Waste not, want not!

For the record, I want everyone to understand that I am not enamoured of the nuclear industry. It is a blight on our society that garnishes an outrageous amount attention. It is vastly overrated in terms of the economic activity and benefit that it actually generates. But that is not why I am supporting the idea of a nuclear waste storage facility in South Australia.

Historically, there was no thought about using nuclear materials for anything other than as a weapon. The people who developed the weapons had little concept and no interest in the use of uranium for peaceful purposes. Is it any wonder that latecomers to the nuclear industry gave little thought to the long term consequences of their actions? None of them had a crystal ball to warn them of the risks they were taking.

The Australian Labor Party played a much larger role in the development of the nuclear industry than perhaps we may have realised. In 1946 there was a movement in the UN to ban development of atomic bombs. As Minister for External Affairs, later President of the UN, Doc Evatt was warned by leading scientists there was good reason to support a ban. Evatt refused and with that refusal, the main reason for the development of the nuclear industry was assured. [If Evatt had supported the ban, I suspect a lot of other small nations would also have supported it and that didn’t happen. As well, it is likely we would be having a very different discussion today; the nuclear industry would have been stunted for many years.] Worse, Evatt later supported the possibility of joint development of nuclear capacity with England. As the first President of the Atomic Energy Commission, Evatt was actually a serious promoter of things nuclear.

Be all that as it may, the essential thing here is that it is not likely that too many people bothered to concern themselves with the consequences of the decisions that built the nuclear industry. They didn’t have to; they likely thought that the industry will take care of those issues, or they did not understand the real effects we are now arguing about. Given the general attitudes towards the environment at the time, this is not so unbelievable. But, it has left a mess; a mess that cannot be covered up or ignored and is just not that easy to clean up.

Every time a nuclear debate starts up, someone always says something like, “It’s their problem, not ours.” How callous and indifferent is that attitude? Every time someone says, “Someone has to do something.” They never mention who that “someone” should be. Perhaps we should start thinking that that “someone” could be ourselves. Today, we have a choice, we can ignore the issues and stand on the moral high ground of environment, or we can stand up and say “Enough is enough”.  At some point, someone is going to have to put their hand up and say that they will take responsibility for the foolishness of past generations. We can do that, or we can leave it for our children, or their children, or their children.

We are in the position of providing a service that no-one here wants. I hope that we can appreciate the irony of this situation. We help start it, we can resolve a major problem in it, but we can’t end it.

There is, however, a couple of flies in this ointment. Every day that goes past, brings us one day closer to the next major nuclear catastrophe. Consider this; Taiwan has six nuclear power stations. They are creating more waste as time goes on. Well, tough for the Taiwanese, I hear someone say. Taiwan lies on the Pacific Rim, the Ring of Fire. They could find a handy volcano and dump their waste there, but that is not going to work. They might also dump it in the subduction zone, where the North American and Pacific plates meet, just to the east of Japan. Or they might try to recycle it. None of these are good outcomes, for obvious reasons. The last is the worst of all, because sooner or later, enough plutonium would be produced during the recycling process to make a plutonium bomb. Not to mention the opportunities for terrorists and other madmen that are presented. Alternatively, by long term storage in SA the dual threat to the world environment and to proliferation, would diminish.

None of us really want to see a nuclear waste dump in SA, but it appears the dangers of not having one far outweigh the risks of having one. I understand about 10,000 tonnes of high-medium level waste is produced every year around the world, so someone needs to act. As has been said somewhere else, if we see something that someone should do something about, then why do we not accept we could be that someone.

The greatest risk to a waste storage plant in South Australia btw, is financial, not environmental. So far, large scale fast breeder reactors are proving more difficult to design and build than previously considered. We need, however, to keep a close watch on development, because it may be the GenIV reactor will provide a safer way of getting rid of waste than underground storage. Even though it will be a hundred years or more before enough GenIV plants exist to take care of the waste, it still presents a risk. How many nations will want to export their waste when they can build, eventually, a GenIV plant?

Notwithstanding the potentials for GenIV plants, there is a serious problem, and we can no longer put our heads in the sand over it. While, so far, the Citizen’s Jury has looked at the proposals and rejected them. The Leader of the Opposition, Stephen Marshall, has been severely underhanded, again, in reversing a bi-partisan approach to the question. We should not stop discussing it. As the issues are discussed, more rational commentary can be made. In that commentary, a decision based in rational concepts, not emotive, unreasoned, anti-nuke propaganda.

We would be better off without a nuclear industry, that much is certain, but we have one, now we should decide how we want to deal with it and not just avoid the topic altogether.

About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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