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Opinion

Clock ticking on nuclear waste site debate

Opinion

Low-level radioactive medical waste continues to pile up in basements around the country as debate over a national storage site continues, writes Jodie van Deventer.

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Where should nuclear waste be stored? North Terrace or the Outback?

It’s a fair bet most would go with the Outback. Yet as debate around a storage facility drags on, low-level nuclear waste continues to pile up in Adelaide in science facilities, universities and hospitals.

In fact, waste is being stored at more than 100 mostly unsuitable locations across Australia. But under international safety standards, waste must be stored in geographically stable areas with low population density and not prone to flooding.

That’s why way back in 2015, landowners nominated 28 sites across the country which the Federal Government evaluated against technical, economic, social and environmental criteria.

After years of assessment and public consultation, a farm 20km west of the South Australian town of Kimba was selected as the preferred site in 2019.

The plan was to have a facility in place by 2020. As the calendar flips over to 2021, the site is far from confirmed and a sod-turning ceremony is presumably years away.

And that’s a big concern. According to the Australian Medical Association (AMA), we’re out of time.

AMA Vice President and South Australian local Dr Chris Moy was in Canberra before Christmas and told our political leaders how nuclear medicine was saving lives.

Used to diagnose illnesses and treat conditions such as cancer, Dr Moy said two in three Australians would need nuclear medicine at some time in their life.

Yet without storage, these products could not continue to be developed and created.

Regardless of where individuals sit on the nuclear waste debate, there is no doubt that many of our loved ones owe their lives to nuclear medicine and it’s waste from this medicine that makes up about 80 per cent of Australia’s radioactive waste.

We’re not talking “Homer Simpson” dirty nuclear waste either, but mostly low-level waste which contains small amounts of radioactivity; safe to store properly underground but ill-suited to North Terrace cellars.

In 2019, Kimba residents were asked their thoughts on a nuclear waste facility in their region and more than 60 per cent favoured the dump. However, as the ballot only included local residents, native titleholders were not included and the Barngarla people are fighting the proposal.

There is no doubt the storage of nuclear waste will always be contentious.

No matter how safe the science tells us it is, it’s human nature to have lingering doubts while cultural heritage considerations must be respected and are not easily resolved.

But there is one thing that can’t be disputed: our obligation as a society to dispose of our waste responsibly if we want to continue using nuclear medicine to save lives.

This year, Federal Parliament will once again place the waste facility back on the agenda and against a backdrop of dwindling and unsuitable city storage options, much is at stake.

As the clock ticks loudly, we need a strong, bipartisan commitment from all sides to work through the issues and find a solution. Fast.

Jodie van Deventer is chief executive officer of the Committee For Adelaide.

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