This Chapter reviews the Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic Concerning the Reprocessing in France of Australian Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Elements (the Agreement). The treaty action was signed in Canberra on 23 November 2017 and tabled in the Parliament on 29 November 2017.
The Agreement is necessary to satisfy the requirements of French domestic law before reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) research reactor can be undertaken in France. Evidence to the Committee suggests that there is broader concern over the merits of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and the long term storage of nuclear waste in Australia. In addition to its regular practice, the Committee conducted a site inspection of the OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney in order to familiarise itself in greater detail with the current arrangements for the storage of radioactive waste and matters raised about the issue more generally.
The Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) research reactor
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has operated the OPAL research reactor since 2006. According to the National Interest Analysis (NIA), through the OPAL reactor, ANSTO provides critical health, scientific and economic capabilities to the Australian public. Such capacity includes the provision of over 10 000 doses of nuclear medicine per week as well as production and export of neutron transmutation-doped silicon for use in high-end electronic equipment. It also includes nuclear science capabilities that are used to conduct cutting-edge research in fields as diverse as materials science, environmental and climate change research, food and agriculture, industrial applications and human health. The reactor produces a small amount of spent nuclear fuel, which requires safe management.
ANSTO elaborated on the work being conducted at OPAL, explaining that it exports nuclear medicines to a number of countries and stating that, on average, ‘one in two Australians will require a nuclear medicine produced at ANSTO during their lifetime’. Plans are in hand to increase production of nuclear medicine to meet increased demand worldwide and secure domestic supply:
The most widely used nuclear medicine manufactured at ANSTO is molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), the decay product of which, technetium-99m, is used in over 80 per cent of all nuclear medicine procedures globally. ANSTO is currently in the process of commissioning the new ANSTO Nuclear Medicine (ANM) Facility, which will increase the amount of Mo-99 the organisation is able to produce. This will ensure ongoing secure domestic supply, in addition to meeting up to 25 per cent of global needs; this could see Mo-99 produced at ANSTO benefitting over 10 million patients every year.
ANSTO also conducts environmental research using ‘highly sensitive, state of the art isotope instruments to study how environmental systems function and interact’. ANSTO provided the following examples of the type of environmental issues this research is aimed at addressing:
Water resource sustainability–the Isotopes for Water project applies isotopic and nuclear techniques to effectively manage groundwater and rivers, and freshwater ecosystems. A key focus of the project is groundwater recharge rates, which can be used to plan for sustainable use of this finite resource. ANSTO researchers recently partnered with the Government of Western Australia as part of this project.
Air pollution–ANSTO has been tracking and publishing data on fine particle pollution from key sites around Australia, and internationally, for more than 20 years. This pollution, originating from both man-made (trucks, coal-fired power stations and cars) and naturally-occurring (sea spray and wind-blown soil) sources, can have damaging effects on human health and contribute to climate change. The results from [ANSTO’s] analysis of the samples collected by ANSTO are utilised by local councils, state environmental agencies, industry groups and Australian universities, [to] inform mitigation strategies.
Positive support for the work carried out at the OPAL reactor came from a range of submitters. The radioactive compounds produced at the reactor play an important role in the production of radiopharmaceuticals and a reliable domestic source of these products in Australia is considered essential. The training and employment opportunities offered by the continuing operation of the reactor are seen as crucial to the ongoing development of Australia’s nuclear industry:
As a result of the wide variety of services and research enabled through the use of the OPAL reactor, it is a critical component in facilitating work for young professionals in diverse careers such as engineering services, mining and mineral processing, research, nuclear medicine and numerous other scientific and enabling services. The ongoing operation of OPAL will ensure that there are continuous opportunities for young professionals seeking careers and professional development in the nuclear industry.
Nuclear waste holdings
In a submission to the Committee, ANSTO identified two levels of waste generated by the OPAL Research Reactor:
Ninety-two per cent of the waste generated by and stored at ANSTO is classified as Low-Level Waste (LLW) and is generally made up of paper, plastic, gloves, clothes and filters which contain small levels of radioactivity. This waste is shredded and compressed into 200 litre drums and radioactivity is monitored using a scanning system.
The remaining eight per cent of waste is classed as Intermediate-Level Waste (ILW) and is generated by ANSTO’s radiopharmaceutical production and reactor operations.
This Agreement is dealing with the latter produced from the approximately 30 spent nuclear fuel assemblies created per year by the OPAL reactor. The NIA states that this spent nuclear fuel is managed by initially storing it for a period of some years in the OPAL service pool for cooling before being sent for reprocessing.
Reprocessing is the practice by which spent fuel assemblies are dissolved to separate unfissioned uranium and the small amounts of plutonium produced during the operation of the reactor from the fission products. The unfissioned uranium and plutonium are typically reused in new, fresh fuel for power or research reactors, and the fission products are treated as waste. The vitrified residue will be returned for storage, reducing the volume of waste:
What comes back is a waste form which has got the extracted material that is radioactive that cannot be reused. That is vitrified in a glass, so it is distributed finely in the glass. Those glass packages are within a stainless steel container. The stainless containers are in a bigger cask, and that is returned in a shipment–there will be two in the course of the agreement–to Australia. That reduces the volume of the waste. The spent fuel has a bigger volume than the volume of the waste, so you get about one-quarter of the total volume of waste.
Some countries choose to directly dispose of spent nuclear fuel from power reactors in geologic repositories. However the NIA claims that spent nuclear fuel produced from research reactors such as that produced by Australia is not suitable for storage given its chemistry. Therefore the NIA advises that reprocessing is considered the most efficient, most economic and safest option for this type of spent nuclear fuel. The Nuclear engineering research group from the University of New South Wales, supports this view:
The silicide-based chemistry of the OPAL reactor fuel, which is distinctly different from that of commercial power reactors, makes it less suitable for indefinite storage. Thus, there is no clear alternative to reprocessing the used fuel.
ANSTO claims that reprocessing is considered best practice:
Reprocessing is widely acknowledged as international best practice in this regard, as it allows the unspent nuclear material to be reused in new fuel, significantly reduces the volume of resultant radioactive waste and encapsulates the waste in a safe form. Specifically for OPAL we anticipate that reprocessing will result in less than nine cubic metres of intermediate-level waste over the course of its 40-year lifespan.
However, the Committee heard that there is debate over the merits of reprocessing versus direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The Committee was told that worldwide reprocessing services are in decline and, contrary to ANSTO’s claims, the process is not considered international best practice due to economic, environmental and security concerns. France is currently the only country operating a commercial-scale reprocessing plant. The United Kingdom (UK) which provided reprocessing services for Australia for the waste from High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) is expected to end its reprocessing program by 2020. There is concern that this could present a risk for the Agreement if the political or commercial environment changes in France.
Reasons to undertake proposed treaty action
The NIA explains that under French domestic law, an Intergovernmental Agreement is mandatory before any spent nuclear fuel is allowed to enter French territory. French domestic law requires that the agreement state that radioactive waste arising from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in France will not be stored in France past an agreed date. The NIA advises that the Agreement would meet these requirements, thus enabling the sending of spent nuclear fuel from OPAL to France and its reprocessing in France.
The reprocessing of the used nuclear fuel from OPAL will guarantee the ongoing operation of the reactor. If the fuel is not reprocessed the reactor may be forced to shut down:
If the fuel is not reprocessed, the storage ponds for used fuel may reach their limit and the reactor will be forced to shut down prematurely due to licensing restrictions.
The NIA advises that the Australian Government has chosen the French company Areva NC to reprocess the spent nuclear fuel from the OPAL reactor. The Committee questioned whether an Australian company could provide this service and were told that no Australian company has the capacity or access to the necessary technology to reprocess waste nuclear fuel.
Globally, there are only a few companies that provide reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The NIA claims that of these companies, Areva NC offers the most reliable, most economic and safest option. Areva NC has a long history of safely reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from both the extensive French nuclear power program as well as that from power plants and research reactors in many other countries. They reprocessed much of the fuel from Australia’s first research reactor, the HIFAR, with the resultant waste safely returned to Australia in 2015. France also manufactures fresh fuel for the OPAL reactor, so they are most familiar with its technical requirements. The French safety regulator has recently approved a reprocessing process for the modern silicide-based fuel that OPAL uses. Australia also has long-standing Nuclear Cooperation Agreements with France and with Euratom to ensure that any nuclear material arising from reprocessing will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes (that is, use in fresh fuel produced by Areva NC). For these reasons, as part of the 2016 budget process, the NIA advises that the Australian Government endorsed ANSTO’s 2016 proposal to enter into a contract with Areva NC for the reprocessing of spent fuel from OPAL. This contract is expected to cover reprocessing of spent fuel over the life of OPAL’s operation.
Long term storage of intermediate-level waste
Concerns were raised regarding the final disposal pathway for ILW. ANSTO told the Committee that many countries do not have a final disposal pathway:
Many countries don’t [have a final disposal pathway] for intermediate-level waste. It’s expected that technological solutions from underground final storage to directional drilling technologies and other things will be used for intermediate-level waste in the future, but we have taken the approach that the final disposal pathway should be one where we work with other countries as they develop them.
Currently, the returned ILW from HIFAR is stored at Lucas Heights in Sydney. However, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), has made it clear that this is an interim measure designed only to accommodate the waste from HIFAR. Under the existing licence for this storage facility, ANSTO is required to review the safety of the facility every 10 years and to ‘submit a plan, by no later than June 2020, for removal of the waste stored in the facility’. The existing licence does not cover the returned ILW from the OPAL reactor.
According to ARPANSA, the intention is to store the returned waste from OPAL in the proposed National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF). The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (IIS) is responsible for establishing a final disposal pathway for all of Australia’s ILW under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012. Asked about the progress of the establishment of the NRWMF, ANSTO explained that IIS is in the process of identifying suitable sites for the facility:
There are a number of interested parties in South Australia, and they are currently going through a process of evaluation of the sites. There’s also a newer site, which is not yet under evaluation but in the earlier phase of public consultation. Assuming that all of those sites proceed, they will proceed through an evaluation phase. The evaluation phase allows a down selection of the most appropriate site from a geological and other point of view of developing the engineering case.
The Committee queried, given previous delays, what options were available if the NRWMF was not operational by the time that the ILW from OPAL is returned to Australia. ANSTO sees no risk to the Agreement. It is satisfied that the interim storage arrangements in place for the ILW from HIFAR would be suitable for the waste from OPAL if necessary:
The important part of the option is that there are defined periods for return in the agreement. If there is no facility it does not affect the ultimate structure of the agreement, so the agreement does not inhibit returning the reprocessed residues back. Should there be no political consensus over the full period out to 2040, interim storage would be the logical thing to continue. However, I’m pretty optimistic that the processes that are in train and the type of approach that’s been taken could yield a committed site. I note also that the sites currently are in South Australia, but there have been other interested parties previously. I think that the structure of the agreements–the approach taken–is very good.
It was suggested that the existing interim arrangements could be continued indefinitely for the ILW from both HIFAR and OPAL, without risk. However, ANSTO stressed that any decision on interim storage to cover a delay in the establishment of the NRWMF would be in the hands of the regulator, ARPANSA. ARPANSA reiterated that the intention for future storage of the reprocessed waste from the OPAL reactor was the proposed NRWMF.
The NIA states that broadly the obligations under the Agreement are that France agrees to accept spent nuclear fuel from Australia for the purpose of reprocessing between entry into force of the Agreement and 31 December 2030, and Australia agrees to accept the return of radioactive waste arising from that reprocessing.
The preamble refers to legal frameworks relevant to the Agreement, including the French Environment Code which requires an Intergovernmental Agreement between France and Australia to enter into force before spent nuclear fuel can be shipped to France, the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement between Australia and France, the Agreement between the Government of Australia and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) for Co-operation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, to which both Australia and France are States Parties.
Article 1 refers to a number of related documents that are relevant to the Agreement, including:
a contract agreed between ANSTO and Areva NC concerning the reprocessing of 3.6 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from the OPAL research reactor (the Contract);
an agreement between ANSTO and Areva NC regarding transfer of title of uranium and plutonium from any reprocessing conducted by Areva NC; and
relevant laws enacted by either Australia or France in accordance with its constitutional arrangements.
Articles 2 and 3 state the purpose and scope of the Agreement. Article 3 notes that the Agreement will be carried out in accordance with provisions of the French Environment Code and that spent fuel will enter France only for the purposes of reprocessing and radioactive waste arising from reprocessing of Australian spent nuclear fuel will not be stored in France.
Articles 4 and 5 of the Agreement prescribe the timing of the shipment of spent nuclear fuel to France and that of the shipment of the waste arising from the reprocessing operation. The former is to occur between the date of entry into force of the Agreement and 31 December 2030. The latter is to occur between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2034.
Pursuant to Article 6, Australia agrees to accept the return of radioactive waste resulting from the reprocessing of Australian spent nuclear fuel. Both Parties are obliged to use their best efforts to minimise the number of shipping operations required for the return of radioactive waste under the Agreement. Pursuant to Article 6(3), the final date for Australia to accept return of the resultant radioactive waste will be 31 December 2035 unless an extension to the Contract is signed by 31 December 2028 (in which case return of radioactive waste to Australia must occur by 31 December 2040).
Article 7 obliges both Parties to adopt such measures as may be reasonably necessary and within their competence to enable the provisions of the Agreement to be implemented. Article 7(3) provides that Australia shall ensure compliance with time limits in relation to the authorisation procedures, permits and licences required for the shipment of radioactive waste to a storage or warehousing facility in Australia. Pursuant to Article 7(4), Australia will be responsible for safe storage of radioactive waste arising from the reprocessing.
Article 8 requires both Parties to carry out the transport of the radioactive waste in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.
Article 9 pertains to the management of transferred spent fuel and the uranium and plutonium that is extracted from the spent nuclear fuel during reprocessing. This material will be governed by the Contract and the agreement between ANSTO and Areva NC. In addition, this material shall be treated in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations and with Nuclear Cooperation Agreements between both Australia and France, and Australia and Euratom.
Article 10 sets out the procedure for the resolution of disputes arising under the Agreement. Should a dispute arise the Parties shall consult one another with a view to settling the dispute speedily through negotiation, mediation, conciliation or any other peaceful means.
According to the NIA, no new legislation or regulation is required to implement the Agreement. The relevant existing legislation includes the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987.
The NIA claims that the Agreement will not place additional financial costs on Australia. It states further that costs associated with shipment of spent nuclear fuel to France and its return to Australia are a normal operating cost for operating a research reactor and would be required with or without the Agreement.
However, submissions to the inquiry claim that an option to dispose of the waste from OPAL in the United States of America (USA) could have provided a cheaper alternative for ANSTO:
These wastes were [to] be retained in the US without any associated return of equivalent wastes to Australia and the financial cost involved was only for the one-way shipment to the US–significantly less than the now additional cost in reprocessing and in required in-perpetuity management and final disposal of this first decade of OPAL reactor produced nuclear fuel wastes in Australia.
It was also suggested that ANSTO had not given due attention to contingencies that may arise if this Agreement is jeopardised and alternative arrangements for the storage and/or disposal of the waste from the OPAL reactor need to be considered. These alternative arrangements could entail considerable extra costs.
The NIA expects no additional costs from storage of radioactive waste returned from France, as it is anticipated that the material would be stored at the facility to be established under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012.
Concerns were raised that this expectation may be over-optimistic considering the difficulties already faced in establishing the NRWMF.
The Committee acknowledges the important work being undertaken at the OPAL research reactor and its contribution to a range of diverse fields, including its critical role in nuclear medicine. It appears essential to guarantee the ongoing operation of the reactor and avoid any threat of it being shut down prematurely.
The Committee accepts that reprocessing the spent fuel from the OPAL reactor is the best option currently available to ANSTO and that the arrangement with France will provide certainty in the foreseeable future.
While the Committee is satisfied with the safety of the current arrangements for the interim storage of the returned reprocessed ILW from HIFAR at Lucas Heights, it urges the Government to expedite the establishment of the NRWMF to alleviate the uncertainty over a final pathway for disposal of the nuclear waste. The Committee is aware of the growing stockpile of radioactive waste across Australia, not only from the ANSTO facility but from other government agencies, such as CSIRO, and other commercial facilities. Although the need for the NRWMF may not appear pressing at the moment, there is some urgency considering the past difficulties this project has encountered and possible future delays.
The Committee supports the Agreement and recommends that binding treaty action be taken.
The Committee supports the Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic Concerning the Reprocessing in France of Australian Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Elements, and recommends that binding treaty action be taken.