they claimed was the Lucas Heights research facility becoming a national dumping ground. But the farmers in the Esk Valley were not so lucky. Also this week, the Queensland Government announced that the proposal to dump low level waste in the Esk state pine forest will go ahead. Kirsten Garrett has been taking a national and international look at the problems surrounding radioactive waste and has prepared this report.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Australia doesn't really have a nuclear industry and the radioactive waste we have here though growing, is laughable, compared with those countries that went nuclear almost maniacally, against all the warnings back in the '40s and '50s. Now they don't know what to do with all their radioactive waste and they have got an awful lot of the really hot stuff. The story is one of political and scientific lies, and death and illness for millions. Chelyabinsk in the Soviet Union was formerly a closed city, the most polluted place on earth, a place that lived a lie for forty years. The lie was that nothing had happened, when in reality, the area had suffered the equivalent of four Hiroshima bombs, due to mismanagement of radioactive waste. US journalist, Mark Hertzgaard, went into Chelyabinsk last July.

MARK HERTZGAARD: Well, there were three nuclear disasters at Chelyabinsk. The first was in 1949, the second in 1957, and the third in 1967, and there is another one waiting to happen literally, at any moment. They all revolve around the question of nuclear waste. When the Soviets were making their nuclear weapons in Chelyabinsk, beginning in the late 1940s, they, like the Americans, had no idea what to do with the waste products left behind, and like the Americans, they decided simply to throw it in the nearest river. That's why the first accident at Chelyabinsk is not really an accident. It was the result of deliberate, conscious policy, and it ended up giving 28,000 people downstream doses of radiation that were 57 times greater than people at Chernobyl got all those years later.

They pretty quickly realised that throwing the waste into the river was not a good idea, so in 1951 they began to construct another waste disposal site, and also began to put some of the waste into a nearby natural lake that they thought had no outlets. The disposal site however, ran into problems in 1957. It overheated and exploded, literally like a bomb, and sent an enormous amount of radioactivity in a high ranging plume across the Russian countryside. And then in 1967, another ten years later, the lake suffered a terrible disaster. It had some 120 million curies of radioactivity had been poured into it and there was a drought that summer, and the water level receded quite dramatically and it left behind on the shoreline, this terribly radioactive film, and a windstorm came and blew that radioactivity again, all across the Russian countryside. And in both of these cases, the doses of radiation received by the people in the affected areas were four times greater than the average doses at Chernobyl in one case, and equal to the average doses at Chernobyl in the other case.

Hundreds of thousands of people were affected and as I say, it's not over yet because there's still a lot of radioactivity in that lake. The equivalent of seven Chernobyls remains in that lake and what's worse, a lot of the radioactivity, some 90 percent of it, has now migrated down into the ground water and gone two to three kilometres away, underneath the ground. And the really scary part about that is that there are earthquake faults; they run right underneath this site. Somehow, nuclear engineers seem to, just like divining rods, they always seem to be able to put the nuclear reactor sites above earthquake faults. And of course, the danger there is that in the event of an earthquake, that this intensely radioactive water could flash a hundred or two hundred kilometres away in an instant.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Stand by the shores of Lake Karyachik for as long as it takes to listen to this program and you will die of radiation sickness. In the Chelyabinsk district overall, even the official figures on sickness and death rates rocketed in the '80s, despite doctors and officials not talking of the real situation. Mark Hertsgard was not allowed near the lake, though there are people working there, but he was the first journalist ever into a village nearby.

MARK HERTZGAARD: I went to - this was in the village of Mislomava. Mislomava is some thirty-five kilometres downstream from the original nuclear waste dump site, and when I went there with my escort, a local ecologist, we had a dosimeter, and we held that dosimeter over various places. The normal background reading should be about 20, and when we went into Mislomava, which is a village that has never been evacuated, and we put that dosimeter down by the river, the reading shot up to 400s and 500s, and then, when we put it over a piece of cow dung, it shot up to 850. I had meanwhile, seen a child, a young boy about nine or ten, with a fishing pole in his hand, on the far side of the river, walking and wading into the water. And later, I talked to the first grade teacher there, and I said, `Are your children healthy?' She said, `Well, not really'. In her class of twenty-two kids, I think she said every fourth or fifth has chronic nose-bleeds; almost all of them have low red blood cell counts; but the local authorities refuse to help us. They insist that it is safe for us to stay here.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: An extraordinary thing about this is that not only did the KGB know, inside the USSR, which sort of makes sense, given the kind of totalitarian state it was, with no freedom of speech, but the CIA knew. The American atomic energy officials knew and didn't tell the public, didn't tell the American public. They kept up a public relations campaign for nuclear energy; they attacked anti-nuclear activists as ignorant fools; and at the same time, they knew of the scale of this disaster that had gone on in Chelyabinsk.

MARK HERTZGAARD: That's entirely correct. In fact, the first time that the world heard about the 1957 accident was through the Soviet scientist, Mr Mydellya, and he finally got through the Freedom of Information Act, in 1976, some twenty years later, he managed to show that the CIA had known about this all along. And I think that that fact speaks to the terrible collaboration of interest between the nuclear establishments on both sides. Both the KGB and the CIA kept that accident secret because they both, I think, feared an informed domestic population at least as much as they feared the enemy arsenal. You know, there's a lot of disasters that have taken place and that still are not really widely known by the mass public, and partly that's for secrecy, and partly it's also the press. I must say that they tend not to follow up stories like this because it takes digging and it takes some work and it takes some enterprise and that's not exactly, at least in the United States, that's not exactly what most news organisations are about these days.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Mark Hertzgaard. When he pressed Soviet officials about the secrecy, the cover-ups, the scale of the danger, the officials said, `That's right, just like Hanford'. Hanford is a nuclear site in Washington State. It was built in 1945 as America's first nuclear weapons site. Hanford officials also poured all their liquid nuclear wastes into the nearest river, in this case the Columbia, and the radioactive gases were released into the air. The effects on the workers and residents of Washington State are still not fully documented. This mismanagement did not become publicly known till 1989 when environmentalists forced the release of 19,000 pages of documents. Nuclear waste is not released into the river now, but instead, it has been accumulating in hundreds of huge storage tanks on the site. The tanks hold up to a million gallons of mixed nuclear waste. One tank in particular, the burping tank, has the minders worried. One spark, and it could blow.

Dr Nicholas Lenssen of the Worldwatch Institute, has just published a report on nuclear waste. He takes up the Hanford story.

NICHOLAS LENSSEN: What you have is this witch's brew of radioactive material that not only is very hazardous, due to its radioactivity, but is very hot thermally. These tanks however, have proved leaky in the past, and even to this day, have had problems with leaks. The radioactive waste has gone into the ground water, gone into the soil, and is heading towards the Columbia River, even as we speak right now. One of the efforts of government scientists to decrease this leaking, was to try to solidify some of the materials in the tanks, and so they added some more chemicals. Unfortunately, they didn't quite think out all the chemical reactions that were going to occur between the chemicals they introduced and those that already existed in the tank. And the result has been that some of the tanks have produced hydrogen gas or other flammable gases, underneath the crusty layer. In the tank you mention, 101SY, the crust is so thick and the hydrogen production so great, that every once in a while, the hydrogen burps out, essentially forcing its way through this crust. And there has been a great concern that this hydrogen, if it was ignited as it was being burped out, could cause a major explosion, not unlike the explosion in the Soviet Union.

Hanford reservation is home to over, I believe, a hundred million gallons of this high level nuclear waste, liquid waste, that we do not know how we are going to ever remove from these tanks, even though the tanks were only built to last about thirty or forty years. And so we are already coming up to the lifetime of those tanks and we still don't know exactly how we are going to get the waste out of them and once we do, what will happen to that waste. The United States has still been unable to site a permanent disposal facility for this high level nuclear waste, after nearly forty years of commercial nuclear power, and it's unlikely that we are going to do so in the near future. In fact, even the Government believes that it will be at least 2010 before a disposal facility be ready.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: And of course, a lot of this is played down or kept confidential, and that was true of a similar mess in the Soviet Union, the story of Chelyabinsk, which I have got a figure of it's a hundred times worse than Chernobyl, and still there are people dying there, children with leukaemia. That was the result of a series of accidents which the KGB knew about and didn't say, but I am told, so did the CIA, and warned no-one.

NICHOLAS LENSSEN: This accident that occurred in 1957 was hinted at and guessed at for numerous years. It was only in 1989 that the Soviet Government finally came clean to admit that yes, an accident occurred, and to release some details. And eventually, information was forced out of the CIA via the Freedom of Information Act, that stated that the CIA knew fully well that a radiological accident had occurred in the Urals.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: What is the feeling in America amongst well, ordinary people, but also politicians, about the CIA keeping the lid on that?

NICHOLAS LENSSEN: I think it's a very little known fact that the CIA hid from the American public and the rest of the world, the fact that there was a major nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. I would guess that ninety-nine out of a hundred people in this country, would not know such a thing occurred. So it has been very much down-played and not at all been reported on except for an occasional article, generally in alternative press outlets. No country has determined a safe and permanent way to dispose of the long lived radioactive waste that exists in more than twenty-six countries, from commercial nuclear power, but in many other countries as well, from other activities, such as industrial and medical. The fact that this waste has not been dealt with and the fact that this waste will remain deadly and dangerous for tens of thousands of years, is perhaps one of the more under-reported stories around the world.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Nicholas Lenssen of the Worldwatch Institute. No country knows what to do. Old reactors are being cut up and dumped in sea caves under the Baltic. The English are putting their waste in deep rock tunnels under the County of Cumbria. The Americans, as well as eyeing the deserts of Nevada, are experimenting with caves dug into salt beds, deep below the grasslands of New Mexico. Islands in the China Sea are being considered, anywhere deep, distant or deserted. In Japan they have gone for the far north. Tony Barrell has been researching that.

Tony, Japan is one of the few countries in the world that is full steam ahead on the whole nuclear power issue.

TONY BARRELL: It is. I mean, by some calculations, they may have as many as a hundred nuclear power stations operating in about twenty or thirty years time. One of the people I spoke to however, is a campaigner against this policy, Eileen Myoko Smith. She is part Japanese, she lives in Kyoto, and she is particularly worried about all the nuclear power stations that are sitting around pumping out electricity now, themselves becoming waste because the ageing factor is probably one of the most difficult issues that any nation that's been using nuclear power can face. What do you do with these things? They cost an awful amount of money to decommission and it's very dangerous and difficult to decontaminate them, so Eileen Smith is campaigning in the Kyoto area against the use of nuclear power.

EILEEN SMITH: While I was at Three Mile Island, people would say, where do you live? And I'd say Kyoto, and I told them about the number of nuclear power plants in this area and they all said, don't go back, stay at Three Mile Island. That's when I realised there were so many plants where I live. We have thirteen operating nuclear power plants here, within a fifty mile radius, with over ten million population. So we are right in the thick of it here. There's several plants that are in terrible condition. I mean, it's just appalling. For example, with the ageing problem, with like water reactors here, its pressurised water reactors; the steam generators are in a horrible state and this means really really imminent possibility of accident. And we have been saying that over and over again and finally, a year ago, last February, we had the accident in Mihama, which was exactly the issue that we were talking about, and there are several other plants right now, that are running, that are in worse shape. The oldest two are twenty years old now, and so we are beginning to face the ageing power plant issue here in Japan, that the US started to face like a decade ago.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Now Tony, Eileen talks about the nuclear power stations themselves. What are their plans in Japan, for the nuclear waste created by these power stations?

TONY BARRELL: The Japanese Government have decided to build a facility, they call it, right up in the north of Japan, in the middle of a kind of fishing village area, at a place called Rokkasho, which is in the province of Aomori, which is I think, the second poorest province of Japan. And there has been a concerted campaign there, to persuade local villagers to accept the idea of having this low and high level radiation waste stored amongst them. And not only that, they have actually built an enrichment plant there, too, and they are planning to have a reprocessing plant. So, up there in the north of Japan, on this little tiny peninsular, surrounded by the sea and the cold mists of the north, there is growing this enormous, gigantic mutant complex called Rokkasho. And to give you a bit more perspective on Rokkasho, I spoke to Mr Jinzaburo Takagi by telephone. He is at the Citizens Nuclear Information Service in Tokyo.

JINZABURO TAKAGI: These facilities in Rokkasho will eventually absorb all the radioactive waste from all over Japan, but the problem of this .... waste centre is that the place is not, geologically is not stable. There have been frequent earthquakes in the history of Japan, in the area near there, and also, another problem is there are US-Japan self defence force air force bases and they are frequently flying jet fighters, fighters and bombers, and exercising round this area. Quite recently, a bomb was dropped in an accident, from F-16 fighter-bomber, very near the facility.

TONY BARRELL: It's interesting that the villagers in Rokkasho were all paid, not actually directly, but it was spread out amongst everybody, something like $120 million, to help them make up their mind in favour of accepting this. It's a big political issue in northern Japan.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: That was Tony Barrell. No technology can handle the huge amounts of nuclear waste, and there is quite a lot of illegal dumping, as well as some novel ideas for recycling.

NICHOLAS LENSSEN: There is a move in many countries, to deregulate some of the waste as no longer being nuclear waste, but being treated as normal household garbage, and would allow radioactive waste with very low levels of radioactivity, to be disposed of in common municipal landfills, or even to be recycled into consumer products. For example, radioactively contaminated metal that could then be melted down and refounded into products, everything from belt buckles or metal pieces on shoes.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: There is a steel works in England where they have been finding that there are radioactive pieces of metal mixed in with their other stuff, their clean stuff, illegally. They didn't know about it and now they are scanning every truck that comes into the compound.

NICHOLAS LENSSEN: Yes, late last year, it was discovered that a steel foundry in India was exporting steel fencing to a number of countries, including the United States and apparently England, that contained radioactively contaminated metal. It's unclear exactly where it came from. A similar story occurred once in the United States and Mexico a few years ago, when scrap metal was being sold to a Mexican steel company. The metal was sold in Nevada and it went down to Mexico to Monterey and was refounded and re-exported, this time into the United States in products. And it turned out that this metal was legally being dumped in Nevada as radioactive waste, but then the operators were taking it out and selling it as scrap, which was then finding its way via Mexico, back into the United States - schoolyards, homes, etc, and radioactively contaminated. So it's not an isolated example.

ADVERTISEMENT: Majestic mountains, secluded lakes, towering cliffs, and that's just the drive to the gates of the Sellafield visitors' centre. It's exciting, it's educational, and it's packed with fascinating facts about nuclear energy. The centre is open every day of the year except Christmas day, and admission is free. Take a trip to the Sellafield visitors' centre and you will find there is more to West Cumbria than just beautiful scenery.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: The pro-nuclear energy lobby, in that example it's from Sellafield in the United Kingdom, is still powerful, though as the waste problem grows, the economics of nuclear power is getting shaky. Thirty three countries around the world either have nuclear power or are considering it. Of these, nineteen are phasing it out or have shelved their plans. Some, like Sweden, are backing out altogether. The Netherlands have said that they will never start, and France has found that when you take the waste costs into account, nuclear energy is not economically viable. America and Japan are going ahead, as are some Asian countries. In recent weeks, it has been revealed that Australia has been assisting Indonesia with nuclear science technology and training. Indonesia plans to build twelve more nuclear reactors to generate that country's future electricity.

Jean McSorley of Greenpeace in Australia.

JEAN McSORLEY: Well, the Third World in particular, has been sold a big lie by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the lie is that nuclear power is clean and safe and cheap. And over the last forty years, the first world, Europe in particular, has learned that none of those things are true and that's why their populations have rebelled to a very great extent. Unfortunately, Third World countries like Indonesia are offered this sop. We would say, of course, it was completely reckless for numerous reasons, that Australia should be offering to help Indonesia have a nuclear program. Having nuclear power or more fossil fuels is not the way forward - there are other answers, and certainly Australia. I think other countries have been singularly dishonest in the way they have led these places to believe that they can get rid of their waste easily, and of course, the big worry is that somewhere out there, and there are politicians who agree with this viewpoint, is that look, we will do a deal with Indonesia or Taiwan or whoever, and we will take your waste back. And people in Australia should really worry about that because around the world, we can see a number of first world countries have done deals with developing countries over nuclear waste. For example, the Germans are now disposing of waste in the Gobi Desert with the Chinese; England at one time, was contemplating dumping nuclear waste in the Patagonian Desert in Argentina, that was before the Falklands war.

If there were to be an accident in somewhere like Indonesia, Australian farmers in Western Australia could certainly be impacted on for a long long time. I came from an area in England which is something like 2,000 kilometres away from Chernobyl. Those farmers still can't sell their lambs directly to the market, as the results of an accident 2,000 kilometres away, six years ago, and that's the sort of time scale people have to get their heads round when they are saying: Indonesia can have nuclear power. We can deal with the nuclear waste and everything will be rosy in the garden.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: And what about the fact that their answer to that is, Chernobyl was old technology; it was inexperienced technocrats or scientists; those things won't happen again; we know better now.

JEAN McSORLEY: Well, you know, the same people who told us that Chernobyl wouldn't happen were the same people who put an article praising that very reactor, into the International Atomic Energy magazine, saying how wonderful it was. And basically, they just don't know because they're not gods, they're not omnipresent. They don't know that a welder may not do a weld properly or somebody may fail to deal with the water, a shut-off valve. All of these small things invariably, can lead to major accidents in plants. We have had Three Mile Island, we've had the big Winscale 1957 fire. But worse still, and this is something we have to look at, we've had major contamination around the world, as a result of day to day operations of nuclear facilities. The Irish Sea is the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world, purely as a result of the Sellafield sea discharges, a routine and deliberate occurrence, so we don't have to go round and say, oh look, there's going to be an accident.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Australia has 1500 spent fuel rods. We tried to send them to America last year but the Sierra Club, an environmental group there, put an injunction on the rods entering America. So they wait at Lucas Heights, along with other low and intermediate wastes.

JEAN McSORLEY: The real bete noir is the spent nuclear fuel from the Lucas Heights reactor - that's intensely radioactive. If the spent fuel from Lucas Heights goes abroad for reprocessing, the problem is that morally we are dumping it on another country, which is quite wrong. But there is also, in the longer term, the possibility that having embroiled ourselves in the international waste trade, that we would be asked to take some high level waste back, and we don't have a facility for dealing with that. And by facility, what I really mean is a big underground dump, because that's all the engineers in the nuclear industry ever seem to think of. So it would be better for us to keep hold of this relatively stable substance, keep the highly enriched uranium contained within it, then it can't go for any misuse in weapons programs, and store it above ground.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: And the reason for doing that, for keeping it here, is as you say, not to get involved in the problems of international nuclear waste being moved around the globe, and nobody really knowing what to do with it.

JEAN McSORLEY: Well, it comes back to industry taking responsibility in the long term, for the waste it has created, and for saying, well, if we have to keep this waste and if it's stuck in front of us, perhaps we will minimise it. We can't simply go on creating waste and thinking, well, some other country somewhere, is going to be dumped on. Other people have said they wanted to dump in Australia, and most Australians quite rightly are mortified by the prospect of nuclear waste from overseas coming here. We shouldn't employ the same tactic to get rid of our waste.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Greenpeace policy is that nuclear waste should be stored above ground, at the place where it is generated, in full sight of the people who make it. That way, people are forced to come to terms with the realities. A few weeks ago, the National Health and Medical Research Council released their report called `Code of practice for the near-surface disposal of low level solid radioactive waste in Australia'. The report makes the assumption that the waste will be buried somewhere in the desert.

JEAN McSORLEY: The semi-arid zones in this country have for a long time, been seen as a very attractive dumping area, not only by people in this country, but certainly by a lot of foreign politicians. And I am reminded of the time I was at a rally in England for a Conservative politician who was against a waste dump in his constituency, and he actually said, `Why not dump it in the deserts in Australia?' And it's that sort of attitude that we have a wilderness area, is if it's empty, that there's nothing that lives in it, that it doesn't interact with the rest of the environment, that we can just dump it. It's a lazy, slack attitude, and an industry shouldn't be led to believe that it can get away with that.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Australia itself has only one nuclear reactor, the one at Lucas Heights. It was built by the British in the '50s, at the time Britain was atomic testing in Maralinga. It was top secret until 1986, when the Atomic Energy Commission was killed off and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO, was born. At this point, Lucas Heights became a research establishment and it's now no longer a crime punishable by jail, to report an accident there. Because of the secretiveness of earlier handling of nuclear materials in Australia, there are still lots of mysteries about where and what it is. One incomplete official inventory says waste here consists of:

radioactive dried sludge, laboratory equipment, towels, glass, wood, paper, radium needles, luminous discs, compass cards, watch faces, electron tubes, liquid wastes, test tubes, clothes, sweepings, smoke detectors, exit signs, luminous paint, instrument dials, syringes, radioactive metals, bore-hole logging tools, spent fuel rods, radioactive hospital and human waste.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: How is it stored?

This material is kept in steel drums, concrete pits, storage ponds, tanks, concrete bunkers, old air-raid shelters, lead boxes, sealed tins, fire-proof safes, disused incinerators, concrete pipes, drums and undescribed private facilities, and various and temporary facilities.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Where is it stored?

Some of the known places are various locations in Hobart, Canberra, Darwin; Nedlands in WA, Royal Perth Hospital; Salisbury and Edinburgh in South Australia; metropolitan Melbourne, East Sale, Broadmeadows, Bandiana, St Andrews Place in East Melbourne; Royal Brisbane Hospital, University of Queensland, metropolitan Brisbane and Amberley. In New South Wales there is material at Richmond, Williamtown, metropolitan Sydney, Moorebank, the Chancellery Building at the University of New South Wales, Lidcombe, St Mary's and Lucas Heights.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Is there anything else?

The list does not include waste collected by industrial waste disposal services; it does not include any waste that is flushed into sewerage systems; it does not include radioactive mineral sands waste or uranium tailings; or any waste already buried.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Last week, the people of Esk, outside Brisbane, got the news they most feared. A radioactive waste dump will be built in their district. Queensland already has built one storage dump, at Redbank, but local outrage meant it has never been used. Wayne Goss, now Premier, was even arrested for being part of demonstrations against the facility, saying that if his party won government, they wouldn't proceed with Redbank. Wayne Goss is now Premier and his Labor Government has decided to put the new dump in a National Party seat.

NEWSREADER: The Queensland Government decided today, to build a radioactive waste storage facility outside Esk. Health Minister, Ken Hayward, says he is not expecting a backlash from the Esk community.

KEN HAYWARD: This storage facility in the Esk state pine forest has occurred after extensive consultation with the Esk community and their representatives. We have listened to the concerns that they have raised and we have addressed a number of the issues that they've raised. I think what's important also to understand is this is an issue concerning all Queenslanders. All Queenslanders want to be assured that used radioactive waste substances are stored in safe, secure, state-of-the-art building, and that's what will happen in the Esk state pine forest.

NEWSREADER: But Esk Shire chairman, Jean Bray, has described the decision as a political payback. Councillor Bray says the first dump site at Redbank was a political decision and Esk is no different.

JEAN BRAY: The State Government is committed to, or supposedly committed to responsible planning for south-east Queensland. They are responsible and concerned about environmental issues and they are supposed to be concerned about residents, and yet we believe that the decision that apparently Cabinet has made today, just makes a mockery of all those so-called commitments.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: I went to the Esk Valley just before the announcement.

PROTESTER: Well, we are approximately eleven kilometres from the township of Esk and we are standing in the state pine forest where the State Government proposes to build a radioactive waste dump. The site is on a creek called Sandy Creek which drains eventually, directly into Wivenhoe Dam, which is the main water supply for south-east Queensland. This is where they intend to build the dump.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: What were the criteria for choosing this place, in the state forest in the Esk Valley.

PROTESTER: We are told by the Government that initially, 76 sites were proposed. The criteria were that they had to be in a pine forest. This eliminated the environmental concerns - it wasn't a native forest. It had to be within one and a half hours travel of Brisbane and the reason for this is that the radiation physicists are concentrated in Wickham Terrace in Brisbane, and they needed to be able to get up quickly and examine the dump, from time to time, check the inventories and get back in time, or the cynics say, to knock off work. We believe that it should be put in the desert and if the public servant has to travel like everybody else, to work, so be it.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: There is a lot of vegetable-growing around here, and cattle farming. Bob, you are a cattle farmer and you have been here all your life.

BOB: Involved in cattle and fruit and vegetables, and this is what worries me with export markets, and even the markets further afield than here, that when people hear that cattle and produce are being grown alongside of a radioactive dump, there could be a little stigma on it as far as purchasing. And some of the countries that buy our meat are not very keen on radioactive at all.

PROTESTER: It's the responsibility of the consignor, and some of this material will be coming from all over Queensland - Mt Isa Mines, Gladstone, Townsville - whatever centres use radioactive isotopes. It will be the responsibility of the consignor to package the material properly. If it arrives at the dump incorrectly packaged, then they will be prosecuted under the Radioactive Substances Act, but we feel it is too late then. It's possibly spread contamination through the whole of Queensland. We will certainly be getting a small amount of plutonium. We will be getting some radium and they are not too sure of what's in Petrie Bight and they won't know till they actually clean it out and identify it.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: What do you mean, they don't know what's there?

PROTESTER: They have an inventory of sorts. Possibly 72 percent of the volume of Petrie Bight is smoke detectors containing americium 241, which has a half-life of approximately 10,000 years. There are some unknowns in there which are in cardboard cartons and wooden boxes. We are not privy to all the inventory. Perhaps the Health Department does know by now, but we were told that they would shift the identifiable isotopes first and then identify the others and shift them. Well, we have a feeling that it is not safe, otherwise why shift it, and why put it in a semi-deserted spot like this. We are certainly not NIMBYs, the CARD Group. Our philosophy is nowhere in populated areas. We are NOBYs - not in anyone's back yard. We agree that it exists and we agree it's got to go somewhere. It's the definition of somewhere we are at difference with. We feel that they should be guided, the Government or the decision-makers should be guided by international recommendations: storage in a desert environment; low rainfall; nil population, low or nil population; and transport by air, not by road. There's accidents pretty well every week in the States with radioactive material.

People come here from interstate and they think it is beautiful, it's the valley of the lakes, and it's like Scotland, and the Scottish love it. But once the dump is built here, that's a different story and land values will then become .... the land will become impossible to sell. It should be put back on the industrialists. We are continually told that it's a shared responsibility. We agree that the industrialists make the rubbish and we are supposed to look after it for them. I think it should be on a user-pay basis. Most of these isotopes, the majority are imported. They are easily recorded and a lot of it can be repatriated. The ray densitometers can go back to California at a fee of $750. The smoke detectors can go back to ...... in Japan. Now if this fee was added on the imports when they come into the country, a good record was kept, and the user has already paid for disposal, then we wouldn't be standing here today with the problems that we have got.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: For the people of Sutherland Shire Council in New South Wales, the news this week was happier, a major victory in fact.

PHILLIP LASKER: This is PM. I am Phillip Lasker and tonight, we look at the problems raised by a court decision, banning the storage of nuclear waste at Australia's only nuclear facility.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: The Defence Department has a munitions site at St Mary's, an outer Sydney suburb, which it wants to sell to the New South Wales Government, for housing and industry, but first, it has to get rid of fifty years of accumulated radioactive waste. The Defence Department negotiated with ANSTO to store it at Lucas Heights. As well as that, last year, ANSTO accepted 10,000 drums of waste from the CSIRO in Victoria. Sutherland Shire Council challenged the legality of both these contracts in court, and the court found this week that not only must the St Mary's material not ever go to Lucas Heights, but the 10,000 CSIRO drums must be moved out within three years.

PHILLIP LASKER: Staying in New South Wales, a court ruling today has raised questions about the storage of radioactive waste in Australia. The Land and Environment Court has ruled that the Lucas Heights nuclear research laboratory outside Sydney, could no longer store low level radioactive material. The court decision puts pressure on both the Federal and State Governments who have spent seven years grappling with the storage problem. So what's to become of the 3,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste stored in drums around the country? PM's Fran Kelly put that question to director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation at Lucas Heights, Dr David Cook.

DAVID COOK: I believe the court's decision today has identified the need in this country, to have a repository and I hope that State and Commonwealth, or State Governments and the Commonwealth can get together to now provide an appropriate resolution.

FRAN KELLY: Well, where are we at right now? Has any State given any indication that would agree to host the repository?


FRAN KELLY: Some of the opponents to the Lucas Heights site said that it wasn't even possible to say that the waste in these drums is safe because it is not known what is in these drums and some of it is thirty years old, when presumably monitoring techniques were fairly unsophisticated. Do you know absolutely, what is inside these drums?

DAVID COOK: The question that you have raised relates to the St Mary's waste and because we are not involved in that waste at this stage, we have not fully explored what it is. But clearly, if we were permitted to store the waste in an interim way here, we would investigate what it is and the best way for it to be stored.

FRAN KELLY: But what about Lucas Heights .....

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Exact definitions and descriptions of radioactive waste depend on who you are talking to, and this is one reason why the concern about the danger in storage won't go away. Genevieve Rankin is a Councillor in Sutherland Shire, one of the people who fought to stop storage at Lucas Heights.

GENEVIEVE RANKIN: You might realise, Kirsten, that over the years, there's been a lot of variation in the standards for managing this sort of waste and there's a lot of concern about how well it has been stored, and the sort of problems with leakage, for example, when it is dug up and brought to a new area.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: So really, we don't know what's there.

GENEVIEVE RANKIN: There's a lot of poor information actually, about exactly what's stored there. It is radioactively contaminated material and I think it's material that we should be concerned about.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: And is there room for it at Lucas Heights? Seventeen cubic metres is quite a lot, isn't it?

GENEVIEVE RANKIN: Well look, we have just had 10,000 drums of material from Fishermans Bend in Victoria, come to Lucas Heights. We are storing 1,500 fuel rods on the site. We don't have a lot of space. The drums that they brought up from Victoria have been stored in the open, on a wooden pallet, with just a tarpaulin thrown over the top and the local bushfire brigade are extremely concerned about the fire hazard there. That is the sort of storage they are giving to the material from Fishermans Bend. We challenged the Minister on this when we had a delegation to him in December and the only answer we got back was that if we didn't store it like that, you people would think it was permanent, and it's only temporary. You would be telling us to get rid of it. But the fact is, there is very poor storage. There's not a lot of extra room on the site. We are being asked at Sutherland Council, to approve housing developments almost up to the perimeter fence of this site.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: And apparently during the court case, the Government did admit that storing the new stuff anyway, the stuff from St Mary's, would be in breach of the law.

GENEVIEVE RANKIN: It is both outside the ANSTO Act, which is the Federal Government Act that it operates on, and it's also outside the New South Wales planning legislation. The legal Counsel for the Federal Government admitted that in court last week and I just think it's appalling that they can admit that they have had approval from their Minister to undertake an activity which is illegal, under both Federal and State legislation.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: But where will it go? There is nowhere in Australia set up to take nuclear waste permanently.

GENEVIEVE RANKIN: They said that if the material from Fishermans Bend is moved from Lucas Heights, they will have nowhere else to store it and it would just have to roam around on trucks, going around New South Wales. In effect, Lucas Heights is the national waste repository at the moment, defacto, and you are talking here about a suburban area of Sydney, which is Australia's largest city. It is just absurd.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: There are people of course, who say that people are exaggerating the dangers, that yes, the drums might leak, and yes, there might be some dangerous material there, but really, nothing has happened so far.

GENEVIEVE RANKIN: Well, they said nothing has happened so far at Chernobyl, at Three Mile Island. At every place where they have had major nuclear problems, accidents, they have always said, it's all okay. Now, I think it is time that Australia took stock. We have to look at Lucas Heights and say: what is the cost benefit to our country in having this? We have a $600 million site up there. What are they producing of benefit to Australia, except this enormous waste problem that we just can't handle. I think it's time the Government took stock.

LIZ JACKSON: Today's program on radioactive waste was produced by Kirsten Garrett. That vision of the trucks just driving round and round, loaded up with the stuff from Lucas Heights, and no-one prepared to take it, is a worry. I see the talk is about creating a national dumping ground, but I wonder where. New South Wales has already made it clear they won't have it, and who will? Offering to be a radioactive waste depository is hardly a vote winner.