Transporting nuclear wastes across Australia in the age of bushfires
The Australian government is pushing ahead with plans for a National Radioactive Waste Facility1 ‒ a repository for low-level waste and indefinite 'interim' above-ground store for long-lived intermediate-level waste ‒ near Kimba on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula (a site in South Australia's Flinders Ranges was recently ruled out).
With bushfires raging across Australia, it might seem insensitive to be worrying now about this nuclear waste site and the transport of wastes to it. But this is relevant and all too serious in the light of Australia's climate crisis.
The U.S. National Academies Press compiled a lengthy and comprehensive report on risks of transporting nuclear wastes ‒ concluding that among various risks, the most serious and significant is fire:2
"The radiological risks associated with the transportation of spent fuel and high-level waste are well understood and are generally low, with the possible exception of risks from releases in extreme accidents involving very long duration, fully engulfing fires. While the likelihood of such extreme accidents appears to be very small, their occurrence cannot be ruled out.
"Transportation planners and managers should undertake detailed surveys of transportation routes to identify potential hazards that could lead to or exacerbate extreme accidents involving very long duration, fully engulfing fires."
Current bushfire danger areas include much of New South Wales, including the Lucas Heights area3; north and coastal eastern Victoria; and in South Australia, the lower Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas. If nuclear wastes were to be transported across the continent, whether by land or by sea, from the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor south of Sydney to Kimba in South Australia, they'd be travelling through much of these areas. Today, they'd be confronting very long duration, fully engulfing fires.
Do we know what route the nuclear wastes would be taking to Kimba? Does the Department of Industry Innovation and Science know? Does the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) know? Well, they might, but they're not going to tell us.
We can depend on ANSTO's consistent line on this: "In line with standard operational and security requirements, ANSTO will not comment on the port, routes or timing until after the transport is complete."4
That line is understandable of course, due to security considerations, including the danger of terrorism.
Spent nuclear fuel rods have been transported several times, from Lucas Heights to ports – mainly Port Kembla – in great secrecy and security. The reprocessed wastes are later returned from France or the UK with similar caution. Those secret late-night operations are worrying enough, but their risks seem almost insignificant when compared with the marathon journey envisaged in what is increasingly looking like a crackpot ANSTO scheme to truck intermediate-level nuclear waste (including spent fuel reprocessing waste) from Lucas Heights to the distant Kimba site for interim above-ground storage. It makes no sense whatsoever and the (interim) solution is simple enough: ongoing above-ground storage at ANSTO's Lucas Heights site. It is accepted that these stores are best located as near as practical to the point of production, as in the case of USA's sites.5
Australians, beset by the horror of extreme bushfires, can still perhaps count ourselves as lucky in that, compared with wildfire regions in some countries, we do not yet have the compounding horror of radioactive contamination spread along with the ashes and smoke.
Fires in Russia have threatened its secret nuclear areas.6 Several American nuclear analysts have studied fire dangers in Russia's waste transport and temporary storage: "These risks could pose serious security implications not just for Russia but for the U.S. and for the world."
Similarly, Ukraine has had catastrophic wildfires, endangering nuclear waste facilities and transport.7
In the USA:
- the Hanford Nuclear Waste Reservation, always a dangerous place, had its dangers magnified by wildfires.8
- In 2018, California's Woolsey wildfire9 spread radioactive particles from the Santa Susana nuclear waste area.10 Famously, Kim Kardashian, not previously known for environmental activism, took up the struggle to expose this scandal and agitate for a clean-up.11
- In Idaho, a nuclear research facility like Lucas Heights aroused much anxiety about its wastes and waste transport as wildfires invaded the area.12
- In Missouri, a smouldering underground fire has come perilously close to a radioactive waste dump, the West Lake Landfill.13,14 The dump was also threatened by an above-ground fire in 2015 and the site operator was admonished by the EPA.13
- In Nevada, a fire broke out at a radioactive waste dump in 2015.13 County officials and law enforcement agencies declared an emergency. Several explosions were recorded on video, spreading debris up to 190 feet and depositing two waste drums outside the fence line. In 1979, Nevada's governor ordered the facility to shut down after a radioactive fire on a truck parked at the facility gate.
- Also in Nevada, a truck hauling salt underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) ‒ a deep underground repository for intermediate-level nuclear waste ‒ in 2014 caught fire.13 Six workers were treated in hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated. The Accident Investigation Board said the root cause of the fire was Nuclear Waste Partnership's "failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground."
Many in the US have long been aware of the transport danger. The state of Nevada released a report in 2003 concluding that a steel-lead-steel cask would have failed after about six hours in the fire and a solid steel cask would have failed after about 11 to 12.5 hours.15 There would have been contamination over 32 square miles of the city and the contamination would have killed up to 28,000 people over 50 years.
Most reporting on Australia's bushfires has been excellent, with the exception of Murdoch media trying to downplay the connection between climate change and worsening fires.16 However, there has been no mention of the proximity of bushfires to the Lucas Heights nuclear site. As happened with fires in 2018, this seems to be a taboo subject in the media.17
While it has never been a good idea to trek the Lucas Heights nuclear waste for thousands of kilometres across the continent, Australia's new climate crisis has made it that much more dangerous. Is the bushfire apocalypse just a one-off? Or, more likely, is this nationwide danger the new normal?
Australia has no choice but to adapt to this globally heating world and to do what we can to stall the heating process by becoming part of a global climate action movement. And fast. In this new and scary scenario, nuclear power has no place. If nuclear power actually were an effective method of combatting climate change, it would still have no place because the reactors would never be up and running in time.
It is ludicrous, as well as dangerous, for Australia's nuclear lobby to pretend that nuclear power is any part of a solution to climate change. Ben Heard, in his nuclear front "environmental" site Bright New World, proposes this and actually uses the bushfire risk as an argument for nuclear power.18 Mark Ho of the Australian Nuclear Association (and ANSTO) uses the bushfire risk as the reason why Australia should remove the ban on nuclear power, though he doesn't explain the connection.19
From the point of view of the federal government and the nuclear lobby, the bushfires are probably a timely distraction. The whole bizarre plan for a Kimba nuclear waste dump might just be able to proceed, quietly, as a local matter only.
On the other hand, the Australian public in all states, those "quiet" people who go along with this government's lack of any real policies, is now stirring, waking up to the painful realisation that climate change is upon us. Bushfires are now the national horror. They won't want the horror of nuclear waste transport dangers added to the mix.
Any number of the effects of climate change can adversely impact nuclear facilities … drought and dwindling water resources, extreme heat within nuclear power plants, coastal flooding, severe weather events such as hurricanes and storms … and the increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires.
"I've heard many nuclear proponents say that nuclear power is part of the solution to global warming," says David Lochbaum, a retired nuclear engineer and former director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union for Concerned Scientists.20 "It needs to be reversed: You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive."
Noel Wauchope runs the antinuclear.net and nuclear-news.net websites. @ChristinaMac1