Nuclear waste dump in Australia?
As with so many putative events, and actual movements that are taking place in our overloaded planet, all problems are a matter of degree; small hitches escalate rapidly to overwhelm communities. The scale of events seems to accelerate beyond the predictions of experts, time and time again.
The evergreen concept of making cash out of dumping nuclear waste in Australia nags away at politicians, generation after generation; only well-deserved fear of back-lash from the voters keeps the pot off the stove. But the pot is always handy.
The nuclear industry seemed like a good idea at the time, and so it should be, and in most cases massive quantities of power have been generated for the people in relative safety, but the on-going costs and risks are finally taking their toll, particularly as solar energy and other clean sources are starting to compete.
The key word here is CLEAN.
The few nuclear accidents that have occurred in the world’s generating plants have been disasters beyond the scope of credibility. Enormous areas of previous habitation are now and will be forever toxic, genome-disrupting, unliveable. Forever, as far as human memory is concerned: off limits, until people forget, to the horror of farmers who re-colonise the radioactive soil, and bear deformed children.
A nuclear accident is a very big accident: unapproachable except from overhead in, say, a helicopter. Even then, the danger is extreme.
Whilst everything is in control, a nuclear power station is a most satisfactory energy-producer. Maintenance is expensive but doable for many years, until, like all production structures, age forces more and greater repairs, eventually forcing shut-down.
Shutting down and razing a nuclear power plant is hugely expensive. This cost comes, of course, at the time when income has ceased. The temptation of the owners to just walk away, leaving the time-bomb for the community to deal with, could become irresistible in the near future.
In addition to the high and essential maintenance cost of nuclear power, there is the un-solvable problem of accumulating nuclear waste. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be done with it. Refining for more high-tech power generation is a use, but not a solution. The waste is a nightmare to store and to transport. Not one satisfactory way of dealing with it has been found, otherwise the current dumps would not exist. It seems the only way is to bury, hope for the best, and forget.
Easy to say……bury. Not so easy to do. Land that is stable, un-affected by faults, water-tables, aquifers, slippage, volcanic activity, et cetera, is so scarce on this planet that most nuclear waste remains in storage in slowly-degrading containers, its danger increasing as each year passes.
So, the temptation clutches at the pollies: Australia has this stable area where waste could be stored. Not safely. Definitely not safely. And only stored, not made safe, not a solution to the problem.
A gigantic excavation would have to be made in ancient stable rock formation, tunneling deep underground in an area remote and inaccessible to normal traffic. Rail access and sophisticated machinery suitable for handling such dangerous material would have to be designed and constructed with the safety of the route, the land, and the operators foremost in mind.
Nuclear-waste generating entities would pay almost any price to rid their countries of deteriorating, dangerous stockpiles.
Australia, for a fee, would inherit the everlasting unease of those countries.
The idea of burying and sealing toxic waste deep underground in ancient, stable rock is excellent. Once there it should cause no worry for future generations, virtually, for ever. So what is the problem?
What IS the problem?
The problem is that the waste has to get to its final resting-place. Safely. Without the slightest mishap, the slightest accident or breakdown.
The opportunities for the operation to go wrong are numberless, from the original waste storage facility to the final dump.
This material is not just toxic, or poisonous, or corrosive, or inflammable, or explosive or diseased: we can deal with such such products, just, and accidents and spills and explosions are the daily news stories. But a transport disaster and spillage would require a very special and ever-ready team of trained personnel to risk their lives cleaning up, even if such a thing could be achieved.
Suppose this accident happened in transit from the docks, at night, by train, in central Sydney, during a period of intense rain, thunder, and wind. A not-unlikely circumstance. The very worst is often exactly that.
Radio-active waste flooding gutters and storm-water drains could never be cleaned up, ever, Whole suburbs could be rendered uninhabitable, possibly for many years. Radiation is hidden from our senses: we cannot feel it of see it, and its effects are delayed, slow, and inevitable. Cancers, birth defects, and utterly untreatable debilitation. Radioactivity is inhuman, alien to our being.
Despite all precautions, toxic spills occur regularly on our roads and railways. Transporting radioactive waste is just as likely to suffer accidents, regardless of the myriad of safety-measures that would be demanded.
The chain of transport from dump to Australia to burial crosses the planet. At every junction is horrendous danger. Each transfer is fraught with difficulty of access, movement, approach, security, shielding. Teams must work behind lead barriers and lead-shielded equipment. All handling equipment must somehow be scrapped safely after use. Munitions made from radioactive metals are to this day a danger in Iraq.
Radioactive waste must first be removed from decaying containers, and/or re-contained in reinforced lead-lined receptacles capable of being dropped, burned, or crushed without damage. This must take place on-site at the source, before any further transport.
Creating damage-proof containers is impossible. It is a matter of degree. The sheer weight of lead, steel, and concrete creates limits. Should the container be proofed against say, being rammed by a locomotive, or dropped from a crane, or heated by a tanker explosion? Uranium waste is also very heavy, which adds to the problem.
Each step on the journey to Australia is worrying, and at the shore of Sydney, or Melbourne, or at a special loading facility built away from habitation, the worry becomes ours: we who are at present free from such disturbance.
There are further ramifications. Once the route and facilities are established, there will be constant, constant deliveries from around the globe, as countries unload hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic radioactive waste to our safe-keeping. Each single convoy is an enormous risk.
We have lost our manufacturing base. Our main exports are coal, gas, and unrefined ores; industries which destroy farming and agriculture wherever they rip open the land and the aquifers. Our mines export the treasure of Australia for a one-off and short period of extraction and payment, leaving for the most part a wasteland of pits, scars, slag-heaps, spoilt water, razed townships and gassed soil.
In addition to losing fine agricultural soil to the miners, are we now of the mentality that stoops to the caretaking of the world’s rubbish for a wage?
The ramifications go yet further, with insidious implications. Supposing the enterprise so drooled-over by politicians-on-the-make came to pass, and a conduit of radioactive waste was opened to Australia. This would inevitably encourage the construction of more nuclear generators, producing more waste. The build-up of waste is at present a serious deterrent to the proliferation of nuclear power stations, along with the ever-present risk of disaster and melt-down.
In an age of burgeoning development of clean energy, the last thing the world needs is a boost to the nuclear industry.
In a future age where clean energy has closed-down all the nuclear plants on the planet, then would be the time for Australia to consider, just consider, accepting the old radio-active waste for safe keeping. All the costs to be borne by the exporting countries. But that time is not now.
As it is, failed nuclear projects can not be rectified, cleaned-up, or removed. They stand in their own extensive grave-yards of radioactive isolation. Until there is the technology to address current disasters overseas, it is inadvisable to invite the detritus of a failing industry to our shores, particularly for payment.
It is the hope of our island nation to protect our land and farm from the desecration of industry or extraction. We have already virtually destroyed the environment of the First Australians, who had little voice in the developments of the day. Now it is to be hoped that the voices of the First Australians, combined with those of the Second Australians, will fare better in the protection of what is left, and become aware of the dangers inherent in the acceptance, transfer, transportation, handling and storing of nuclear waste. As far as we humans are concerned, radiation from nuclear waste is forever.