The federal government is trying to persuade regional communities in South Australia to host a national radioactive waste facility - an underground burial repository for lower-level radioactive wastes and an above-ground 'interim' store for long-lived intermediate-level waste. One site under consideration is near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges, and two other sites under consideration are on farming land near Kimba at the top of the Eyre Peninsula.
The government is promising 45 jobs, three times its earlier claim that there would be 15 jobs at the proposed facility. The compensation package on offer has also tripled and now stands at $31 million.
Forty-five jobs would be welcome in small regional communities. But is it plausible that 45 jobs would be created? When the Howard government was attempting to establish a radioactive waste repository in SA from 1998 - 2004, the government said there would be zero jobs - not even any security guards. The government-commissioned PR company Michels Warren said: "The National Repository could never be sold as "good news" to South Australians. There are few, if any, tangible benefits such as jobs, investment or improved infrastructure."
From 2005 to 2014, Coalition and Labor governments targeted sites in the Northern Territory for a radioactive waste repository and said there would be just six jobs, all of them security guards.
Last year, with SA once again in the firing line, the government said: "At least 15 full-time equivalent jobs will be needed to operate the facility. These will be in site management, administration, security, environmental monitoring, site and building maintenance as well as receiving and packaging waste materials."
Recently, the jobs estimate was upped to 45, with the government saying: "In addition to the 15 operational jobs already confirmed, the structure now includes roles for community liaison, management, tourism, environmental monitoring, security, health and safety: a total of 45 staff."
This is the breakdownof the 45 jobs:
14 - security and safeguards
13 - waste operations and technicians
8 - site management and community outreach
5 - environmental protection and quality control
5 - safety and radiation protection
That estimate comes with caveats: "the final workforce design and structure will be based on a number of factors including advice from security agencies, the views of the independent regulator and the details of the final business case, with inputs from across government."
Is the estimate of 45 jobs credible? Not if overseas radioactive waste facilities are any guide.
The Centre de Stockage de l'Aube (CSA) radioactive waste facility in France handles over 200 times more waste per year compared to the proposed facility in SA yet it employs only four times as many staff as the proposed facility in SA. CSA processes 73 cubic metres (m3) per employee per year (13,164 m3 / 180 staff).
The El Cabril radioactive waste facility in Spain has a staff of 137 people and processed an average of 1,395 m3 per year from 1993 to 2016. That equates to 10.2 m3 per employee per year.
Yet the Australian government estimates a workforce of 45 people to process 45 m3 per year: 1 m3 per employee per year compared to 10.2 in Spain and 73 in France. The government evidently has a dim view of the productivity of Australian workers, or, more likely, its jobs estimate is grossly inflated.
Will the government pay staff to do nothing?
Measuring jobs-per-employee doesn't account for some jobs required whether a facility processes 1 m3 or 1 million m3 per year: administration, security and so on. As a government official stated: "There are a base number of jobs related to the management of the waste which are not linear with volume and a number of jobs that would scale with larger volumes."
Nevertheless, productivity at the proposed Australian facility would be dramatically lower than comparable facilities overseas.
If we assume that Australia matched the lowest of the figures given above - 10.2 m3 per employee per year at El Cabril in Spain - then the staff at an Australian facility would be processing waste for just one month each year and they'd have 11 months to play ping-pong.
The current government might be willing to pay 45 staff to play ping-pong for 11 months each year, but it's not a sustainable situation. The Department of Finance wouldn't tolerate it. If staff at the waste facility are paid by the federal government to do nothing for most of the time, what sort of a precedent does that set, and why shouldn't the rest of us be paid to do nothing for 11 months out of 12 at a cost to taxpayers of several million dollars each year?
Almost certainly, staffing would be dramatically culled. Almost certainly, a future government would revert to the plan pursued by previous governments: keeping the waste facility closed most of the time, and opening it occasionally for waste disposal and storage. In the jargon, this is called a campaign-based approach with occasional waste disposal 'campaigns'.
Previous governments said that waste would be sent to the facility just once every 3 - 5 years. For example, the government said in 2003 that waste would be transferred to the facility just once every five years: "It is considered for planning purposes that an average period of 5 years between campaigns will be appropriate" (Volume III of DEST application to ARPANSA, Ch.9, 'Waste - Transfer and Documentation', p.5).
In a recent attack on me for questioning its estimate of 45 jobs, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science said it was unable to locate any previous government documents regarding periodic, campaign-based plans. The federal government can't find federal government documents? Seriously?
The government says that it wants continuous operation of the repository (for reasons unexplained) rather than a periodic, campaign-based approach. But even so, the government only plans to shift waste to the facility once or twice each year according to a 2016 document. A July 2018 government document states: "This facility will be an operational facility and not as some have suggested, a minimally crewed warehouse to be opened once or twice a year." But it is the government itself which says that waste will only be transported to the facility once or twice each year!
Broader economic impacts
The government is promising a $31 million compensation package for the community around the chosen site for the waste facility. The government is preying on people's worst instincts, asking them to put their own short-term interests ahead of the interests of future generations. The compensation amounts to a little over $100,000 each year over the 300-year lifespan of the waste facility. That amount of money would impact on the life of an individual or a family - but it will do next to nothing to improve a regional community.
And of course the funding won't be spread evenly over 300 years - it will likely be gone within a decade and future generations will see none of it.
The $31 million includes "up to $3 million for indigenous skills training and cultural heritage protection." As the Australia Institute notes in a recent report, that sum is not much greater than the amount of money cut from the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council in Port Augusta earlier this year, and it is negligible compared to cuts in recent years such as the May 2017 cut of $147 million over four years from Indigenous Business Australia, or the May 2014 cut of $534 million over four years from indigenous programs.
The Australia Institute also questions construction cost estimates: "An earlier announcement had the construction cost at $100 million, with a workforce of 15 people. A year later both the construction cost and workforce have tripled - to $325 million and 45 people - without any change in the basic scope of the project."
As with the job estimates, the estimated construction cost is wildly divergent when compared to overseas facilities. The Australia Institute report states::
Canada is planning a radioactive waste storage facility at Chalk River, Ontario, that is orders of magnitude bigger ... The proposed Canadian facility is more than one hundred times larger, more complex with its underground storage and ancillary facilities, yet its planned construction cost is just CAD$215 million (AUD$222 million), with a CAD$5.5 million operating cost (AUD$5.7 million). ...
The economic puzzle here is how a facility one hundred times smaller, with fewer ancillary functions, costs 50% more to construct and operate? Either these costs are orders of magnitude too high, or the proposed radioactive waste storage facility is orders of magnitude larger than required to handle Australia current and foreseeable future radioactive waste over the next century."
It's entirely plausible that 45 jobs will be maintained while the backlog of approximately 6,700 m3 of radioactive waste is transported to one of the proposed sites in SA and processed. Beyond that, it is entirely implausible.