Nuclear dump back on NT table

Sean Parnell
The Australian

CONTROVERSIAL plans for a nuclear waste dump are back on the agenda, with the Abbott government commissioning a business case that would allow federal cabinet to consider the project next year and potentially have a facility built by 2019.  
Officials in the Department of Industry now have concept designs for a $150 million facility, prepared by experts from Spain's radioactive waste management agency, to be built at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory pending the outcome of a Federal Court challenge.  

Shortly after the federal Coalition took power, the department also alerted contractors and consultants that it needed a full analysis of options for the long-term management of radioactive waste -- including the alternatives of a ``do nothing'' approach, the expansion of existing facilities, and shipping waste overseas. The department said it was particularly interested in seeing evidence of capital and maintenance costs, funding sources, a cost-benefit analysis and, given the sensitivities around all nuclear issues, a thorough socio-political analysis.  

Australia has international obligations to safely and securely manage its radioactive waste, preferably on home soil, and the Senate last year passed legislation allowing the construction and operation of a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility on a site volunteered for the storage of domestic waste.  
But pushing ahead with those plans in the Coalition's first term could cause tensions with and within the Northern Territory government -- new Chief Minister Adam Giles has yet to fully articulate his position -- along with the Greens, some environmental organisations and indigenous groups. Labor also fractured on the potential use of Muckaty Station, with local MPs and incoming senator Nova Peris voicing their concerns while the former federal Labor government remained cautiously supportive, pending the outcome of the Federal Court case.  
Muckaty Station, 110km north of Tennant Creek, was chosen by the Howard government in 2007 after being volunteered by the Northern Land Council, in a deal that was estimated to deliver the NLC $11m, and the NT government an initial $10m plus about $2m a year from other governments once the facility was operational.
However, some indigenous people complained they were not consulted and took action in the Federal Court in a bid to block the project, even though the NLC has other potential sites available at Muckaty Station should this particular site be ruled out.  
The government expects to have an initial business case in April, after a period of consultation and fine-tuning by key agencies and stakeholders and ahead of the court hearings set down for June.  
The Australian has learned the department last week briefed the private sector on its request for the development of a business case -- which neither favours nor precludes the use of Muckaty Station -- and the prospect the nuclear waste dump could be constructed and managed under a public-private partnership.  
The private sector was told the concept plans delivered by the Spanish agency ENRESA involved a $150m, co-located low-level waste disposal and intermediate-level waste storage facility, which could be up and running by 2019.  
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane could not be contacted yesterday. If the government approves construction, it would likely reignite the debate over the use of nuclear power in Australia, particularly after the former Labor government expanded uranium mining and began negotiations for its export to India.  
While there had been rising support for the use of nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Mr Macfarlane said earlier this year it had dissipated and a Coalition government would not be proposing a nuclear power plant in its first term.

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