Radioactive waste

At the time of first writing this page my intention is to confine the discussion to the proposed low-level and medium-level waste repository in South Australia.

This page is not about the once-proposed high-level waste repository for material from other countries. I may broaden the subject of the page at a later date.

As it stands this is perhaps the only page I've written about what could very appropriately be called a storm in a teacup. I have posted on the subject several times on Facebook. While I had a number of people disagree with me, some of them very emotionally, not one gave a good reason to oppose the repository.

This page was written 2019/11/17, last edited 2020/07/06
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

What is the main question?

In my opinion it is this: Should Australia's low-medium level radioactive wastes be stored as at present, in over 100 sites across the nation, or should they be stored in one dedicated facility well away from densely populated areas?



Most of us would be willing to be injected with a nuclear tracer if it was required for medical diagnosis. Would those who oppose the nuclear repository then hold that the syringe that was used to inject the tracer should be stored permanently in the hospital basement rather than go to a purpose built repository?
It is easy to find many links on the Internet about there being 'over 100 sites where nuclear waste is now stored', much harder to find out what sort of places those are. Hospitals are mentioned, not surprisingly because it seems the greatest use for radioactive material in Australia is in nuclear medicine.

In addition to hospitals I know from my own experience that the South Australian Mines and Energy Department used (years ago when I worked in that department) radioactive isotopes for well logging. I believe that neutron probes (which contain radioactive material) are used by a number of businesses for measuring the degree of wetting in soils. Whether these departments and businesses store their spent radioactive material I don't know.

Where best should the spent materials be stored?


Why is it hard to find any detail about current nuclear waste storage?

I suspect it is largely a matter of security. No one would want terrorists to get hold of even medium-level nuclear wastes.
Where are they stored at present? We are told that ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) stores some, we are told that some is stored in Australia's main hospitals. Where else? Who knows? Who controls where it is stored? How secure are these storages? Can we rely on whoever is 'in control' of the security of the present storages? I don't know.

It seems to me logical that all low-medium level radioactive waste should be stored in one dedicated site and that that site should be away from densely populated areas.

The vote

A vote among the residents of Kimba (one of the places near where a repository has been proposed) was conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. "61.6 per cent of the 734 ballot papers were in favour of the dump".

For more on the vote see the ABC article written 2019/11/07 by Casey Briggs.

The region's native titleholders, the Barngaria people, were not included in the vote; apparently because they do not live in Kimba. (Where do they live? Should they have a say in the matter if they don't live in the area? If they were to vote, how would one decide which individuals should get a vote?)

Why not store low-medium level radioactive waste in a single secure site?

I have not seen any convincing arguments against the proposal. Surely it is better than the current situation with material stored all over the place.

Putting it into perspective


Trivial compared to Olympic dam tailings dam

Far more radioactive material is being dumped in the tailings dams of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium/gold mine than will ever be placed in the proposed waste dump. The Olympic Dam mine is in the same region of South Australia as the proposed dump.

The Australian Government Department of Environment and Heritage (link no longer available) stated that 85% of the radioactivity of the material taken from the mine is in the tailings that go into the dam. In the 2003-04 financial year 3,993 tonnes of uranium oxide were mined from the Olympic dam mine. So that's as much radioactivity as in 23,000 tonnes of uranium oxide that has gone into the tailings dam in only one year.

Uranium 235 decays in ten or so steps, each one producing a radioactive isotope. Uranium 238 decays in 15 or so steps, each one producing a radioactive isotope. These isotopes occur in the uranium ore; they are not wanted by the mine operators so they are pumped out onto the tailings dam.

There may be a thousand times as much radioactive material going into this tailings dam as will ever go into the waste repository, yet no one seems to care. I need to add that if the tailings and tailings dam are looked after appropriately they will be safe.

Trivial compared to climate change

Perhaps what surprises me most about this debate is how heated it is considering its triviality. Australia could go on storing waste all over the place, it seems a poor state of affairs, but it has worked so far.

The waste facility could be built. At worst there could be accidents carrying the waste to the facility, but it's hard to see that they could be very problematical.

On the other hand we are facing a world-wide disaster with climate change; thousands of species will be forced into extinction, millions, perhaps billions, of people will die. Why bother with something that is unlikely to harm anybody at all, is very unlikely to cause a single human death, will cause little harm to any non-human species, when we could be putting our time to far better use pushing for action on reducing climate changing emissions.


Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon and we are all exposed to background radiation. There is no evidence that small increases in this level of radiation is harmful, they may even be beneficial, yet people tend to react emotionally to any mention of increased radiation. Having said that, I will also say that the probability of anyone receiving an increased dose of radiation will be lowered by having a centralised repository rather than storing the waste all over the place as at present.

If it wasn't for the natural radioactivity in the Earth to power plate tectonics and volcanism the world's continents and islands would have been eroded down to below sea level (if they would ever have formed at all) and humanity would not have evolved. If not for natural radioactivity we would not have any helium on Earth; it is a very valuable element.

Radioactivity powers volcanoes, such as this one at Mount Gambier
Blue Lake

Risk of low level radiation exposure

Research indicates that low levels of radiation are not harmful and may even be beneficial:
"Epidemiological data provide essentially no evidence for detrimental health effects below 100 mSv [millisieverts], and several studies suggest beneficial (hormetic) effects."
Natural background radiation is about 1.5 to 3.5 mSv/year.

A study of Cancer Mortality Among People Living in Areas With Various Levels of Natural Background Radiation found that:

"Neither cancers nor early childhood deaths positively correlate with dose rates in regions with elevated natural background radiation."

Who or what will be harmed?

There are a number of contentious matters before all of us who have consciences at present. We should give careful consideration to the campaigns we get involved in and make sure that we are using our time and efforts for worthwhile causes.

In the following table I've compared the impact of a low-medium level radioactive waste repository with some other contemporary issues.

How many people will be killed?Waste repositoryClimate change
NoneMillions or billions of people, thousands of other species forced into extinction. (Climate change)
How many people will suffer badly?Waste repositoryThe unavailability of assisted dying
NoneMany are unnecessarily suffering slow, painful deaths in Australia right now. (Euthanasia, Suicide as a rational decision)
What suffering is involved?Waste repositoryFactory farming and live animal export
Very littleMany animals are living (and dying) in terrible conditions all the time. (Animal rights)
How many people's health will be impacted?Waste repositoryThe burning of fossil fuels
No one'sThe air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels in general and coal in particular kills millions of people world-wide each year and makes far more people sick. It also kills animals and makes them sick. (Killer coal)
How much greenhouse gas will be released?Waste repositoryIn-situ coal gasification at Leigh Creek
NoneAt best thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide will be released when the flammable gasses generated by the partial burning of the Leigh Creek coal underground are burned, at worst carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane will leak into the atmosphere rather than being captured as intended. (See In-situ coal gasification for more information.)
How much bush will be cleared?Waste repositoryLoss of native bush in Australia
None? Minimal? "Three million hectares of Australian forest to be lost in 15 years". In 2018 Michael Slezak reported in The Guardian that Australia is in the midst of a full-blown land-clearing crisis. 'Global deforestation hotspot':
How much wildlife will be put at risk?Waste repositoryOil exploration and drilling in the Great Australian Bight
NoneWhales and other marine mammals are put at risk by the loud sonar blasting used in exploration. If there is an oil spill thousands of kilometres of coastal environment may be damaged with huge numbers of animals and plants at great risk.

I could go on, How much water is required? etcetera.

And on causes that conscientious people could spend their time on with far more justification than the repository there are the micro-plastics, pharmaceuticals, hormones etcetera that go into the environment, and the misuse of antibiotics in the raising of domestic animals.


Matt Canavan, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, is the responsible minister. There is no doubt that he is a despicable person, people don't trust him, but is this relevant?

There have been credible claims that the way the government has gone about selection of the site is illegal; again, is this relevant to the main question – does Australia need a single dedicated repository?

Logical fallacy

The slippery slope logically fallacious argument is one that is most often used against the low-medium level radioactive waste dump. It is summarised by "If we allow A to happen, then Z will eventually happen too, therefore A should not happen." In the present case it goes like this: If we allow a low-medium level repository then we will eventually get a high-level repository.

The same fallacious argument has been used against assisted dying. "If once you allow doctors to help people die peacefully and painlessly that will develop into doing away with grandma because she's a financial burden."

The Skeptic's field guide has a relevant page on the point.

Related pages

External sites...

Radioactive waste management, by Sophie Power, Science Technology Environment Resources, for the Australian Parliament. A summary of what it's all about.

Nuclear wastes in South Australia, 2000/08/11, by Dr Gerald Laurence, Radiation Safety Officer for Adelaide and Flinders Universities; Dr John Patterson, Associate Professor in Physics at Adelaide University; Dr John Prescott, Emeritus Professor in Physics at Adelaide University. All were in favour of a single waste repository for Australia's low-medium level radioactive waste.

ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation); "What we do"

On this site...

Delusions: we must take care to think things out rationally and unemotionally

Red herring environmentalism: it's important to pick your battles wisely

Science, Religion, Delusion

Why would you use nuclear power? I present arguments on why it makes no sense to do so when renewable energy is cheeper and safer.

Nuclear power stations as targets in war-time

Rationality, not a strong trait in humans