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Officials sound alarm after nation risks becoming 'world's nuclear waste dump': 'The government has left the door open'

"We can't risk our future generations with this."

"We can't risk our future generations with this."

Photo Credit: iStock

Australian politicians are working toward closing a loophole in proposed legislation so the Land Down Under can't become a dumping ground for high-level nuclear waste.

What's happening?

The statute details the handling of nuclear submarines from the Australia-United Kingdom-United States, or AUKUS, partnership, The Guardian reported. The waste from these warships must be managed, stored, and disposed of, though the Australian Senate's foreign affairs, defense, and trade legislation committee said the wording of the bill conflicted with a government commitment to not accept high-level nuclear waste.

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

The law "should be setting off alarm bells" because "it could mean that Australia becomes the world's nuclear waste dump," Sen. Lidia Thorpe said.

Why is nuclear waste important?

Nuclear waste is a byproduct of nuclear energy, a low-carbon source of energy that is more widely used in the U.S. than any other energy source except petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

Nuclear energy is touted as part of the solution to rising global temperatures. However, the construction of nuclear power plants — as well as the mining and refining of uranium ore — pollutes the environment and is much more expensive than solar or wind energy, the cheapest forms of carbon-free power.

Perhaps even more concerning is the radioactive waste, produced when fuel assemblies exhaust their usefulness after about five years. There is not much of it, but the radioactivity of one fuel assembly is still 20 times greater than a fatal dose even 10 years after it's removed from a reactor.

Storing the waste in pools and dry casks is considered safe in the short term, but long-term solutions that ensure its containment for thousands of years are necessary.

"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."

What's being done about the bill?

While Thorpe and others work to tweak the language of the legislation, at least one other official said that won't be enough.

Sen. David Shoebridge noted the safety-regulator position outlined in the law lacks independence since the regulator would report to the defense minister. Shoebridge also said the plan was "recklessly indifferent to community or First Nations interests," and that the secrecy of the project threatens the environment and public interest, per The Guardian.

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