Radioactive waste comes under spotlight as Coalition moves to embrace nuclear future (2024)

Regardless of whether the Coalition's nuclear vision comes to fruition, the clock is already ticking on plans to deal with nuclear waste.

Australia currently produces a relatively small amount of radioactive waste due to its limited nuclear industry, with just one reactor used for research and medical purposes, located at Lucas Heights in Sydney.

Low-level waste in the form of medical equipment, clothing and face masks is stored at around 100 locations despite plans for decades to build one centralised facility.

"While Australia has no nuclear power producing electricity, it does have well-developed usage of radioisotopes in medicine, research and industry," a spokesperson for nuclear industry organisation the World Nuclear Association said.

"Each year Australia produces about 45 cubic metres of radioactive waste arising from these uses and from the manufacture of the isotopes."

This amounts to about 40 square metres of low-level waste and 5 square metres of intermediate waste, while the UK and France by comparison each produce about 25,000 cubic metres of low-level waste annually.

But of greater concern is the intermediate and high-level waste that will be produced by the seven nuclear reactors the Coalition plans to get up and running in Australia by 2050.

Radioactive waste comes under spotlight as Coalition moves to embrace nuclear future (1)

Peter Dutton in announcing the Coalition's nuclear plan this week used a previously heard line that one standard-sized reactor produces just a handful of nuclear waste each year.

"If you look at a 450 megawatt reactor, it produces waste equivalent to the size of a can of co*ke each year," Mr Dutton said.

"It's stored on site under our proposal, and then at the end of the life of that asset, it's moved to a permanent home.

"Our argument is that should be where the government decides for the waste from the submarines to be stored."

Radioactive waste comes under spotlight as Coalition moves to embrace nuclear future (2)

Simon Holmes a Court is well known for his role as convenor of Climate 200 and the crowdfunded initiative's successful funding of so-called "Teal" candidates at the last federal election, but he is also a director of the Smart Energy Council and The Superpower Institute dedicated to decarbonising the economy.

He said the co*ke can comment greatly underestimates the amount reactors generate.

"Even the small modular reactors would be 2,000 times as much, and that is just high-level radioactive waste alone," he said.

"It is a lot more than he says but we do have a problem in Australia.

"We have tried for 20 years or more to build a low-level radioactive waste facility and it keeps meeting all sorts of opposition."

He is referring to the creation of a national nuclear storage facility that got to the point of a government purchase of a 221-hectare property near the town of Kimba, west of Whyalla in South Australia, but this was scuttled in July last year when traditional owners took the matter to court and won.

The Barngarla people have a sacred site for women near Kimba which they feared the facility would destroy, and this effectively stopped it.

The waste storage site will be needed for waste from the AUKUS submarines regardless of the Coalition's nuclear energy plans.

The AUKUS deal is bipartisan, so any change of government is unlikely to scuttle it.

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Griffith University emeritus professor and energy specialist Ian Lowe told The Conversation that Australia will have to manage high-level radioactive waste when the submarines are decommissioned in 30 years time.

"So, when our first three subs are at the end of their lives – which, according to Defence Minister Richard Marles, will be in about 30 years time – we will have 600 kilograms of so-called 'spent fuel' and potentially tonnes of irradiated material from the reactor and its protective walls," he said.

"Because the fuel is weapons-grade material, it will need military-scale security," he said.

"This waste needs to be permanently isolated from ecosystems and human society, given it will take tens of thousands of years for the radiation to decay to safe levels."

Currently Australia's intermediate level nuclear waste generated at the Lucas Height reactor is taken overseas for processing then returned to Australia for storage.

Radioactive waste comes under spotlight as Coalition moves to embrace nuclear future (4)

Remaining unused uranium is removed from the fuel rods with the leftover radioactive waste broken up and mixed with molten glass, then solidified in steel canisters.

The last time this happened, in March 2022, it involved a shipment of radioactive waste brought back to Lucas Heights via a high security operation at Port Kembla in Wollongong.

"Four of those canisters, each containing 500 kilograms of vitrified waste that is radiologically equivalent to 114 rods sent to the UK in a shipment in 1996, were received back from the UK," according to a statement from Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

It was logistically a major operation carried out in relative secrecy in the middle of the night with confirmation only occurring afterwards.

Such shipments only tend to occur about once every 10 years, but this all could start to change if and when Australia moves towards embracing a larger role for nuclear.

Want to know more about the nuclear power announcement? Send us your questions and we'll try to answer them as part of our coverage.

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Radioactive waste comes under spotlight as Coalition moves to embrace nuclear future (2024)
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