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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
13/09/2021
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Intermediate Level Solid Waste Storage Facility Lucas Heights, NSW

WILKINS, Mr Craig, Chief Executive, Conservation Council of South Australia [by audio link]

[12:17]

CHAIR: I welcome the representative of the Conservation Council of South Australia to give evidence. 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 contempt of parliament. The evidence given here today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed with discussion.

Mr Wilkins : Thank you very much to the committee for having me here today. We strongly support extended storage of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's intermediate-level waste at Lucas Heights. We believe it is warranted, it is needed, it is a prudent and safe option, and it is a cost-effective option. As previous witnesses have said, the alternative is none of those things. The current proposed strategy of temporarily parking Australia's long-lived nuclear waste at Kimba is, we believe, poor public policy and unnecessary and expensive double handling—

Mr PASIN: Chair, I'm becoming increasingly concerned about the scope of this committee and the evidence that is being used as a proxy for a policy debate outside of the scope of what we have to consider. We're here to consider the facility at Lucas Heights. I just think we should reinforce to witnesses that this is about that project and not about policy discussions or debates around the national facility, proposed or otherwise, at Kimba.

CHAIR: I hear your point, Mr Pasin, and I will remind the witness that this committee is here to look at and evaluate the proposal to build a facility at Lucas Heights, and it is not, as the member for Barker has pointed out, a proxy for the broader policy debate. Having said that, the witness does have the ability to say whatever they choose to. This is a fresh and open democracy. We will hear the witness out, but I will remind the witness that we are here to discuss a specific project based at Lucas Heights for the expansion of their intermediate storage on that site. Please proceed, Mr Wilkins.

Mr Wilkins : Thank you, Chair. The reason I have said my words—and obviously the previous witnesses have also mentioned it—is that there is a clear policy choice emerging. Either we, as a nation, safely manage that waste at Lucas Heights—which is the proposal before the committee—or there is the imposition of a problematic, expensive and divisive path on my state of South Australia. The arguments towards the extended interim storage at Lucas Heights are that it is more secure, more cost-effective and a simpler and easier path to tread. Surely, prudent public policy is to prioritise the location for this management in the best-practice place. Ultimately, that involves deep geological disposal, but, until that is sorted out, extended storage at Lucas Heights is preferable. Ultimately, no-one knows the best place in Australia to store long-lived radioactive waste in deep geological disposal. The reason why no-one knows is that the work hasn't been done yet. So I and others are genuinely scratching our heads as to why this waste from ANSTO is being transferred from one temporary storage place that is safe, secure, funded, staffed and approved to another temporary storage place on an interim basis. This is not a solution. It's a phenomenal waste of time and money with no additional public benefit.

CHAIR: But that's not what we're here to discuss today. We're discussing the expansion of the facilities at Lucas Heights. So I think that's why some committee members are getting a little frustrated with the direction of this evidence. We are here to effectively discuss and consider the expansion which will give ANSTO the ability to store their intermediate-level waste on site until 2037. That is the proposal in front of the committee today.

Mr Wilkins : Yes, thank you; I certainly hear that. As I said before, we're emphasising that there is this clear policy choice. The proposal in front of the committee is one that we support, for all of the various reasons, and the reason it is so supported is that it contrasts with a path which is poorer. I'd like to suggest that there is clear evidence to the committee to recommend indefinite extended storage of ANSTO's intermediate-level waste at Lucas Heights—or, at the very least, a further detailed review of extended interim storage at Lucas Heights—until a permanent deep geological disposal option emerges and that site is decided and work is begun, so we don't tread down the path of just shifting to another interim site.

The path we are currently on not only is against South Australian law but also lacks appropriate social licence and support from our state. It is seen as an imposition. There is no social licence. South Australians haven't had a say in this proposal. It is deeply contested by the Kimba community. It is opposed by Barngarla traditional owners. There are a range of reasons why Kimba is not a suitable and appropriate place for this, and for those reasons we strongly support the proposal to maintain and extend storage at Lucas Heights. I'm happy to answer any questions.

CHAIR: For clarity, the Public Works Committee doesn't initiate policy or projects. It considers projects that are brought before it by Commonwealth government agencies, so we don't have a role in initiating a project that may suit the will of the committee. We consider what is brought before us, which in this case is the expansion of the intermediate waste storage at Lucas Heights.

We have heard a lot about South Australia and how it's illegal to transport intermediate nuclear waste. South Australia has the largest uranium mine in Australia. Can you explain to me how that operates where intermediate nuclear waste, which in the scheme of things is quite low-level nuclear waste, can't be transported through your state but the uranium transported to the rest of the world is?

Mr Wilkins : I suppose it's the nature of what is necessary and appropriate. The proposal is to transfer intermediate-level waste from Sydney through to our state, which we don't believe is a necessary, prudent or appropriate path. It does involve a range of transport routes, and those communities have not been consulted around that additional risk—and it is an additional risk. Any risk analysis is about trying to minimise opportunities for risk, so we would argue that this is an approach which further increases a risk which is already there with the transport of materials from Roxby Downs.

CHAIR: What about the medical isotopes that are used in your hospitals? I assume they are transported from Lucas Heights into various medical facilities around South Australia. Are you happy for that to continue?

Mr Wilkins : There is a significant difference between the radioactivity of the material from reactor waste and the radioactivity of material which is used and managed within a hospital environment. It is this particular risk which comes from the reactor waste—the nuclear fuel rods—

CHAIR: So South Australia accepts no responsibility for the waste that's created in the production of those medical isotopes that are used on South Australians who need that treatment?

Mr Wilkins : I think all Australians share that responsibility, and that's across all states. It's about having an appropriate option in place to deal with that waste. As we have said publicly in the past, we absolutely call for an appropriate long-term solution for management of this waste. We all share the benefits and, therefore, we all should be responsible for the disposal. International best practice clearly states that the best way to handle this waste is with deep geological disposal, so we think that work needs to be done expeditiously and urgently to identify where that waste should be stored. That investigation should commence. In the meantime it makes sense to maintain and keep the waste in the safest, most prudent and most cost-effective way until the long-term disposal site is found. We would argue that that is at Lucas Heights.

CHAIR: Which is exactly what this proposal before the committee is. Mr Pasin, as a South Australian, do you have anything to add?

Mr PASIN: Yes, just one question. The witness indicates a preference for the ANSTO facility and then effectively questions the need for the national facility at Kimba, which is obviously subject to debate. I wonder if the witness could help. Does the witness have any information on what legacy material might be currently stored in facilities around the country outside of the Lucas Heights facility?

Mr Wilkins : I've got a limited understanding of some of the other waste. In terms of intermediate-level waste, I understand that most of it is ANSTO reactor operational waste, but there is some from past minerals and processing. There's a small amount of legacy industrial, medical and research equipment from various states and territories. I understand that there is a small proportion of radium legacy waste, which resulted from cancer treatment until the mid-seventies. That's my understanding off the top of my head. In terms of low-level waste, there's soil in drums in Woomera and various [inaudible] soil, old medical equipment, signs, smoke detectors and other things like that.

Mr PASIN: Is it your evidence that those materials should find their way to Lucas Heights and the ANSTO facility, or is it your evidence that that material should remain in situ, wherever that is?

Mr Wilkins : It would depend, I think, on the material and its current status and the way it is being handled. If it is being handled appropriately and safely then it makes sense to me for it to remain where it is until that deep geological disposal option can be developed, and then a strategy for transfer would be being developed at the time. Again, it doesn't make sense to me to move items from one temporary interim storage to another temporary interim storage. All that smacks of to me is of double handling.

Mr PASIN: I have just one last question. It's peripheral. Was your organisation's position one of opposition to the previous investigations in relation to a deep geological deposit in South Australia?

Mr Wilkins : There was a royal commission into importing international high-level nuclear waste. Yes, we strongly oppose—

Mr PASIN: No. It was both importing and dealing with domestic high-level waste.

Mr Wilkins : Our view was that the momentum, the business case and the development of that proposal was very much framed around the importation of high-level nuclear waste from overseas. For that reason, we thought it wasn't the right path for our state and we opposed it.

Mr PASIN: But you are supportive of a deep geological deposit for Australia's domestic nuclear waste?

Mr Wilkins : Yes. We support international best practice for the management of a nation's radioactive waste, and the current international best practice is for deep geological disposal. So we think we as a nation need to identify the most appropriate site in the country and then develop that disposal facility.

CHAIR: Are there any further questions for Mr Wilkins? There being none, Mr Wilkins, if you want to, you can take the opportunity to make a final statement. You can take the last couple of minutes to wrap up before I close off this part of the session.

Mr Wilkins : Thank you, Chair, and thank you once again for the opportunity. I will just say in closing that we think that, for our state, this proposal that the committee is deciding on as part of your work provides a welcome and timely circuit-breaker for the alternative path, which, as I've said before, has strong and consistent opposition and a range of concerns around social licence and cost-effectiveness, so we welcome the committee's support for the current proposals.

CHAIR: If committee members have any further questions, they will be put 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 very much, Mr Wilkins.