Last updated March 6, 2017 at 11:08 am
The year is 2050. The global population has reached 9.5 billion people and the world is energy-hungry. As a result, fossil fuels have been phased out and nuclear energy has taken its place. But what happens with the growing stockpile of nuclear waste? Well, in the year 2050, the Antarctic Treaty is up for grabs.
In this hypothetical situation, a multinational corporation has proposed an international repository for nuclear waste deep in the Australian sector of Antarctica. South Australia would be a middleman for this transaction, collecting the nuclear waste for shipping. But what would this really mean?
This was the hypothetical situation up for discussion this week at The Science Exchange. The panel featured four specialists in nuclear risk protection: Dr Marcus Grzechnik, Dr Roger Coates, Chuong Pham and Dr Sami Hautakangas.
The panel was asked to discuss each aspect of a nuclear waste stockpile depending on the roles they were assigned.
Dr Grzechnik was to represent the UN, and would argue in favour of the proposal. He said that a repository in Antarctica could isolate waste from people and the environment. In addition, he explained that the effects of war and terrorism are unlikely to affect Antarctica, making it a safe place to stockpile nuclear waste.
Dr Coates was recruited to discuss sovereign risk. He acknowledged there are many international treaties and safety guidelines to consider. Especially when something goes wrong – if the project fails, who is liable? Does the waste go back to the original country? He also mentioned that the nuclear safety regulatory body should be independent from the government and at the end of the day, confidence in delivery is the main goal!
Mr Pham was asked about sheer volume – how much waste are we talking here? He said in the U.S. alone in modern times, it’s close to 45,000 tonnes of spent fuel per year. The amount has almost doubled worldwide over the past 35 years, so in 2050 there would be a lot of waste to deal with!
Dr Hautakangas was asked to represent the interests of an environmental group. He was not at all convinced by the proposal, and said while Antarctica is less populated, there is still a wildlife population to think about. The risks surrounding transport and storage are too great and he was not at all convinced that a nuclear repository would be a reliable solution. Even though there have been no stockpile incidences so far, do we really want to be the first?
Following the discussion, the experts shed their hypothetical roles and took questions from the audience. If this situation were to arise in real life, Dr Grzechnik says it would be taken extremely seriously and analysed every step of the way. War, terrorism and even piracy would be considered when material is transported and stored. When environmental issues arise, they need to look at the robustness of the species and the potential impact of nuclear waste. Dr Grzechnik says that he would need to be absolutely convinced this was safe before he gives a project the ‘all-clear’.
What about indigenous populations and the issue of informed consent?
Mr Pham has worked over many years with indigenous populations when working in remote areas. He says the conversations can often stretch over 30 years and include consultation, building economies and establishing independent environmental groups. They even employ members of indigenous populations so they can understand the process, inside and out. This way, he can consult with groups that have informed themselves and make sure they are properly represented.
What about communication of the risks involved?
Dr Coates says to remember that nuclear waste storage is not the same as a live nuclear reactor. While there are still risks associated with nuclear waste storage, it is completely different to the risks associated with a live reactor.
Madeline Richardson, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Consultation and Response Agency, added that different types of radiation surround us all the time. The important thing to remember is that ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’ are very different, and this needs to be communicated better. There are so many factors at play when analysing nuclear safety, and these need to be understood in order to make an informed decision. Nothing is black and white!
The audience did not seem convinced that the hypothetical repository in Antarctica was the best idea. On the other hand, not many people voted against it either!
It seems like this is a tough decision… probably better left to the experts!
Meet the guests
Dr Marcus Grzechnik – Acting Director, Monitoring and Emergency Response Section, ARPANSA
Dr Grzechnik has worked in a variety of risk assessment roles, including environmental protection, emergency preparedness and radiological assessment. He has also been a member of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionising Radiation (UNSCEAR) and contributed to IAEA consultancies as an invited expert.
Dr Roger Coates, OBE – President of the International Radiation Protection Association, UK
Mr Coates has been involved in fields of radiation protection and nuclear safety at both national and international levels, as well as managing health, safety and environmental issues in the nuclear industry. In June 2016 he was awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for Services to Nuclear Safety and Radiological Protection at the Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebration.
Chuong Pham – Lead A&I Radiation, Health & Hygiene, Statutory Radiation Safety Officer (Uranium Governance) BHPB – Olympic Dam
Mr Pham has studied toxicology, nuclear science and technology. In the past, he has worked in radiation protection and as a radiation specialist. He currently works in risk, health and hygiene management, as well as managing radiation safety with BHP Billiton.
Dr Sami Hautakangas – Head of Spent Fuel and Disposal Services, Fortum Generation, Nuclear Services
Dr Hautakangas’ roles include site selection, and the technical viability of spent fuel disposal. In the past, he has worked in several areas including Management, Nuclear Waste Research and Development, and Department Head, Nuclear Waste and Technology. Dr Hautakangas’ work combines the scientific, technical and political roles in the disposal of fuel.
Thanks to guests of the ARPS (Australasian Radiation Protection Society) conference who took part.