By Helen Caldicott, Sydney Morning Herald, November 4, 2015
When Malcolm Turnbull mooted the question about storing radioactive waste in Australia, I felt that I finally understood the aim of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission being conducted in South Australia. Then I wondered whether the nuclear industry is going to propose in Paris that nuclear power as the answer to global warming.
A curious situation is developing in South Australia that will have serious health ramifications, especially for Aboriginal communities, and will also severely impair the state’s reputation for its superb wine and food.
The terms of reference for the royal commission established by Premier Jay Weatherill are to investigate South Australia’s potential future role in the nuclear-fuel cycle which includes exploration, extraction, milling; further processing and manufacture; electricity generation; and management, storage and disposal of radioactive waste. Accordingly the state government has allocated $6 million over 2015-2016 to cover its operating costs.
The expert advisory committee has five members, four of whom have worked on nuclear projects or been advocates for nuclear power (or worked for organisations that advocate for it). Only one member opposes things nuclear for South Australia. There are no physicians, radiobiologists, or epidemiologists on this committee.
The commissioner is former South Australia governor Kevin Scarce, a military man who has clearly stated that SA should develop the nuclear option to compensate for the downturn in manufacturing.
Last week, I gave testimony before Scarce and Chad Jacobi, the lawyer assisting the commissioner. The inquisition lasted one hour during which neither man seemed interested in the biological, carcinogenic, genetic and teratogenic effects of radiation. Rather they hammered me on providing references to every statement I made about the medical implications of Fukushima, Chernobyl, a WHO study showing prolonged low-dose radiation exposure increases cancer risk to one in 100 workers, among others.
Of the 173 submissions published so far on its website, 94 in favour come from parties with commercial or career interests and 46 of these from companies associated with the nuclear industry.
So what is planned? The commission supports increased uranium mining in South Australia, which hosts 30 per cent of the world’s uranium. It also advocates enrichment of uranium and the fabrication of uranium fuel rods for export.
But this is bad news for residents and for Australia.
All uranium workers and populations residing downwind from nuclear facilities are exposed to many radioactive elements, including inhalation of radon gas, which causes lung cancer, and ingestion of radium, which induced Marie Curie’s cancer. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years and once excavated, continues to decay and distribute its deadly elements for ever.
Uranium enrichment which is energy-intensive carries similar risks to workers exposed to radiation as does the fabrication of uranium-packed fuel rods.
But the main game according to recent statements by Turnbull is to establish South Australia as a permanent waste dump for the world’s 350,000 tonnes of spent fuel containing more than 100 isotopes including plutonium-239 which lasts 250,000 years – one millionth of a gram is carcinogenic, americium, more toxic than plutonium and strontium-90 and caesium-137 lasting 300 years .
To date no safe storage of radioactive waste for a million years (US EPA guidelines) has been developed. It is assumed nuclear-powered countries would pay enormous sums to South Australia for their waste to be stored on Aboriginal tribal lands over a geological time frame and requiring a permanent military guard to prevent terrorists stealing the waste to make dirty bombs.
Inevitably this long-lived radioactive waste stream will leak into water, concentrate in food supplies bequeathing epidemics of cancer, leukaemia, congenital deformities and genetic disease to our descendants.
Last but not least. Plans include construction of small modular fast reactors fuelled by plutonium to be extracted from this radioactive waste, a process which exposes workers to high radiation, and leaves thousands of litres of more than 100 deadly radioactive elements to be safely stored for a million years.
Liquid sodium used as reactor coolant explodes or burns when exposed to air. A leak could therefore induce a massive explosion disseminating deadly plutonium. Fast reactors are hugely expensive and never been produced commercially.
The Queen recently gave a diamond-studded banquet to the Chinese who have offered £2 billion ($4.3 billion) to finance Britain’s 3200-megawatt Hinkley Point nuclear power plant.
Is it possible that behind the Australian nuclear curtain sits the Chinese nuclear industry?