Designers wanted for radioactive dump

By Julian Bajkowski

The federal government has wasted no time in pushing ahead with its plans to build a highly controversial radioactive waste dump in Australia, issuing a tender for a consultant to design the new facility.
The Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism (DRET) has asked for bids to provide a report that sets out how “a facility comprised of a co-located low level waste repository and intermediate level waste store to effectively manage Australia’s current and projected waste inventory” would operate, including material that could be used to showcase the tip to the public.
The request for a design brief for a radioactive dump quickly follows the creation of the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 that came into effect on 4th April and is intended to enable a dump to be built on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory at Muckaty, 120 km north of Tennant Creek.
However environmentalists and traditional owners have challenged the validity of the new law in the Federal Court in an attempt to prevent the Federal government from building the radioactive rubbish tip. A trial is anticipated in the first half of 2013.
The dump design tender documents issued by DRET say that “the preferred concept will be appropriate for a site in arid to semi-arid areas of Australia.”
“It must provide for a high degree of isolation of radioactive waste from the environment, especially groundwater. The preferred conceptual design will be the basis of designs submitted in applications for regulatory approval of the selected National Facility site.”
An enduring problem for successive federal governments in choosing a location for a radioactive waste dump has been the largely impossible task of obtaining community, local or state and territory support for such a facility.
In an effort to break the deadlock, Canberra included highly-contentious provisions in the new act that effectively seek to bypass legal obstacles that can be thrown up by local governments.
The Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism argues that the legislation allows for the creation of a waste facility on the basis that it “establishes a legislative framework for siting a facility on volunteered land.”
The framework does this through two nomination processes. Firstly, it  “allows for a Land Council in the Northern Territory to volunteer Aboriginal land on behalf of its Traditional Owners,” according to an explanation published on DRET’s website.
“If, for any reason, a facility cannot be sited on Aboriginal land nominated by a Land Council in the Northern Territory, a nation-wide volunteer process for siting a facility will be initiated.”
But the forthcoming Federal Court case is not the only challenge that Canberra faces in trying to make a national radioactive waste dump a reality.
The request from DRET for a dump design brief has awkwardly been issued at the commencement of election campaigning in the Northern Territory where such an idea is certain to be treated as electorally toxic by all sides of politics in the run-up to what is expected to be a tight result that is still too close to call.
Whatever the Territory election result, one certainty is that the pressure on the federal government to find a home for Australia’s growing radioactive waste pile will mount as domestic volumes increase.
The stated purpose of the new radioactive tip is to centralise waste stored across what the government says are hundreds of different sites in Australia – many of which were not built to store radioactive material. Canberra says by doing this, security and safety are improved and the risk of accidental loss or exposure is reduced.
For tenderers, winning the design brief deal for the radioactive waste dump – which DRET says is worth up to $500,000 – is literally a once in a century opportunity.
“The facilities will be designed to accommodate waste for at least 100 years,”  the statement of requirements in DRET’s tender documents say, adding that a “low level waste facility would have the capacity to accept up to 10,000 cubic metres of waste” while a facility for “intermediate” grade waste  “generated by State, Territory and Commonwealth departments and agencies”  is estimated to be around 1500 cubic metres.
The closing date for lodgement of tenders is 11th September, 2012.

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