Defence “publicity worries” behind opposition to hosting a radioactive waste facility at Woomera

23 May 2019

Department of Defence documents released to Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick have revealed Defence’s opposition to the location of a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility anywhere in the vast Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) is largely centred on fear that such a facility would be politically contentious and that possible anti-nuclear protests would expose the absence of security across much of the WPA.

The documents also show that Defence has used range safety issues only relevant to the relatively small Woomera Instrumented Range to argue against the location of a radioactive waste repository anywhere within the vast 12.7 million hectares of the WPA.

"Defence’s internal assessments, which have only now been made public in response to my FOI applications, show that the Department’s long held concern has been much more about public relations rather than any sensible assessment of the negligible risks associated with locating a waste management facility within the enormous area of the WPA," Rex said.

This is made very clear by a previously confidential assessment prepared for Defence Property Services which states:

  • Defence’s main concern has been and remains the negative publicity that would result from a weapon impact on the range and the fact that such publicity could ultimately result in range closure and consequent significant loss to the Commonwealth’s defence capability.

Defence’s assessment also highlights concern about possible anti-nuclear protest activity directed towards a radioactive waste repository because it would expose an absence of security measures across much of the WPA:

  • The public’s perception of the WPA as a secure site is likely to remain only whilst ignorance of the actual physical security precautions at the site exists.

Significantly, Defence further extends risk assessments relating to operations on the Woomera Instrumented Range, a relatively small area approximately 55 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide extending from the Range head at Lake Koolymilka, to the entirety of the WPA – a vast expanse that covers approximately 13 per cent of South Australia.

Defence’s claims are all the more dubious given the fact the Woomera Instrumented Range is already serving as a radioactive waste storage site. CSIRO is storing 10,000 drums of low and intermediate level waste in a hangar at Evetts Field, 1.3 kilometres from the Range head at Lake Koolymilka, while Defence is storing 35 cubic metres of intermediate level waste in a bunker five kilometres down range. Both the CSIRO and Defence waste has been stored there for 24 years.

"If storing radioactive waste in the WPA represents an intolerable risk, why has this considerable store of material been allowed to stay on the range for nearly a quarter of a century?" Senator Patrick asked.

"The reality is that Defence has always been playing politics with this issue, trying to shift the problem out of its backyard."

Consideration of Kimba and Hawker as a site for the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility has been highly controversial, causing deep-seated division in the towns.

"Defence should go and tell the communities of Hawker and Kimba precisely why it’s just too difficult for them to accept a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility at any location anywhere in the 12.7 million hectares of the WPA. But they could not do so with any credibility," Rex said.

"The Defence Department is tenacious in defending its territory, but its arguments against locating the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility within the WPA just don’t stack up," he said.

"The Coalition Government should accept its responsibility and reopen consideration of hosting the waste facility at a location with appropriate security within the Commonwealth controlled Woomera Prohibited Area."

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