Why Jay Weatherill is in Finland to investigate Australia’s nuclear future
20th Sept 2016
In case you missed it, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill is in western Finland.
To investigate whether his state should build a high-level international nuclear waste dump to store radioactive uranium deep underground for at least 100,000 years.
The industry aficionados call it a “final repository”, but basically it is a big tomb-like system of tunnels built into solid bedrock where spent fuel rods are encased in steel, copper and clay.
Why should you care?
In an era where outrage is the cheapest commodity and short-term populist thinking prevails, the Premier is pushing forward a project that is not only ridiculously long-term but one that has proven elsewhere to be political dynamite.
A number of scientists believe a dump could be safely built and many economists think it could make South Australia $100 billion.
But it is also important to point out there is no pressing national need for this facility.
Australia does not produce high-level nuclear waste.
So, why is he in Finland?
Somewhat by chance, Finland is leading the world in the construction of a high-level waste facility 420 metres below Olkiluoto Island on the country’s west coast.
The company building it, Posiva, has been working on the idea since the 1970s, but quite reasonably assumed bigger nations like the United States, Britain, France, Sweden or Germany would come up with a solution they could copy.
But community opposition and controversy has killed, crippled or delayed plans for several radioactive dumps.
So, despite a couple of cost blow-outs, Finland has found itself at the front of the line.
And why do the Finns love the idea?
On a national level, opinion is actually mixed.
But around the “final repository”, the tax cuts, welfare increases, community facilities and jobs the nuclear industry has funded got the dump over the line.
Locals near Olkiluoto Island said, because they have benefited from nuclear energy, they also have a responsibility to safely manage the waste.
Currently, it is in a series of pools.
So, why not build an international dump then?
Ah, here is where we hit Finland’s “red line”.
According to Posiva executives, it would be “politically impossible”.
“Finland doesn’t want to become the waste dump of the world,” one said.
It is also against federal law.
Is it not also against Australian law?
Yes, it is.
But putting the politics aside, Posiva thinks it could help South Australia design and construct a high-level facility within 15 to 20 years.
Unsurprisingly, they are keen to try to sell their success to the world.
Did you not just say politics or community opposition keeps killing dumps?
So, you would not put politics to one side?
Fifteen to 20 years is a generous timeframe.
But if Finland has nuclear power, is the world’s leading dump builder and yet will not construct an international facility — why would we?
Money, money, jobs and money.
Plus the nuclear industry would probably bring with it a whole range of research and maybe even export opportunities to a state that is still grappling with the closure of the car industry.
Also, South Australia has enormous uranium reserves and already contributes to the “nuclear fuel cycle”.
So, some think the state has a “moral responsibility” to help.
OK. Is Jay Weatherill really likely to push on with this project?
He is likely to keep making positive noises, consulting and talking about how the waste facility discussion “must be led by the community”.
But the Labor Premier knows the biggest political threat to its development comes from his own side of politics.
And what are the chances of this dump being built?
That is very difficult to answer because the time scales are so huge.
It has taken Finland nearly 40 years to get to this point.
The waste is dangerous for up to 100,000 years, which is a breathtakingly long time in terms of our own fleeting existence.
Posiva has had to research the possibility of several “glaciation periods” hitting the site and even how to best communicate the danger of the dump to distant societies.
A few more imaginative types have even claimed they should also consider dealing with future species.
What, you lost me at ‘future species’. Will this actually happen?
To realistically get a dump built in Australia, it will require the enthusiastic backing of a local community, industry, the South Australian Government and the Commonwealth for a period of at least 20 years, probably longer.
It is worth remembering proposals for many previous nuclear projects have proved controversial in Australia.
Also, you would have to convince a majority of people it is completely safe.
So, Mr Weatherill would have to pull off something that has never been done anywhere else, a project even Finland thinks is too hard, one that could prove a major political headache, all to dump hazardous spent radioactive fuel Australia does not even use?
Love or hate the idea, it is hard not to admire Mr Weatherill’s chutzpah for even starting such a difficult discussion.