Sophie Power, Science
Technology Environment Resources
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
consider’ this report.
The proposed facility would require changes to South
Australian legislation and permits and approvals under relevant Commonwealth
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.
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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