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Issue #1758      November 23, 2016


The best-laid nuclear plans

South Australians have been living with the prospect that their state will be host to a nuclear waste dump for over a decade. Strong opposition forced the Howard government to abandon plans for a “national repository” in SA in 2004. Subsequent efforts to force a dump on the traditional owners of Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory were also defeated by united action in the community. But like its counterparts in other sectors of our capitalist economy, the nuclear industry doesn’t rest in pursuit of maximum profit, no matter the environmental and social cost.

Pro-nuclear academic and public service appointments followed the initial defeat. Articles favouring an expansion of the state’s uranium mining industry and further participation in the “nuclear cycle” started to appear in the only daily newspaper in SA, Murdoch’s Advertiser.

The speaker’s notes for the nuclear lobby focussed on jobs and the contribution nuclear power supposedly could make to the planet’s climate change emergency. The fact that uranium mining is a capital-intensive, rather than labour-intensive industry was left well alone. So was the torrent of reports of countries abandoning plans for nuclear power and winding up their current industries in the wake of the disaster at Fukushima. Also missing was news of rapid advances in genuinely sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Older South Australians have a justified caution about things nuclear from the time of the British nuclear tests at Maralinga in the Woomera Prohibited Area between 1956 and 1963. The massive (and only partial) cleanup completed in 2000 cost $108 million. The cost in cancer deaths and illness among retired servicemen and Aboriginal people is still being counted. In spite of this continuing legacy, the nuclear lobby set out to create the mythology that South Australians, and Australians more generally, are not as concerned about radioactive risks as they once were.

Hoping to capitalise on this manufactured “shift” in public opinion, the state government took the unusual step in March 2015 of establishing a Royal Commission into the “Nuclear Fuel Cycle”. The Commissioner was former state governor, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce who was on the public record as favouring an expanision of SA’s role in the controversial fuel cycle. Not surprisingly, the report handed down in May this year favoured involvement in every stage of the cycle including enrichment, waste storage and nuclear power generation.

The government distanced itself from the disturbing prospect of enrichment and nuclear power. It embraced the idea of storing high grade waste from around the world and supposedly reaping massive financial benefits from countries seeking to offload their nuclear waste headaches. Finland’s efforts to store its own waste underground were held up as a model. Unfortunately for the promoters of the government’s financial windfall argument, the Finnish facility is only one twentieth the size of the one suggested for SA, has taken decades to get to its current, non-operational state and is not likely to turn profits.

The government took the pro-nuke message on the road with a series of exhibitions and events to allow people to “Know Nuclear”. In fact the pitch was overwhelmingly supportive of a nuclear dump. The anti-nuclear movement was dismissed as irrelevant, feral and alarmist. The government tested its resolve with the establishment of a citizen’s jury made up of South Australians chosen at random and “topped up” with some appointees. They were subjected to a barrage of “expert” advice reassuring them of the viability and desirability of the government’s nuclear vision.

Unfortunately for the government, the citizen jury said no to the dump proposal. Unfortunately for the people of SA, the Weatherill government is pressing ahead to repeal legislation that currently bans a waste dump being established in the state. The Premier is talking about a referendum to have the final say on the proposal after a further process of softening up. The opposition is occupying a none-too-convincing position pronouncing the dump idea “dead and buried”. The lesson to be learned through the saga is that united action in the community can be used to defend the people’s vital interests, including to the right to a safe, clean environment.

Next article – A city’s history under the hammer

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