Radioactive waste management

Sophie Power, Science Technology Environment Resources

Key Issue
After a history of unsuccessful attempts to find a suitable site, the Commonwealth has now identified a possible new site in South Australia for a national radioactive waste management facility. A recent Royal Commission has proposed a separate waste facility, also in South Australia.

Radioactive waste in Australia

Australia’s radioactive waste is produced by the use of radioactive materials in scientific research and industrial, agricultural and medical applications. This includes the operation of the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Sydney.

Radioactive waste is classified into categories —including low, intermediate and high— based on how much radiation it emits and for how long. Low-level waste contains small amounts of radioactivity and generally requires minimal shielding during handling, transport and storage. Intermediate-level waste emits higher levels of radiation and requires additional shielding.

Australia produces mostly low-level waste (laboratory items such as paper, plastic, gloves and filters) and some intermediate radioactive waste (for example, from the production of nuclear medicines). Australia does not produce any radioactive waste classified as high-level.

Some of Australia’s waste comes from the former High Flux Research Reactor (HIFAR)  at Lucas Heights in Sydney. HIFAR operated for around 50 years but was retired in January 2007 and replaced by the OPAL reactor. During its life, HIFAR supplied millions of doses of nuclear medicine and provided neutron beams to study the structure of materials. In the 1990s, the Australian and French Governments entered into agreements for France to reprocess HIFAR’s spent nuclear fuel. Reprocessing removed residual uranium and plutonium and made the waste safer to manage. This reprocessed spent fuel was returned to Australia at the end of 2015. This waste is now being temporarily stored by ANSTO at Lucas Heights until a national facility is completed.

Australia has accumulated almost 5,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste (around the volume of two Olympic size swimming pools). This does not include uranium mining wastes, which are disposed of at mine sites.

Australia does not have a central facility for the storage or disposal of radioactive waste,  which is currently held at more than 100 locations around Australia. Many organisations are using storage areas that were not designed for long term storage of radioactive waste. For example, under international safety standards, long term waste management facilities should be in geologically stable areas with low population density and not prone to flooding.

Past attempts to site a national waste repository, including near Woomera in South Australia and Muckaty in the Northern Territory, were unsuccessful, due to community concern, and resistance from state governments and affected local and Indigenous communities. This time, however, site selection has been underpinned by a voluntary nomination process.

Proposed national facility

The process for selecting and establishing the Commonwealth’s national radioactive waste management facility is set out in the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 (Cth) (NRWM Act). The proposed facility will be for long-term disposal and storage of Australian’s radioactive waste. Under the Act, any new site for such a facility must be voluntarily nominated.

The current process began in May 2015, when 28 sites were nominated by landholders around Australia. These sites were evaluated against technical, economic, social and environmental criteria. Six sites were then shortlisted. Public consultation on those sites closed in March 2016.

On 29 April 2016, the Commonwealth announced it had identified a possible site in Barndioota, South Australia. This site has already proved to be controversial. A $2 million ‘Community Benefit Package’ was also announced to provide grants for projects in communities in and around Barndioota. Further community consultation will now occur along with more detailed site studies. The Government has stated that ‘agreement with the community on hosting the facility is essential’ and it ‘will not impose the facility on an unwilling community, noting no individual or group has a right of veto’.

The facility is scheduled to be in operation by 2020 and will require licences and approvals under other Commonwealth legislation, such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998. Australia’s regulatory framework for nuclear activities is based on standards and obligations under a number of international conventions. This includes, for example, the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

South Australian Royal Commission

In May 2016, the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission released its final report. One of its 12 recommendations was that the South Australian Government ‘establish used nuclear fuel and intermediate level waste storage and disposal facilities in South Australia’. The Commonwealth has committed to ‘seriously consider’ this report.

The proposed facility would require changes to South Australian legislation and permits and approvals under relevant Commonwealth legislation.

Although both proposed facilities may be located in South Australia, they are separate. A key difference is that the Commission’s proposed facility would manage also international used nuclear fuel and waste. In contrast, the NRWM Act does not allow the storage of foreign-generated or high-level radioactive waste at Commonwealth facilities.

Further reading

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO), Management of Radioactive Waste in Australia, January 2011

M James, A Rann and I Holland, ‘Radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel management in Australia’, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 21 July 2011

Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (South Australia), South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Final Report, May 2016


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