Disposal of British RADwaste at home and in antipodean Australia

J.J. Veevers

Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Macquarie University

Introduction. Pangea [misappropriated from Wegener (1915): an honest name would be NORTHgea] Australian Resources Pty Ltd (PARPL) plans to export 250,000 tonnes of the North’s RADwaste to an international dump in Australia (2). Jobs and cash soothe Australian qualms about this monumental fill of lethal material in our backyard. My initial reaction to the logical absurdity of PARPL’s claim, that no RADwaste would escape into the biosphere for the next 10,000 years, turned to alarm when some eminent Australians came out in its favour. A permanent repository has eluded Britain and the USA, principally because none of their states or counties wants it, yet PARPL aims higher: they want to impose it on a country without RADwaste of its own, except 4 tonnes from the Lucas Heights research reactor (4), which should be retained on site and not exported to South Australia.

This article is a geopolitical analysis of the North’s plan to dump their RADwaste on Australia, with emphasis on the geological aspects.

British RADwaste at home. The Select Committee (9) concluded: "With the rejection in 1997 of the planning application for a rock characterization facility at Sellafield, as a step towards the development of a deep repository, the U.K. was left with no practical plan for the disposal of its nuclear waste ... phased disposal in a deep repository is feasible and desirable [and] would allow decisions to be taken in a considered way as technical confidence and expertise develop, and would avoid premature decisions which may be difficult to reverse. The future policy for nuclear waste management will require public acceptance. " NIMBY rules in Britain.

After 30 years of confrontation and attrition, the British nuclear lions are lying down with the green lambs. In May 1999, a National Consensus Conference on RADwaste Management organised by the UK Centre for Economics and Environmental Development called witnesses from the nuclear industry, government, regulatory agencies, Ministry of Defence, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and others (my emphasis). This followed a 2-day discussion forum on Geosciences and radioactive waste disposal organised by the Geological Society of London and the British Geological Survey. Dr David Falvey, Director of BGS, said that "total exclusion of potentially harmful radionuclides from the environment cannot be indefinitely guaranteed...but placement in the right subsurface geological setting can provide a relatively safe...containment." This is an honest indication of the risk to be borne democratically by the country of origin of the waste (Geoscientist 9, May, p. 19, and August, p. 16).

Britain in Australia. Safety first for Britain but not for Australia. The British Government, which owns 100% of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) that in turn owns 80% of PARPL (the Canadian Golder Associates/EHL and the Swiss NAGRA each have 10%) is nominating our wide open spaces for World listing as Terra nuclear. The British High Commission (7) boasts that "the British Government has no control, direct or indirect, over Pangea" and "BNFL makes commercial decisions on its own." The official British policy "that British nuclear waste should be disposed of in Britain" is offset by PARPL’s unofficial policy. Official Australian policy was stated in the unanimous agreement of the Senate (3): "That the Senate notes the statements by the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources (Senator Minchin) on the ABC program ‘Four Corners’ that ‘We’re not interested in nuclear power and we’re not interested in being the world’s nuclear waste dump,’ and that, ‘Australia won’t be that nation that accepts the waste’; and congratulates the Government on this decision not to allow an international nuclear waste dump in Australia like the one proposed by Pangea". The British Government should heed the Senate’s resolution.

We have experience of Britain’s assurances. In their 1950’s and 1960’s atmospheric tests of fission devices at the Monte Bello Islands and at Emu and Maralinga (McClelland et al., 1985), Britain promised the most stringent safety precautions. E.W. Titterton, then professor of Nuclear Physics at the ANU, was appointed by the Australian Government to chair the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee set up to protect Australia. The Commission concluded "Titterton played a political as well as a safety role in the testing program ... He was prepared to conceal information from the Australian Government and his fellow committee members if he believed to do so would suit the interests of the UK Government and the testing program." Sir Macfarlane Burnet had warned of this very dilemma: "any group of men directly concerned with the success of an enterprise will be inclined to minimise danger and to resent any safety precautions which will impede the enterprise." The RADwaste, in particular, was grossly mis-managed; "the treatment of the plutonium-contaminated areas [at Maralinga] ... was inadequate, based on the wrong assumptions, and left the areas in a more difficult state for any future clean-up". Light relief was provided "When Counsel assisting the Commission suggested to Stewart [a British witness] that appropriate places for the minor trials [in which 24.4 kg of plutonium were dispersed by burning or small explosions: Symonds, 1985, p. 557] might have been found in remote parts of Scotland, the witness replied: ‘I doubt if the people owning the estates in Scotland would look on that with very great favour. They are interested in pheasants and deer in Scotland.’ "

The Commission recommended that Britain clean up the environment by isolating the RADwaste. Thirty years after the tests, and more than 10 years after the Commission’s findings, Britain is committing 25m pounds (AUS$60m), by some estimates roughly half the full cost, towards the cleanup at Maralinga.

PARPL carries on regardless. Undeterred by the hostile Senate resolution, PARPL moved its office to Perth, nearer the proposed site. PARPL has engaged Australians to act as the thin edge of the wedge to win Australian acceptance. Dr Peter Cook is "a scientist and chairman of the scientific review group charged by Pangea with auditing the quality and nature of its science" (1). Members were chosen by PARPL apparently for their high standing in Australia as scientific statesmen and entrepreneurs - of those I know of, Dr Cook was recently Director of the British Geological Survey; Professor Brian Anderson is Director of the Research School of Information Sciences & Engineering at the ANU and President of the Australian Academy of Science; Sir Gustav Nossal, a consultant to PARPL, is an eminent director of biomedical research and past President of the Academy; Dr Phil Playford is past director of the Geological Survey of WA. On the TV program which exposed PARPL’s plans (2), Professor Anderson said; "I certainly believe there’s a chance for the proposal to get off the ground ". He went on to say that governments change and a negative position is not sustainable. Sir Gustav Nossal brings his infectious enthusiasm and medical prestige to the task: "We have an opportunity to offer the world an Australian solution to a global problem" (1) and is confident that PARPL’s experts have any risks under control. Apparently, Professor Anderson and Sir Gustav Nossal are swayed by their professional faith in the power of science and scientists to solve all problems.

This expression of scientific absolutism remains undiminished despite nuclear setbacks such as Chernobyl, and local technical failures in Sydney involving last year’s water-boiling exercise and the recent oil spill, non-delivery of gas in Victoria and of electricity in the CBD of Auckland, incidentally the site of the nuclear-connected sinking of the Greenpeace Warrior. This sentiment is a long way from the declaration of the UNESCO-ICSU (International Council for Science) World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century in Budapest June 1999 (10). The conference endorsed the idea of a new social contract with natural and human scientists, involving a code of ethics that would take into account not only honesty and human dignity but respect for the global environment and future generations. Science as the cutting edge of exploitation of nature would be balanced by care for the physical body of the Earth, and its practitioners would take a Hippocratic oath. The amazing thing is that this utopian declaration was co-sponsored by the hard-nosed ICSU, who has now added social responsibility to its charter with the express aim of attracting young people back to science. The local member of ICSU is the Australian Academy of Science, whose current and past presidents now have to balance their advocacy of PARPL against ICSU’s declaration. Incidentally, information on challenges to ethics and soundness in the geosciences is given in Welby & Gowan (1998).

Scientific argument for Australia as the proposed international RADwaste dump

The argument, as outlined by Dr Cook (1), boils down to:

1. The world has large amounts of nuclear waste to deal with.

2. Deep geological disposal is the only safe long-term solution.

3. Because waste has long-lived radioactivity, it must be isolated from the biosphere "for hundreds if not thousands of years ".

4. The "right" geology should be very stable with no significant earthquake activity. The ground should be flat and low-lying, the geology simple - old sedimentary basins may be best. The area should not have been glaciated in the recent past or likely to be glaciated in the near future, nor should it be subject to a major increase in rainfall.

5. Political and economic stability in the host country.

Britain, other northern European countries, and Canada (a junior partner in PARPL) are self-exempted by their glacial past, so Australia gets the short straw and PARPL’s undivided attention. But the argument can be turned back on the Northerners. A kilometre of ice above a deep repository would immobilize groundwater while not significantly impeding access for repairs or replenishment. It would be a free natural process simulated at some expense in modern engineering practice by the cryogenic stabilizing of loose ground. In this view, Australia’s non-glacial past (and presumed future) would rule it out as a repository.

"It is, of course, for Australia to decide whether or not economic or other benefits justify accepting some of the world’s radioactive waste", says Cook. But nowhere does he mention the supreme risk of disaster.

Risks. The inevitable risk in the proposal stems from the magnitudes: 250,000 tonnes of enormously dangerous RADwaste in the northern hemisphere 20,000 km from its destined dump in Australia, where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes - of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time - entail great inherent risk. Studies to eliminate the perceived risk would be futile. No amount of ingenuity could get around the logic of

250,000 tonnes x 10,000 years x (error > 0) = disaster for Australia.

The only reply from a civil engineer asked to guarantee a bridge or tunnel or any other fixed structure for 100 years, let alone 10,000 years, would be "You’d have to be joking". But Britain, whose backyard is already occupied by "pheasants and deer", is deadly serious.

Dr Cook’s "hundreds if not thousands of years" was disingenuous; even 10,000 years is too short a span. The general rule is that RADwaste is dangerous for ten half-lives of each radioactive nuclide, after which only 0.1% remains (Rogers & Feiss, 1998). On this reckoning, plutonium 239 (half-life 24,400 years) should be stored for 250,000 years and americium 243 for 74,000 years.

Our job as Australian scientists is to apply due diligence to PARPL’s proposal.

Risk to the oceans from transport of nuclear waste. The transport of nuclear waste away from its source, in PARPL’s example to the antipodes, entails an unnecessary additional risk: the viability of the world ocean. Dr Cook (2) argues that the magnitude of the risk "may turn out to be a very small number indeed", and in any case would "be significantly less than the global nuclear risk arising from waste not being stored safely or securely". This inverts the logic: because Northern nations made the waste without having a means of safe storage for it, and they prefer not to pollute their own ground, Australia is fingered as the "safe" place, even though it entails adding the separate global hazard of the 20,000 km voyage. The Uranium Information Centre points out (7) that 160 such voyages from Japan to Europe have proceeded without loss, so why worry? Because a long run of heads has no bearing on the next throw. RADwaste is exceptional because it is extraordinarily toxic. One cargo unaccountably going down would irreversibly damage the biosphere.

If PARPL really believed their proposed repository to be perfectly safe, they would site it at home. Their lust for our wide open spaces compares with the "environmentally harmless exercise" of the 1965-1995 French atomic tests at Moruroa. If the French believed their own words, they would have tested at home. But other folk’s backyards, especially in the distant South, turn out to be the best.

Australian protest against the 1995 round of tests was strident and universal. Nobody, including nuclear entrepreneurs, could resist the free thrill of condemning the French, even though Moruroa was 7,000 km away and the test underground. How odd then that in Australia in 1999, only the politicians have protested against the proposal to dump 250,000 tonnes of RADwaste in the middle of Australia! Eminent biomedical and information scientists have gone out of their way to welcome PARPL. Why? Presumably because the money is right: scientific jobs and science-driven prosperity will accompany PARPL’s promised 1% boost to our GDP. But we have no need to take in the North’s dirty washing. The Australian economy, let alone science, is not on its knees. We should be looking forward to making the world a safer place with specifically Australian projects - to name two: Martin Green’s photovoltaics project at the University of NSW and Doone Wyborn’s hot dry rock geothermal energy project at the ANU.

Earthquakes. According to Dr Cook (5), "if the risk [from earthquakes] appears to be significant then the scientific review group, and no doubt Pangea, will need to be reassured, or the area eliminated from further consideration." If Dr Cook means what he says, then Pangea can go home now. Gaull et al. (1990) identified the proposed site in the Great Victoria Desert as an earthquake source zone (Richter M <5.9), with an offshoot to the Musgrave Ranges with the site of a 1986 earthquake of M 6.0. They estimated that peak ground intensity (Modified Mercalli scale for cities) in the proposed region is VI (some structural damage) and to the east, in the Simpson Desert, VIII (moderate damage). These estimates correspond to a probablility of 10% of being exceeded over a 50-year period and a return period of 500 years. The prediction from 1990 to 2040 is based on records for the past 100 or so years. To be valid, predictions longer than this would require correspondingly long records that sample thousand-year events. Seismologists (and weather prophets) do not predict longer spans, except to point out the greater expected intensity of the 10,000-year event. Crone et al. (1997) caution: "although they may be currently aseismic, faults in stable continental regions [as the Great Victoria Desert] that are favourably oriented for movement in the current stress field could produce damaging earthquakes, often in unexpected places." Inescapably, predictions for the next 10,000 years would find the maximum credible earthquake (Yeats et al., 1997) to be much greater than the maximum recorded over the past 100 years.

Putting the casks in salt won’t help. Salt may act as a long-term cushion to the entombed casks but transmits earthquake waves instantly, and creates other problems, as outlined below.

Movement of groundwater. This also defies valid prediction over the next 10,000 years. Dr Patrick De Deckker (pers. comm.) finds that some 6,000 years ago lakes in Victoria were full to overflowing. Data from the Great Victoria Desert are scanty, but the expected Greenhouse Effect and associated Global Warming would entail rising water tables.

According to PARPL’s plans for Western Australia and South Australia, the favoured burial place for the casks is in the 300-m-thick layer of rock salt in the Officer Basin, which indicates a dry state since deposition 800 million years ago. But the salt has moved into diapirs, as at Woolnough Hills, so casks of RADwaste could eventually pop up, worse for wear, at the surface. When, and even if, this would happen is of course uncertain: nobody can know, but we can be sure the probability is non-zero.

Roedder (1984) found that bedded salt may contain several percent total water in inclusions trapped between or within grains during evaporation. The heat from the RADwaste cask - hot from the radioactivity absorbed in its walls - when introduced into the salt layer "will tend to concentrate at the cask the fluids from inclusions from some distance around. Estimates of the rates and total volumes of fluids that must be dealt with in a repository design are subject to rather large uncertainties." This is hydrothermal brine, so efficacious in leaching and corroding metals. An unforeseeable change in the hydrological regime would lead to the same result.

Do not concentrate. Cogent as they may be, these arguments themselves are overridden by a higher logical rule: don’t put all your eggs in the one basket. The superpowers disperse missile-bombs in silos on land, in submarines in the ocean, and in aircraft in the atmosphere. The rule applies no less to RADwaste. Concentrating international waste in a single site in the Great Victoria Desert would be a huge single target for today’s terrorists or the next 10 millennia’s vandals, and Australians would be the first victims of the fallout.

What to do if you agree with my argument. You should urge the people of WA and SA to press their parliamentary representatives to follow the Senate’s example in giving the British Government’s Pangea their marching orders by refusing exploration and development rights in the region. Only mischief can come from PARPL’s little science and huge budget.

Also, you could urge Britain to avert another round of nuclear opprobrium by withdrawing PARPL and devoting its $50m to a thorough cleanup of Maralinga.


1 P.J. Cook Australian Financial Review early 1999

2 ABC 4 Corners 19 April 99:

3 Senate resolution 22 April 99:

4 J.J. Veevers Advertiser (Adelaide) 9 July 1999

5 West Australian 10 July 99; P.J. Cook’s reply 27 July 99

6 ABC Ockham’s Razor 25 July 99:

7 Canberra Times 28 July 1999 and related correspondence

8 quoted in The Bulletin 9 August 1999

9 Select Committee House of Lords


10 eng/programmes/science/wsc/eng/framework.htm

This article can be found at

Crone, A.J., Machette, M.N. & Bowman, J.R., 1997, Episodic nature of earthquake activity in stable continental regions revealed by palaeoseismicity studies of Australian and North American Quaternary faults: Australian Journal of Earth Sciences 44, 203-214.

Gaull, B.A., Michael-Leiba, M.O. & Rynn, J.M.N., 1990, Probabilistic earthquake risk maps of Australia: Australian Journal of Earth Sciences 37, 169-187.

McClelland, J.R., Fitch, J. & Jonas, W.J.A., 1985, The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia: 3 volumes, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Roedder, E., 1984, The fluids in salt: American Mineralogist 69, 413-439.

Rogers, J.J.W. & Feiss, P.G., 1998, People and the earth: basic issues in the sustainability of resources and environment: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 338 pages.

Symonds, J.L., 1985, A history of British atomic tests in Australia. Department of Resources & Energy, Canberra, 593 pages.

Wegener, A., 1915, Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane: Viewig, Braunschweig.

Welby, C.W. & Gowan, M.E., 1998, editors, A paradox of power: Voices of warning and reason in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Reviews in Engineering Geology, XII, 185 pages.

Yeats, R.S., Sieh, K., & Allen, C.R., 1997, The geology of earthquakes: Oxford University Press, NY, 568 pages.

I thank colleagues in the Division of Environmental & Life Sciences, Macquarie University, for references to the literature.

John Veevers is editor of Phanerozoic earth history of Australia (1984) and Billion-year earth history of Australia (2000), a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (field of interest: Gondwanaland and Pangea), and a member of the Geological Society of Australia, of America, and of London.

P.S. STAND - Scientists and Technologists Against Nuclear Dumping - can be found at

20th November 1999

Recent political events. The WA State Parliament is about to pass a Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Bill that will follow a Legislative Assembly motion in September opposing the Pangea plan on environmental and safety grounds. Details at

This leaves SA, site of earlier British nuclear experiments at Emu and Maralinga, as the sole hope for Pangea. If you accept my logic, you should urge the people of SA to press their parliamentary representatives to follow the example of the WA Parliament and Australian Senate in giving the British Government’s Pangea their marching orders by refusing exploration and development rights in the region. Only mischief can come from Pangea’s invalid proposal and huge budget. Try emailing the Premier, the Hon. John Olsen

Also, you could urge Britain, through Pangea:

to avert another round of nuclear opprobrium by withdrawing

Pangea without delay and devoting its $50m to a thorough cleanup of Maralinga.