While the search for a place to store Australia’s nuclear waste remains on hold pending a decision by the Federal Court, a small council in outback Western Australia still has its hand raised as a potential site.
Leonora, a WA Goldfields town about 200 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, is being touted as a potential location for an underground nuclear waste disposal facility.
The Federal Government is considering sites at Kimba and Hawker in South Australia for an above-ground facility capable of permanently storing low-level waste and temporarily storing intermediate-level waste.
Nuclear waste being stored at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) would be sent to the nuclear waste disposal facility.
The Azark Project, the company behind the Leonora proposal, said a site 15km outside of the town was the best place for a permanent nuclear waste facility.
The company is headed by George Gear, who was an assistant treasurer in the second Keating Government.
“Every day of the week, road trains go through the town taking things like cyanide, explosives, fuel and going back the other way they’ve got radioactive minerals for export,” Mr Gear said.
“Common sense should tell [you] that if you’re going to store radioactive waste, at least do it in an area where this is not going to cause any upset – where it’s a natural place to put it.”
Mr Gear said the proposed site on a cattle station called Clover Downs outside of Leonora was a seismically inactive place.
He said the Azark proposal was to store low-level and intermediate-level waste underground on a permanent basis.
“The rock body itself is four kilometres deep, it’s been seismically stable for over 1 billion years and that’s much more secure,” he said.
“It’s much better technically to have it underground than sitting in an above-ground facility.”
Leonora not being considered
The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science said it was currently not considering Leonora as a potential location and that detailed studies were continuing at the three nominated sites in South Australia.
Lyndhurt and Napandee are the properties near Kimba being considered and the site near Hawker is called Wallerberdina Station.
A proposed community ballot on support for the facility in Kimba and Hawker has been on hold pending legal action.
The Barngarla Native Title Determination Aboriginal Corporation took the District Council of Kimba to the Federal Court last year over the ballot.
The Aboriginal group said the proposed ballot breached the Racial Discrimination Act because not all native title holders were given the opportunity to vote, as some lived outside the council boundaries.
Ballots in both Kimba and Hawker have been on hold pending the outcome of that legal action.
“Together with results from public and private submissions and feedback from stakeholders including neighbours, council and local groups during community discussions, it will be determined if there is broad enough support at any of the sites,” a department spokesman said.
He said the department had received an application for a site near Leonora and had been in discussions with the proponent.
“However, we consider it would not be in good faith to start detailed consultation process with new communities until the outcome from the near-complete South Australian process is known,” he said.
Support for alternative
But anti-nuclear campaigners in both towns have called on the Federal Government to consider Leonora as a potential site.
“It should be a preferred site over Hawker or Kimba,” said Leon Ashton from the Flinders Local Action Group, which comprises concerned citizens in the Flinders Ranges.
“It’s not on a floodplain, like Wallerberdina is, it’s not prone to earthquakes.
“It’s hard, stable granite, which is where this is meant to go.”
Mr Ashton also said Leonora had a smaller tourist market than Hawker.
Peter Woolford, from No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land at Kimba or South Australia, said it was the Government’s “obligation” to assess all sites.
“What’s being proposed at Kimba and Hawker is the low-level waste and then a temporary storage of intermediate-level waste,” he said.
“The Government still has to find a place to put the intermediate-level waste for its final destination, which will be deep burial.
“The Leonora site may provide that option.”
The Leonora Shire Council remains in favour of a nuclear waste facility near the town, saying it could provide jobs and much-needed infrastructure for the small town.
However, Shire President Peter Craig said that support could wane because of what he described as a lack of consultation from Azark.
“Azark did have a community meeting back in April 2018, which was pretty positive, there were some questions that still needed to be answered,” he said.
“To this day, in our view, as a council, Azark have failed in consultation work with the community.
“The community is probably offside at the moment because that consultation work hasn’t been forthcoming.
“Whilst they may be doing work on the outside of Leonora, there certainly still needs to be a lot of work done on the inside.”
Mr Craig said Azark had consulted people one-on-one but not in a wider group since the 2018 meeting.
Mr Gear said Azark had people in Leonora who spoke to residents “all the time” and was happy to facilitate more public meetings, if requested.
“We know the result, but if that’s what’s needed, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
Cultural and environmental concerns
Throughout the site selection process at both Kimba and Hawker there has been opposition from local Aboriginal groups, who say a facility would impinge on sacred land.
Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation said local Aboriginal groups at Leonora remained strongly opposed to the facility.
“[Azark] says there’s no chance of any impact on water — there’s no evidential basis for that,” he said.
“They say there is no cultural or heritage issues – that is contested by local Aboriginal people.
“When this was first flagged, Aboriginal people who have deep concerns about this proposal got a petition together that rapidly got, in a number of days, around 500 signatures.
“In a remote region, that’s a quick and significant expression of concern.”
Mr Gear said water in the Leonora region would not be affected because the facility would be built into deep rock.
“We can be 100 per cent sure because it’s a solid rock and there isn’t any water in the rock,” he said.
Mr Gear said there had been positive conversations between Azark and Aboriginal groups.
“They’re willing to go out and start cataloguing areas that are important to them,” he said.
Mr Sweeney said the Federal Government should stop the site selection process.
“We desperately need, right now, for the brakes to go on the federal process at Kimba and at Hawker and an independent assessment of the best ways we can manage radioactive waste.”