Australia should develop a national aerial fire fighting capability and fuel load management strategies should be more transparent, the inquiry set up following last summer’s devastating bushfires has recommended.
In its 80 recommendations, including many shared between federal and state governments, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements calls for a bigger federal role in dealing with disasters but stresses
there are compelling reasons for state and territory governments to continue to be responsible for disaster management.
The recommendations are aimed at increasing national co-ordination to prepare better for natural disasters, respond more rapidly (including through the army), and ensure the recovery is focused on making communities more resilient.
Natural disasters have changed, and so must the management arrangements, the report says.
Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable. Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise.
Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.
But the report does not make recommendations on climate change policy.
Calling for a “national” approach to natural disasters, the commission says this doesn’t mean the federal government taking over, but rather a “whole of nation” level of cooperation and effort.
As part of playing a greater role, the federal government should be able to declare “a state of national emergency”.
A declaration should be the catalyst for a quicker, clearer and more pre-emptive mobilisation of federal resources but should not give the federal government power to determine how state resources are to be used, the report says.
While usually a state or territory would have asked for help, “in some limited circumstances” the federal government should be able to take action during a natural disaster, “whether or not a state has requested assistance”.
In the bushfire crisis, there was tension between the NSW and federal governments over the deployment of military personnel.
The commission’s recommendations on the controversial issue of fuel loads concentrate on questions of clarity.
Public land managers should clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel load management strategies, including the rationale behind them, as well as report annually on the implementation and outcomes of those strategies,“ the reports says.
It also says governments should review the assessment and approval processes on vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to make it clear what landholders and land managers need to do and minimise the time taken for assessments and approvals.
On air capability, the report says all Australian governments should develop a “modest, Australian-based and registered, national aerial firefighting capability”. This would be made up of “more specialised platforms … to supplement the aerial firefighting capability of the states and territories”.
After some anger at charities’ use of money donated for bushfire victims, the commission has said federal, state and territory governments should create a single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising.
The Minister for Emergency Management David Littleproud said cabinet would consider the report next week.
The bushfire royal commission today handed down its long-awaited final report. At almost 1,000 pages, it will take us all some time to digest. But it marks the start of Australia’s national disaster adaptation journey after a horrendous summer.
The report clearly signals the urgent need to improve disaster management capacity in Australia. Closer examination of the report will determine if other recommendations are needed. But overall, this seems a realistic report that incorporates a diverse and complex body of evidence. And it arrives at recommendations likely to enjoy broad political, institutional and community support.
As the report states, the 2019-2020 bushfires were the catalyst for, but not the sole focus of, the inquiry. It also looked at floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunamis.
The recommendations demonstrate the Royal Commission is serious about shifting the status quo when it comes to managing Australia’s natural disasters – events that will become more frequent and severe under climate change. What’s needed now is political will for change.
The commission received evidence from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents and more than 1,750 public submissions. It recaps the damage wrought, including:
more than 24 million hectares burnt nationally
33 human deaths (and perhaps many more due to smoke haze over much of eastern Australia)
more than 3,000 homes destroyed
thousands of locals and holidaymakers trapped
communities isolated without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services
estimated national financial impacts over A$10 billion
nearly three billion animals killed or displaced
many threatened species and other ecological communities extensively harmed.
The report noted every state and territory suffered fire to some extent, adding “on some days, extreme conditions drove a fire behaviour that was impossible to control”.
The scope of the commission’s recommendations is vast. For government, it would mean changes across land-use planning, infrastructure, emergency management, social policy, agriculture, education, physical and mental health, community development, energy and the environment.
Broad areas of recommended change include a clearer leadership role for the federal government and establishing a national natural disaster management agency. The report notes while state and territory governments have primary responsibility for emergency management, during the bushfire crisis the public “expected greater Australian Government action”.
Other recommendations include:
nationally consolidating aerial firefighting capacity
more capacity in local government
nationally consistent warnings including air pollution (especially bushfire smoke) forecasts
acknowledgement of the role of Indigenous fire managers in mitigating bushfire risks.
The commission says preparing for natural disasters “is not the sole domain of governments and agencies”. Individuals and communities must also ensure they’re prepared. As the commission notes:
While we heard that some individuals and communities were well prepared for the 2019-2020 bushfire season, this was not always the case. For other individuals and communities, although they did prepare, the intensity of the bushfires meant that no level of preparation would have been sufficient. For others, they were seemingly unprepared for what confronted them.
The inquiry said governments have a critical role to play here, by providing information on disaster risks through community education and engagement programs.
During last summer’s bushfire crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reluctant to draw links to climate change. And before the inquiry commenced, there was much doubt over whether it would adequately probe how climate change is contributing to natural disasters.
Significantly, the commission’s final report explicitly recognises climate change increases the risk and impact of natural disasters. It says global warming beyond the next 20 to 30 years “is largely dependent on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”, but stops far short of calling for federal government action on emissions reduction.
The report says extreme weather “has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable”. It goes on:
Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.
Among its recommendations, the report calls for improved national climate and weather intelligence to support governments to implement, assess and review their disaster management and climate adaptation strategies.
The commission acknowledged most of its recommendations identify what needs to be done, rather than how it should be done.
The commission also says while governments and others have backed the notion of improving natural disaster resilience, “support is one thing – action is another”. And the time to act, the report says, is now.
This is a key point. As noted by the report, more than 240 inquiries about natural disasters have been held in Australia to date. Many would have been time-consuming and expensive. And while many recommendations have been implemented and have led to significant improvements, the report said, “others have not”.
So will this royal commission lead to substantive change? The inquiry suggests this will require that governments “commit to action and cooperate and hold each other to account”. Further, progress towards implementing the recommendations should be publicly monitored.
Fundamentally, political appetite will determine whether the royal commission’s recommendations ever become reality. There is much work to be done by governments and others to iron out the legal, administrative, social and practical complexities of changing the status quo. And the Morrison government has given next to no indication it’s willing to seriously tackle the problem of climate change.
Ultimately, these findings are small steps towards achieving natural disaster reliance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this report can be read not as the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of the long road to climate change adaptation.
It’s now beyond dispute that — for new electricity generation — solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy are cheaper than anything else: cheaper than new coal fired power stations, cheaper than new gas-fired stations and cheaper than new nuclear power plants.
The International Energy Association says so. Its latest World Energy Outlook describes solar as the cheapest electricity in history.
Solar costs 20% to 50% less than it thought it would two years ago.
Attention has turned instead to the ways to best meet demand when renewable resources are not available.
The government is a big supporter of gas, and as importantly, pumped hydro.
Pumped hydro is an old technology, as old as the electricity industry itself.
It became fashionable from the 1960s to 1980s as a complement to inflexible coal and nuclear generators.
When their output wasn’t needed (mainly at night) it was used to pump water to higher ground so that it could be released and used to run hydro generators when demand was high.
Australia’s three pumped hydro plants are old, built at least 40 years ago, and they operate infrequently, and sometimes not at all for years.
Gas fired electricity generation, whether by turbines (essentially a bigger version of those found on aeroplanes) or by conventional reciprocating engines, has several advantages over pumped hydro including much smaller local environmental impacts and in many cases smaller greenhouse gas impacts.
They can be built quickly and, most importantly, if there is a gas supply they can be built close to electrical loads. There are 17 gas-fired peaking generators in the National Electricity Market, but none have been built over the past decade.
Batteries have advantages over both.
In 2017, Australia built the world’s biggest battery, but it since been overtaken by a Californian battery more than twice its size and may soon be overtaken by one 150 times the size as part of the Sun Cable project in the Northern Territory which will send solar and stored electricity to Singapore.
In a study commissioned by the Bob Brown Foundation, we have compared the pumped hydro “battery of the nation” project to actual batteries and to gas turbines.
The battery of the nation (BoTN) is a proposal instigated by the Australian and Tasmanian governments to add more pumped hydro to Tasmania’s hydro power system and used enhanced interconnectors to provide electricity on demand to Victoria.
We sought to determine what could most cost-effectively provide Victoria with 1,500 megawatts — the BoTN, gas turbines or batteries.
Partly this depends on how long peak demand for dispatchable power last. BoTN would be able to provide sustained power for 12 hours, but we found that in practice, even when our system becomes much more reliant on renewables, it would be unusual for anything longer than four hours to be needed.
We could easily dismiss gas turbines — the Australian Energy Market Operator’s costings have batteries much cheaper than gas turbines to build and operate now and cheaper still by the time the Battery of the Nation would be built.
And batteries are able to respond to instructions in fractions of a second, making them useful in ways gas and pumped hydro aren’t.
They are also able to be placed where they are needed, rather than where there’s a gas connection or an abandoned mine, cliff or hill big enough to be used for pumped hydro.
We found batteries could supply 1,500 megawatts of instantly-available power for less than half of the cost of the enhanced Tasmania to Victoria cable alone, meaning that even if the rest of the BoTN cost little, batteries would still be cheaper.
Origin Energy recently gave up on expanding the Shoalhaven pumped hydro scheme in NSW after finding it would cost more than twice as much to build as first thought.
Similarly, investor-owned Genex has repeatedly deferred its final investment decision on one of the cheapest pumped hydro options in Australia — using depleted gold mine pits in Queensland — despite being offered concessional loans from the Australian Government to cover the entire build cost.
The final barrier seems to be obtaining subsidies from the Queensland Government to fund the necessary transmission lines.
Snowy 2.0 seems to be proceeding after the Australian Government pumped in $1.4 billion to get it going, and paid a king’s ransom to New South Wales and Victoria for their shares in Snowy Hydro.
Yet even before the main works are to start, credit rating agency S&P has down-graded Snowy Hydro’s stand-alone debt to “junk” and suggested the government will need to pump more money into Snowy Hydro to protect its debt.
Prime Minister Morrison has said recently that batteries can’t compete with gas generators , yet a couple of days later, his government announced support for a 100 megawatt battery in Western Australia, where gas is less than half the price it is on the east coast.
Our analysis suggests neither gas nor pumped hydro can compete with batteries, and if the prime minister wants more of either, he will have to dip his hands deeply into tax payer’s pockets to get it.
We will remember 2020 as a year of crisis. COVID-19 hit Australia just as we were beginning to make sense of the horror bushfires and smoke of last summer, a sinister illustration of global warming’s threats.
Since then, the news media has given centre stage to COVID-19 and its cascading impacts on society, shifting climate change to a relatively minor role in our narrative of this year’s crises. So, have Australians forgotten about the urgency of climate change?
No. Polling released today by The Australia Institute shows climate change and its impacts remain a prominent concern to Australians, even amid the upheaval and uncertainty wrought by COVID-19.
The Climate of the Nation report has tracked Australian attitudes to climate change for more than a decade.
This year, it polled 1,998 Australians aged 18 and over, and found the vast majority (79%) hold views in line with the best available scientific evidence. That is, four in five Australians agree climate change is occurring. This is the highest result since 2012.
An even greater majority, 82%, is worried climate change will result in more bushfires, up from 76% in last year’s report. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the record-breaking fires of last summer and the threat of longer and more ferocious fire seasons.
The bushfire royal commission is due to release its report today, and will likely highlight climate change as an amplifier of bushfire risk. This was foreshadowed in the commission’s interim observations in August.
The report also showed Australians believe the post-pandemic economic recovery is not a time to further entrench fossil fuels. Only 12% of Australians want to see Australia’s economic recovery led by investment in gas, a plan the Morrison government is set on carrying out.
In contrast, a majority (59%) would like to see the recovery driven by renewables.
The level of scientific consensus on climate change is remarkable. Urgent action on climate change is recommended by scientists and desired by the overwhelming majority of the public. Yet, Australia remains an international laggard in this area.
The Climate Change Performance Index evaluates 57 countries plus the European Union, which together are responsible for more than 90% of global emissions. This year, Australia ranked last on climate policy.
For many years, denial, delay and division over climate change was the norm in Australian politics. This is still the case among some media and political elites, and is no more pronounced than in debates over the future of coal in the domestic energy mix and for export.
Our energy sources play a big role in our overall contribution to climate change, with electricity generation contributing 32.7% of Australia’s emissions.
For everyday Australians, the solution is clear. The Climate of the Nation report shows the vast majority (83%) want to see coal-fired power stations phased out. Some 65% want the Australian government to stop new coal mines from being developed.
For many, particularly those living in Australia’s coal production regions, the prospect of shifting from coal to renewables raises legitimate concerns about their futures.
However, the ability for people and policy to engage constructively with concerns over jobs and climate is limited by toxic politics.
An important culprit is the pervasive “us versus them” narrative that dominates political and media discourse. The narrative repeatedly – but erroneously – signals to people in coal production regions that the rest of the country doesn’t care about them.
Coal production is also pitted against climate action in the “climate versus jobs” debate. But the polling shows such binaries are false: most Australians do care what happens in coal production regions. In fact, three-quarters of Australians want governments to plans and manage an orderly shift from coal to renewables.
The Australian people, by a large majority, care for those living in coal production communities and want to secure a safe climate.
Australians recognise our country can make a disproportionately large and positive contribution to international efforts to mitigate climate change.
Seventy-one percent want Australia to be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change, while 77% recognise tackling climate change can create opportunities for new jobs and investment in clean energy.
While all Australian states and territories have committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, the federal government has not. But, once again, a majority of people would like to see otherwise: 68% support a net-zero by 2050 target for Australia. This is four percentage points higher than last year.
The Climate of the Nation results clearly shows this goes against the will of the Australian people. Australia has a voting base that will support and reward ambitious climate action. Now is the time for political leaders to reflect this in the nation’s climate policy.
Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.
If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to email@example.com
I recently read an article stating the atomic bomb testing in the Pacific destroyed so much of the upper atmosphere that the US could no longer bounce communications off the atmosphere and had to deploy artificial satellites for communication. Is this true? And just how much damage did they do?
The article the question refers to doesn’t mention satellites, so let’s focus on the atmospheric damage part of the question. Indeed, surface and atmospheric (high-altitude) detonations of nuclear weapons can have short-term and long-term effects.
One short-term effect was a temporary blackout of long-distance high-frequency (HF) radio communication over the surrounding area. But this radio communication blackout was not a result of the nuclear explosions destroying the ionosphere.
On the contrary, the nuclear detonations temporarily increased the natural level of ionisation in the upper atmosphere.
The Earth’s ionosphere is a natural layer of charged particles at approximately 80-1,000km altitude. This ionised portion of the Earth’s upper atmosphere largely owes its existence to solar radiation, which strips electrons from neutral atoms and molecules.
The ionosphere consists of three major layers, known as D, E and F layers. The lower D and E layers typically exist only during daylight hours, while the highest F layer always exists.
These layers have distinct characteristics. The E and F layers are very reflective to HF radio waves. The D layer, on the other hand, is more like a sponge and absorbs HF waves.
In long-distance HF radio communications, the radio waves are bounced back and forth between the ionosphere and the Earth’s surface. This means you don’t need to establish a line of sight for HF radio communication.
But this radio communication scheme only works well when there is a reflective E or F layer, and when the absorbing D layer is not dominant.
During regular daytime hours, the D layer often becomes a nuisance because it weakens radio wave intensity in the lower HF spectrum. However, by changing to higher frequencies you can regain broken communication links.
The D layer may become even more dominant when intense X-ray emissions from solar flares or energetic particles are impacting the atmosphere. The absorbing D layer then breaks any HF communication links that traverse it.
Nuclear detonations also produce X-ray radiation, which leads to additional ionisation in all layers of the ionosphere. This makes the F layer more reflective to HF radio waves, but, alas, the D layer also becomes more absorptive.
This makes it difficult to bounce radio waves off the ionosphere for long-distance communication soon after a nuclear explosion, even though the ionosphere stays intact.
Beyond additional ionisation, shock waves from nuclear detonations produce waves and ripples in the upper atmosphere called “atmospheric gravity waves” (AGWs).
These waves travel in all directions, even reaching the ionosphere where they cause what are known as “travelling ionospheric disturbances” (TIDs), which can be observed for thousands of kilometres.
Bomb blasts are not the only things that cause disturbances in the atmosphere.
In September 1979, there were reports of bright flashes of light off the South African coast, igniting theories South Africa had nuclear weapon capabilities.
Analysis of ionospheric data from the Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, confirmed the presence of waves in the ionosphere that corroborated the theory of an atmospheric detonation. But whether the detonation was artificial or natural could not be determined.
The reason for the ambiguity is that meteor explosions and nuclear detonations in the atmosphere both generate AGWs with similar characteristics.
Volcanic eruptions, such at the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption in the US, and large earthquakes, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, are other examples of energetic processes at the ground impacting the upper atmosphere.
Another well-known source of ionospheric disturbances is the geomagnetic storm, typically caused by coronal mass ejections from the Sun or solar wind disturbances impacting Earth’s magnetosphere.
In summary, nuclear detonations can impact the upper atmosphere in many ways, as do many other non-nuclear terrestrial and solar events that carry enormous energy. But the damage (so to speak) isn’t permanent.
Did the impact of these nuclear tests on the ionosphere specifically lead to the immediate launch of communications satellites? Not directly, because the impacts were temporary.
But in the Cold War setting, the potential for adversaries to even briefly interrupt over-the-horizon communications would certainly have been a motivating factor in developing communications satellites as backup.
The proposed Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) will be a huge step forward. It would eventually comprise 26,000 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar energy, generated in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. Once complete, it would be Australia’s biggest renewable energy development, and potentially the largest of its type in the world.
Late last week, the federal government granted AREH “major project” status, meaning it will be fast-tracked through the approvals process. And in another significant step, the WA government this month gave environmental approval for the project’s first stage.
The mega-venture still faces sizeable challenges. But it promises to be a game-changer for Australia’s lucrative energy export business and will reshape the local renewables sector.
Australia’s coal and gas exports have been growing for decades, and in 2019-20 reached almost A$110 billion. Much of this energy has fuelled Asia’s rapid growth. However, in recent weeks, two of Australia’s largest Asian energy markets announced big moves away from fossil fuels.
China adopted a target of net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2060. Japan will retire its fleet of old coal-fired generation by 2030, and will introduce legally binding targets to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) would be built across 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara. The first stage involves a 10,000MW wind farm plus 5,000MW of solar generation – which the federal government says would make it the world’s largest wind and solar electricity plant.
The first stage would be capable of generating 100 terawatt-hours of renewable electricity each year. That equates to about 40% of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2019. AREH recently expanded its longer term plans to 26,000MW.
The project is backed by a consortium of global renewables developers. Most energy from AREH will be used to produce green hydrogen and ammonia to be used both domestically, and for shipping to export markets. Some energy from AREH will also be exported as electricity, carried by an undersea electrical cable.
Another Australian project is also seeking to export renewable power to Asia. The 10-gigawatt Sun Cable project, backed by tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, involves a solar farm across 15,000 hectares near Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory. Power generated will supply Darwin and be exported to Singapore via a 3,800km electrical cable along the sea floor.
The export markets for both AREH and Sun Cable are there. For example, both South Korea and Japan have indicated strong interest in Australia’s green hydrogen to decarbonise their economies and secure energy supplies.
But we should not underestimate the obstacles standing in the way of the projects. Both will require massive investment. Sun Cable, for example, will cost an estimated A$20 billion to build. The Asian Renewable Energy Hub will reportedly require as much as A$50 billion.
The projects are also at the cutting edge of technology, in terms of the assembly of the solar array, the wind turbines and batteries. Transport of hydrogen by ship is still at the pilot stage, and commercially unproven. And the projects must navigate complex approvals and regulatory processes, in both Australia and Asia.
But the projects have good strategic leadership, and a clear mission to put Australian green energy exports on the map.
Together, the AREH and Sun Cable projects do not yet make a trend. But they clearly indicate a shift in mindset on the part of investors.
The projects promise enormous clean development opportunities for Australia’s north, and will create thousands of jobs in Australia – especially in high-tech manufacturing. As we look to rebuild the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, such stimulus will be key. All up, AREH is expected to support more than 20,000 jobs during a decade of construction, and 3,000 jobs when fully operating.
To make smart policies and investments, the federal government must have a clear view of the future global economy. Patterns of energy consumption in Asia are shifting away from fossil fuels, and Australia’s exports must move with them.
John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University
The link below is to an article that looks at discovering new flowering plant species while bushwalking in Australia.
The link below is to an article that addresses 6 myths concerning Australian snakes.
The Japanese government recently announced plans to release into the sea more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak who recently wrote,
I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.
Alongside our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimise the health harms of nuclear technology, including site visits to Fukushima since 2011. We’ve concluded Japan’s plan is unsafe, and not based on evidence.
Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a site in regional South Australia — a risky plan that has been widely criticised.
In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in the meltdown of four large nuclear reactors, and extensive damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings which house them.
Water must be poured on top of the damaged reactors to keep them cool, but in the process, it becomes highly contaminated. Every day, 170 tonnes of highly contaminated water are added to storage on site.
If radioactive material leaks into the sea, ocean currents can disperse it widely. The radioactivity from Fukushima has already caused widespread contamination of fish caught off the coast, and was even detected in tuna caught off California.
Ionising radiation harms all organisms, causing genetic damage, developmental abnormalities, tumours and reduced fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometres along the coast from the damaged nuclear plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.
Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those which concentrate up the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can lead to fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.
In recent years, a water purification system — known as advanced liquid processing — has been used to treat the contaminated water accumulating in Fukushima to try to reduce the 62 most important contaminating radioisotopes.
But it hasn’t been very effective. To date, 72% of the treated water exceeds the regulatory standards. Some treated water has been shown to be almost 20,000 times higher than what’s allowed.
The cherry trees of Fukushima
One important radioisotope not removed in this process is tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.
Tritium is a carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, and is routinely released both into the water and air.
The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to meet regulatory limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. But this does not reduce the overall amount of radioactivity released into the environment.
The Japanese Citizens Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organisation of engineers and researchers. It says once water is treated to reduce all significant isotopes other than tritium, it should be stored in 10,000-tonne tanks on land.
If the water was stored for 120 years, tritium levels would decay to less than 1,000th of the starting amount, and levels of other radioisotopes would also reduce. This is a relatively short and manageable period of time, in terms of nuclear waste.
Then, the water could be safely released into the ocean.
Australians currently face our own nuclear waste problems, stemming from our nuclear reactors and rapidly expanding nuclear medicine export business, which produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, scientific and industrial purposes.
This is what happens at our national nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on-site in a dedicated facility, managed by those with the best expertise, and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.
But the Australian government plans to change this. It wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste at a facility at Kimba, in regional South Australia, for an indeterminate period. We believe the Kimba plan involves unnecessary multiple handling, and shifts the nuclear waste problem onto future generations.
The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials in Lucas Heights were developed over decades, with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural location of Kimba. What’s more, transporting the waste raises the risk of theft and accident.
And in recent months, the CEO of regulator ARPANSA told a senate inquiry there is capacity to store nuclear waste at Lucas Heights for several more decades. This means there’s ample time to properly plan final disposal of the waste.
The Conversation contacted Resources Minister Keith Pitt who insisted the Kimba site will consolidate waste from more than 100 places into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility”. He said a separate, permanent disposal facility will be established for intermediate level waste in a few decades’ time.
Pitt said the government continues to seek involvement of Traditional Owners. He also said the Kimba community voted in favour of the plan. However, the voting process was criticised on a number of grounds, including that it excluded landowners living relatively close to the site, and entirely excluded Barngarla people.
Both Australia and Japan should look to nations such as Finland, which deals with nuclear waste more responsibly and has studied potential sites for decades. It plans to spend 3.5 billion euros (A$5.8 billion) on a deep geological disposal site.
Intermediate level nuclear waste like that planned to be moved to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from people and the environment for at least 10,000 years.
We should take the time needed for an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process, rather than a quick fix that avoidably contaminates our shared environment and creates more problems than it solves.
It only kicks the can down the road for future generations, and does not constitute responsible radioactive waste management.
The following are additional comments provided by Resources Minister Keith Pitt in response to issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):
(The Kimba plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. It is international best practice and good common sense to do this.
Key indicators which showed the broad community support in Kimba included 62 per cent support in the local community ballot, and 100 per cent support from direct neighbours to the proposed site.
In assessing community support, the government also considered submissions received from across the country and the results of Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.
The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is associated with nuclear medicine production that, on average, two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.
The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community, including 45 jobs in security, operations, administration and environmental monitoring.
Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis, Tutor Principles of Clinical Practice Melbourne Medical School