Home » Australia risks being ‘world’s nuclear waste dump’ unless Aukus laws changed, critics say

Australia risks being ‘world’s nuclear waste dump’ unless Aukus laws changed, critics say

Australia risks becoming the “world’s nuclear waste dump” unless the Albanese government moves to rewrite its proposed Aukus laws, critics say.

A Labor-chaired inquiry has called for the legislative safeguard to specifically rule out accepting high-level nuclear waste from the US and the UK. One of the members of a Senate committee that reviewed the draft laws, independent senator Lidia Thorpe, said the legislation “should be setting off alarm bells” because “it could mean that Australia becomes the world’s nuclear waste dump”.

The government’s bill for regulating nuclear safety talks about “managing, storing or disposing of radioactive waste from an Aukus submarine”, which it defines broadly as Australia, UK or US submarines.

In a report published on Monday, the Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee said this wording did not reflect the government’s promise not to accept high-level nuclear waste.

It recommended that the government consider “amending the bill so that a distinction is made between Australia’s acceptance of low-level nuclear waste from Aukus partners, but non-acceptance of high-level nuclear waste”.

The government has left the door open to accepting low-level waste from US and UK nuclear-powered submarines when they conduct rotational visits to Western Australia in the first phase of the Aukus plan. Low-level waste contains small amounts of radioactivity and include items such as personal protective equipment, gloves and wipes.

“According to the Australian Submarine Agency, nuclear-powered submarines only generate around a ‘small skip bin’ of low-level naval nuclear waste per submarine per year and that intermediate- and high-level waste will not become a concern until the first naval nuclear reactor requires disposal in the mid-2050s,” the Senate committee report said.

The government has yet to decide on the location for the disposal of radioactive waste from the submarines.

But infrastructure works proposed for HMAS Stirling – the naval base in Western Australia – to support the increased rotational visits are expected to include an operational waste storage facility for low-level radioactive waste.

The Department of Defence has argued any changes to the definitions should not prevent “regulatory control of the management of low-level radioactive waste from UK or US submarines” as part of those rotational visits.

Thorpe, an independent senator, said the call to prohibit high-level nuclear waste from being stored in Australia was “backed by experts in the field and was one of the major concerns raised during the inquiry into the bill”.

“The government claims it has no intention to take Aukus nuclear waste beyond that of Australian submarines, so they should have no reason not to close this loophole,” Thorpe said.

“They also need to stop future governments from deciding otherwise. We can’t risk our future generations with this.”

The government’s proposed legislation would set up an Australian naval nuclear power safety regulator to oversee the safety of the nuclear-powered submarines.

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The committee made eight recommendations, including setting “a suitable minimum period of separation” to prevent a revolving door from the Australian Defence Force or Department of Defence to the new regulator.

The main committee report acknowledged concerns in the community that Australia might become a “dumping ground” for the Aukus countries, but it said the term was “not helpful in discussing the very serious question of national responsibility for nuclear waste”.

It also said the bill should be amended to ensure the regulator was transparent about “any accidents or incidents” with the soon-to-be-established parliamentary oversight committee on defence.

The Labor chair of the committee, Raff Ciccone, said the recommendations would “further strengthen the bill” and help “ensure Australia maintains the highest standards of nuclear safety”.

In a dissenting report, the Greens senator David Shoebridge said the legislation was “deeply flawed”, including because the regulator would report to the defence minister.

“The proposed regulator lacks genuine independence, the process for dealing with nuclear waste is recklessly indifferent to community or First Nations interests and the level of secrecy is a threat to both the environment and the public interest,” Shoebridge said.

The defence minister, Richard Marles, was contacted for comment.