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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Intermediate Level Solid Waste Storage Facility Lucas Heights, NSW

SWEENEY, Mr Dave, Nuclear Policy Analyst, Australian Conservation Foundation [by audio link]


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Sweeney : Chair, I'd like to thank you and the committee for your attention to this and the recognition of the public interest dimensions. I'm speaking to you today from Wurundjeri land in Melbourne, where I lead ACF's nuclear advocacy work. Our work on this issue has been extensive, including being the sole civil society voice on the independent advisory panel for this facility that was established by former minister Macfarlane.

It is no surprise to say that this has been a long-contested and controversial policy area, but not as to this initiative to expand interim storage capacity at ANSTO. There's broad agreement from the diverse and often conflicting stakeholders about the benefit of and the need for increasing this storage capacity. I suppose the point of discussion here is not whether the planned activities should happen but rather how long they should happen for.

In short, I think it's fair to say that civil society groups maintain that ANSTO is simply the best place to store intermediate-level waste, pending the development of an agreed and evidence based approach to final or lasting management. There are many reasons why civil society groups feel this way and hold this view and maintain that ANSTO has superior institutional assets to manage intermediate-level waste on site for extended storage. It's already the home for the most problematic waste. It has security of tenure. It has a secure perimeter with 24/7 Australian Federal Police monitoring. It keeps waste management firmly on the agency's agenda. It also ensures that it is stored where it actually is and in an area that has the highest emergency and radiation monitoring and response capacity in Australia. There are no regulatory or radiological impediments to extended storage. We've made this case in the Australian Conservation Foundation's submission. I know time is short, so I won't go on. We believe there are compelling reasons why ANSTO is the best place for this waste.

This issue has direct relevance to the Public Works Committee's consideration of the proposed works and the expenditure of nearly $60 million in public funds—a not inconsiderable amount. One of the principles of radiological protection—one of the rationales that is demonstrated before an act is undertaken that involves nuclear activity—is the principle of justification. In effect, it's the net benefit. This has not been proven in relation to ANSTO's plan to move intermediate-level waste to or to handle intermediate-level waste at a facility at Kimba.

So, in relation to the proposal to expand their capacity to hold this waste at ANSTO, we believe that the suitability, necessity and advisability of the work is clear. We believe that the most effective use of the work and the money is to ensure that this material is handled securely and not unnecessarily duplicated at a Kimba facility with lesser assets. We believe that the present prospective public value of the work is that it's needed now, that it provides a credible and a prudent future option and that the most effective use of that public money would be to advance that work and then adopt this work and the enhanced storage capacity as the foundation of Australia's intermediate-level management pending the discussion of a long-term approach. So, effectively, we see this ANSTO work, and this work in train and under consideration by the committee now, as rendering any transfer of intermediate-level waste to Kimba on an interim basis without a plan as redundant, unnecessary and suboptimal. There's no need to double handle or double spend.

We see the ANSTO arguments against extended interim storage as either spurious or unproven. We believe this initiative that's before the committee today provides a valuable, long-overdue circuit-breaker in what has often been a non-productive policy discourse, and that it provides a platform to move from contest to an increasing sense of consensus to advance responsible and lasting radioactive waste management in this country—which I think we all agree is in everyone's interests. I'll leave it there and welcome questions, thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Sweeney. I'll kick off, and I'll remind people listening and also those witnesses who are yet to give evidence that we're not discussing the South Australian facility today; we're discussing an expansion of the intermediate waste facility at Lucas Heights. The proposal we're discussing today is to extend the capacity, effectively, from 2027 to 2037 by constructing a new building which is roughly equivalent in size to the existing facility.

Wouldn't you say that it's prudent for ANSTO to increase that capacity for another 16 years while the policy debate and developments take place in this space? Are you actually suggesting that they should construct a facility to take them through until the 2050s, which is the expected lifespan of the OPAL reactor?

Mr Sweeney : Well, they've already got a facility. They recently constructed and licenced—in 2015—an interim waste store to hold intermediate-level waste. It's safety rated and not time limited; it's safety rated through to 2055. We know that ANSTO operations are going to continue for three more decades at the facility at Lucas Heights, so it's a prudent and completely reasonable expectation to hold that ANSTO will manage their waste responsibly during their period of operational control.

So, yes, I'd be of the view that says the best place is very similar to the position that was arrived at in 2014 through the Jacobs SKM initial business case for a national radioactive waste management plan. That was that there be a contingency which extends ANSTO's storage until the policy and technological options for permanent disposal of intermediate-level waste are determined. I think, in the absence of a lasting solution and on radiological and economic grounds, and a whole range of institutional assets, that ANSTO is the best place for this material to be until there's a final approach to the management of this material.

CHAIR: Which takes them through to 2037, which is 16 years hence. It gives the opportunity for that policy development to take place. Space is not necessarily limited on the ANSTO site so if, in 10 years time, there's no end in sight to this interminable debate they can then build another store—surely?

Mr Sweeney : Well, that's absolutely right. ANSTO built a store, and when it turned out that there was no social licence for an earlier iteration of the national waste management facility at the Muckaty site in the Northern Territory ANSTO built a purpose-built facility to extend their intermediate-level capacity. They're now applying to do another one. I think whether this is the one-size-fits-all through to 2055 or not is less than the point we're trying to convey to the committee, or for the committee's consideration. Our point is that ANSTO is the best place: it has the best assets and also has the duty of care to ensure secure management, as it has done. As I've said to this committee and to other committees, it has the capacity, it has a proven history and it's building on its strengths. That's what we're saying. Until we have an agreed answer, to move from an organisation and an asset base where the material already is, and where there are skills, training, expertise and security, to a less secure site without a clear and agreed way forward is just kicking the can down the road and increasing the risk of this waste becoming a stranded asset in a suboptimal facility. Keeping it at ANSTO and building, as needed, ways to store and securely manage this—as we have done for decades and, as ARPANSA CEO Carl-Magnus Larsson says, as can be done for decades into the future—provides us the space to use the time effectively to address those policy, political and technological issues that will inform and ideally get us to a point where we have an agreed, sensible, prudent and credible long-term management approach.

CHAIR: Mr Pasin, do you have any questions?

Mr PASIN: No, my questions were similar to yours about how in the event that matters don't proceed at Kimba, ANSTO could build a further facility.

Mr ZAPPIA: Mr Sweeney, given your submission, and particularly your last comments, why do you believe that ANSTO is not taking the same view as that which you proposed in your last statement?

Mr Sweeney : That really is one of the key questions. I understand ANSTO's rationale—the agency wants to move the waste off its site and the cost of managing the waste off its books. For an agency, I can understand that. I don't agree that the agency's interest should then drive the national interest and inform a national solution or a national approach.

Teasing out ANSTO's reasons for why they can't have extended storage, we believe they are either spurious or untested. They say that the ANSTO campus is too small, but that fails to recognise that a large area of the planned Kimba site is taken up with an agricultural test zone and a public order buffer zone, neither of which is needed at ANSTO. ANSTO say that there is mission conflict in that they're for research, not waste management, yet their work directly generates radioactive waste—it has for decades, so it makes sense that they be requested and expected to deliver on competent management. ANSTO champions their radioactive waste management. They talk about their Synroc development and their work on radioactive waste with international nuclear agreements, including a recent Australia-UK energy relationship announced by Minister Taylor. ANSTO have also repeatedly assured us about the safety and the competence of its waste management at Lucas Heights, and those assurances, importantly, have been validated by ARPANSA. ANSTO say that there's a legislative block, but that misrepresents this constraint because that's a block against final disposal at ANSTO. No-one is suggesting final disposal at ANSTO. A growing number of voices are calling for extended interim storage.

So we believe that there are no credible radiological, public health, economic or environmental reasons. The chair mentioned the term 'interminable'. This is a long-running problem and a long-running issue and we've got to get it right. This provides us the opportunity to say, 'We're going to store the intermediate at ANSTO in best national conditions until we can have an agreed way forward for the management of this,' which we do not have with the Kimba proposal.

So we would say very clearly that this is the best place for Australia's worst waste. We welcome this spend. We believe that the way that it can deliver the best policy outcome, the best public interest outcome and the best economic returns is that, moving forward, it now forms the basis for a bipartisan approach that develops a responsible approach to radioactive waste management.

CHAIR: Are there any final questions? Mr Sweeney, you've got a couple of minutes if you want to make a closing statement.

Mr Sweeney : Thanks very much, Chair. This has been, as you've said, a long-running issue. It's been an issue that's tied up with lots of other, less significant factors and lots of other agendas et cetera. But it comes down to this: what is the best way in which Australia can manage long-lived radioactive waste? In particular, the material we're talking about here, intermediate-level waste, needs to be isolated from people and the planet for a period of up to 10,000 years—a very considerable period; a very significant challenge. So, from our perspective at the Australian Conservation Foundation—but I think it's shared across the board by all players—we need the most responsible way that doesn't sterilise options and that maintains a high level of governance, security, confidence and competence in radioactive waste management. Again and again, for institutional assets, we come back to the capacity and expertise. For the fact that it's already there, and for the fact that it has overwhelmingly the best security, ANSTO is the best place till we have an integrated and agreed and credible long-term, lasting solution. To move from an area of high governance of assets to an area of lower is suboptimal, irresponsible and not necessary. I really welcome this committee's attention and I'd really be looking to see that this now becomes a turning point and a pivot point that changes the conversation in how we approach this policy area.

CHAIR: I now close this session by saying that if the committee has any further questions it will put them to you in writing. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you, Mr Sweeney, for appearing here today.

Mr Sweeney : Thanks for the opportunity.