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Scarce urges SA nuclear waste dump - "as soon as possible"

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South Australia will take a leap into the unknown with a nuclear future firmly on the agenda, after the release of the final report of the Scarce Royal Commission. The report emphasises the “safety” of increased participation in the nuclear fuel cycle – with a high-level global repository for spent fuel now a viable prospect – and the “significant and enduring economic benefits” to the local community.

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“SA can safely increase its participation in nuclear activities,” the report summary begins – before again re-emphasising that a nuclear waste dump could generate a potential “$100 billion income in excess of expenditure”.

That would include a $32 billion reserve fund for facility closure and ongoing monitoring.

However, given the significance of the potential revenue and multi-decade timeframes under consideration, the commission – headed by former Governor Kevin Scarce – concluded such an enterprise “must be owned and controlled by the State Government”, and the wealth “preserved and equitably shared for current and future generations of South Australians”.

“The immediate issue facing SA is whether, on balance, it considers the potential opportunities to be of sufficient benefit, and the potential risks to be manageable, so as to support the further and more serious investigation of the commercial development of such a project,” Scarce’s report concludes.

“The commission’s firm conclusion is that this opportunity should be actively pursued, and as soon as possible.”

As expected, the final report placed a premium on “social consent”, after Scarce’s tentative findings in February prompted outrage from anti-nuclear activists and some disquiet in the broader community.

This consent will require “sufficient public support to proceed with legislating, planning and implementing a project”, including from affected remote and Aboriginal communities, Scarce concluded.

He has long maintained identifying a suitable site was outside his purview.

Scarce had previously indicated that his final report would make the same broad conclusions as his interim submission, but that he would need to address community concerns over safety, including during the transportation of waste, with SA likely to become the hub for the world’s spent nuclear fuel.

His report concluded that “the risk of an accident occurring that could breach a cask of used fuel and cause radiation to be released is very low”.

“If a cask was lost at sea and was irrecoverable, there is potential for some members of the public consuming locally sourced seafood to receive a very small dose of radiation,” the report acknowledges.

In a list of recommendations, the commission urges the Weatherill Government to pursue “simplification of state and federal mining approval requirements for radioactive ores” to streamline approval processes and ensure “full costs of decommissioning and remediation with respect to radioactive ore mining projects are secured in advance from miners”.

It also urges the Government to remove state prohibitions on the licensing of further processing activities, “to enable commercial development of multilateral facilities as part of nuclear fuel leasing arrangements” – and to push for similar removals at a federal level.

In a sign of further nuclear expansion in years to come, the report also recommends pursuing the removal of federal restrictions on nuclear power generation – “to allow it to contribute to a reliable, low-carbon electricity system, if required”.

The commission report was – like its February missive – bullish about the economic benefits of a waste dump, with its modelling estimating such as facility would grow the gross state product by “an additional 4.7 per cent – or $6.7 billion – by 2029-30”, adding 9600 full-time jobs to the workforce.

Premier Jay Weatherill told media today any repository required broad – and specific – community consent, saying a “comprehensive community engagement process” would be outlined soon.

“This will help the Government form its response to the report,” he said, adding that response would be delivered to State Parliament by year’s end.

“I encourage all South Australians to keep an open mind, appraise themselves of the findings within the report and for as many of them as possible to participate in this important debate about SA’s future,” he said.

Weatherill would not state whether – or how – he would advocate for the proposal, but said “the one thing the report requires in a clear understanding of the facts”.

“Where there’s ignorance, there’s fear,” he said.

“Where’s there’s fear, there’s likely to be strong emotional reactions… we’ll use this foundation of fact to assist us to the next stage.”

Nonetheless, he emphasised there were “important ethical and moral” considerations outside the argument of economic benefit, saying the next step of engagement was a “profound” step.

He would not rule out a referendum on the matter at the next election, and agreed the arguments would resonate in the lead-up to that poll “if it remains a live issue” by then.

However, Scarce – facing the media after the report’s release – said it was “important there’s no spin [and] no advocacy in this”.

He said social consent was “not a point in time”.

“It’s a continuum,” he said.

“We’d need to develop this discussion over 10 to 15 years – 10 years, I hope – to get to a point where we say, ‘Yes, we’re going to proceed with this.’

“There’s no point having a single election with a single point in time approval.”

He said a consensus to proceed with a high-level facility for international waste was complex – hence why no such decision had been taken anywhere else in the world.

“We need to take the time to explain the steps,” he said.

He said community and interest group feedback since the tentative findings – including modelling from the Australia Institute that argued the economic benefits were exaggerated – were taken into consideration.

“I thought the responses were excellent,” he said.

“They required us to go back and review the safety issues, address the ‘clean, green image’, transportation and economic issues… we did more modelling on the economics.

“At the end of the day, I think we’ve put out a better report [for the feedback].”

But, he insisted, “all the evidence is what you see before you”.

Opposition Leader Steven Marshall welcomed the report and Scarce’s work on the issue which he said “laid the ground work for a substantive community debate regarding the recommendations contained in the report”.

“I look forward to the people of South Australia having their say about the future of the nuclear fuel cycle in our state,” Marshall said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation condemned the inquiry’s final report saying the nuclear waste facility plan was “dangerous and divisive and could turn remote SA into a permanent radioactive waste zone”.

“The Royal Commission’s final report is deeply disturbing in what it says and what it fails to acknowledge,” said ACF campaigner Dave Sweeney.

Sweeney said the “exaggerated economic benefits and under-analysed risks detailed in an Australia Institute critique of the commission’s tentative findings in February have not been adequately addressed by today’s final report”.

“ACF urges Premier Jay Weatherill, who initiated this process in March 2015, not to use this flawed report to advance an irreversible and highly adverse nuclear dump plan,” he said.

“The essential pre-conditions for storing high level international radioactive waste – bipartisan federal support and broad national community consent – are both missing.”

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