Four generations of Aboriginal Elder Yami Lester's family, united in their opposition to any nuclear waste dump on their land. Photo: author provided.
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No way! South Australians reject international nuclear waste dump
9th November 2016
An officially convened 350-strong Citizens' Jury has decisively rejected South Australia's plans to import over half a million tonnes of high and intermediate level nuclear waste for long term storage, writes Jim Green. This has dealt a powerful blow against the project from which it is unlikely to ever recover, and represents a major victory for campaigners, indigenous Australians and economic sanity.
The sheer magnitude of opposition from the Citizens' Jury shows just how politically damaging this could be for the Premier. People know a dud deal when then see it, and that's exactly what this is."
On Sunday November 6, two-thirds of the 350 members of a South Australian government-initiated Citizens' Jury rejected "under any circumstances" the government's plan to import 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level nuclear waste as a money-making venture.
The Jury was a key plank of the government's attempt to manufacture support for the dump plan, and followed the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission which released its final report in May 2016.
The Royal Commission had a strong pro-nuclear bias in its composition but still rejected - on economic grounds - almost all of the proposals it considered: uranium conversion and enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication, conventional and 'Generation IV' nuclear power reactors, and spent fuel reprocessing.
Australia's handful of self-styled 'ecomodernists' or 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' united behind a push to import spent fuel and to use some of it to fuel 'integral fast reactors'. They would have expected to persuade the stridently pro-nuclear Royal Commission to endorse their ideas.
But the Royal Commission completely rejected the proposal, noting in its report
- that advanced fast reactors are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future;
- that the development of such a first-of-a-kind project would have high commercial and technical risk; that there is no licensed, commercially proven design and development to that point would require substantial capital investment;
- and that electricity generated from such reactors has not been demonstrated to be cost competitive with current light water reactor designs.
Pro-nuclear 'ecomodernists' weren't giving up
The ecomodernists weren't deterred. They hoped that the nuclear waste import plan would proceed and that it would lay the foundations for the later development of fast reactors in SA. Now it seems that the waste import plan will be abandoned, and the ecomodernists are inconsolable.
The SA government will come under strong pressure to abandon the waste import plan in the wake of the Citizens' Jury's vote. Roman Orszanski, climate and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth Adelaide, said:
"Three thousand people protested against the proposed nuclear waste dump outside Parliament House on October 15 and there will be more protests and bigger protests if the SA government attempts to push ahead."
SA Unions secretary Joe Szakacs said Premier Jay Weatherill must now "stand up for SA, and not be hoodwinked into becoming the fall-guy for the multinational nuclear industry. Everyday South Australians have concluded that the argument in favour of storing the world's nuclear waste is flawed, and a bad deal for our state.
"The magnitude of opposition from the jury shows just how politically damaging this could be for the Premier. People know a dud deal when then see it, and that's exactly what this is."
Premier Weatherill said: "There's no doubt that there's a massive issue of trust in government, I could sense that, that's why we started the whole citizen's jury process because there is no way forward unless we overcome those issues." The "massive issue of trust in government" will of course become all the more massive if Weatherill rejects the clear verdict of the Citizens' Jury.
South Australia's only mass circulation newspaper, The Advertiser, a Murdoch tabloid, has been heavily promoting the nuclear dump plan but there was no attempt to spin the Citizens' Jury's rejection of the plan. Advertiser journalist Daniel Wills wrote:
"This 'bold' idea looks to have just gone up in a giant mushroom cloud. When Premier Jay Weatherill formed the citizens' jury to review the findings of a Royal Commission that recommended that SA set up a lucrative nuclear storage industry, he professed confidence that a well-informed cross-section of the state would make a wise judgment.
"Late Sunday, it handed down a stunning and overwhelming rejection of the proposal. Brutally, jurors cited a lack of trust even in what they had been asked to do and their concerns that consent was being manufactured. Others skewered the Government's basic competency to get things done, doubting that it could pursue the industry safely and deliver the dump on-budget.
"It seems almost impossible now to see a way through for those in Cabinet and the broader Labor Party who have quietly crossed their fingers and backed the idea of taking the world's nuclear waste.
Aboriginal Traditional Owners
Friends of the Earth Australia said: "The Premier said he will respect the views of Aboriginal Traditional Owners and it is clear that an overwhelming majority of Traditional Owners are opposed to the high-level nuclear waste dump plan. The Citizens' Jury should be congratulated for showing respect to Traditional Owners and the Premier must now do the same by abandoning the plan."
"Jay's jury has said no", said Tauto Sansbury, chairperson of the Aboriginal Congress of South Australia. "The Premier should now listen to the people and respect this clear decision."
Karina Lester, chairperson of Yankunytjatjara Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, said: "This is a strong decision from randomly selected and very diverse group of South Australians who have had the benefit of studying the Royal Commission Report and hearing information from experts in various aspects of the proposal. It was positive to hear the jurors acknowledging the need for Traditional Owners' voices to be heard. I thank the clear majority of Jurors for this decision."
The Citizens' Jury report said: "There is a lack of Aboriginal consent. We believe that the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions. The Aboriginal people of South Australia (and Australia) continue to be neglected and ignored by all levels of government instead of respected and treated as equals.
"Many Aboriginal communities have made it clear they strongly oppose the issue and it is morally wrong to ignore their wishes. ... Jay Weatherill said that without the consent of traditional owners of the land 'it wouldn't happen'. It is unethical to backtrack on this statement without losing authenticity in the engagement process."
The Citizens' Jury produced a raft of evidence to justify its distrust of government. The SA government's handling of the current nuclear waste debate is a case in point. The government repeatedly said it wanted a balanced, mature debate on the issue.
But the government chose a nuclear advocate to head the Royal Commission, and the Royal Commissioner stacked his Expert Advisory Committee with three nuclear advocates and just one critic.
The Royal Commission relied on just one economic report, written by Jacobs MCM, a consultancy with deep links to the nuclear industry. The lead authors of the report were Charles McCombie and Neil Chapman from ARIUS, the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage.
ARIUS is a lobby group promoting nuclear waste dumps (which it calls 'multinational facilities') and nuclear power. As the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) noted, ARIUS's motto is: "The world needs nuclear power - nuclear power needs multinational facilities."
ARIUS is the successor to the infamous Pangea Resources, an international consortium that secretly developed plans to build an international high-level nuclear waste dump in Australia. Pangea's existence wasn't known until a corporate video was leaked to Friends of the Earth in 1998. Pangea set up an office in Australia but gave up in 2002 - A$600 million poorer - in the face of overwhelming public and political opposition.
Charles McCombie, co-author of the Jacobs MCM report, was heavily involved in Pangea Resources. Likewise, former Pangea chief Jim Voss is heavily involved in the current push for SA to accept foreign nuclear waste, as an 'Honorary Reader' at UCL Australia and a member of UCL Australia's Nuclear Working Group.
In the late 1990s, Voss denied meeting with federal government ministers when he had in fact met at least one minister - Wilson 'Ironbar' Tuckey ('ironbar' because he once assaulted an Aboriginal man with a steel cable). A Pangea spokesperson said at the time: "We would not like to be lying ... we very much regret getting off on the wrong foot."
Nuclear advocates employed as 'independent consultants'
Needless to say, the conflicted economic report produced by Jacobs MCM predicted that South Australia would become filthy rich if the state agrees to import vast amounts of nuclear waste. The farcical and dishonest engineering of a positive economic case to proceed with the nuclear waste plan was neatly exposed by ABC journalist Stephen Long on November 8:
"Would you believe me if I told you the report that the commission has solely relied on was co-authored by the president and vice president of an advocacy group for the development of international nuclear waste facilities? Charles McCombie and Neil Chapman of the consultants MCM head the advocacy group ARIUS - the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage.
"They prepared the report in conjunction with Jacobs, a global engineering and consulting firm which has a lucrative nuclear arm and boasts of its 'more than 50 years of experience across the complete nuclear asset cycle'.
"When I interviewed the royal commissioner last week, he initially denied that the consultants who prepared the modelling - that is the sole basis of the commission's recommendation in favour of a nuclear waste dump - faced any conflict of interest.
"He then said there would have been a conflict of interest had it been the only material the commission had relied upon, but said it was 'reviewed by our team of experts and found to be an appropriate estimation of what the costs, risks and benefits might be if we were involved in the storage of waste.'
"That is the same 'team of experts' who, apparently, recommended the consultants in the first place."
Economic projections based on 'unsubstantiated assumptions'
The Citizens' Jury was deeply unimpressed by the economic propaganda produced by Jacobs MCM and promoted by the Royal Commission and the SA government. The Jury's report said:
"It is impossible to provide an informed response to the issue of economics because the findings in the RCR [Royal Commission report] are based on unsubstantiated assumptions. This has caused the forecast estimates to provide inaccurate, optimistic, unrealistic economic projections."
South Australian economist Prof. Richard Blandy said: "I congratulate the Second Citizens' Jury on their overwhelming decision against the proposed nuclear dump. They have shown courage and common sense. A large majority could see that the bonanza that the dump was supposed to bring to the State was based on very flimsy evidence.
"They saw that the real path to a better economic future for our State is based on our skills, innovative capabilities and capacity for hard work, not a bizarre gamble based on guesses. I am proud of my fellow South Australians on the Jury - including those who were in the minority. I would like to thank them all for their efforts on behalf of their fellow South Australians."
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor, published 20 times a year, has been publishing deeply researched, often critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!
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