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ANSTO's radioactive waste management

By Anica Niepraschk - posted Friday, 3 July 2015

ANSTO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, through its nuclear science, industry and medical operations at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney is the largest producer of radioactive waste in Australia.

Since 1959 Lucas Heights is producing ever growing amounts of low and intermediate level waste which it stores on site in designated facilities. The most recent addition to ANSTO's waste facilities is an newly built hangar for reprocessed fuel, which has to return from France until the end of the year.

Although the construction of a reprocessing plant is currently discussed by the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Australia so far has no capacity to reprocess the highly radioactive contents of ANSTO's nuclear fuel rods. They are therefore sent overseas for reprocessing. Agreements with France and the UK provide for the resulting intermediate level waste to be returned to Australia, with the French shipping due to arrive in Australia untill the end of the year.


Having pursued a site to host a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF) for over twenty years, the Commonwealth expected to by now have an operating centralised intermediate level storage, co-located with a low-level waste repository. However, sustained community opposition to the proposed sites over many years in Woomera, SA, led by the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, and subsequently in Muckaty, NT, by local Traditional Owners ended the Government's attempts of imposing a nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal communities in 2004 and 2014 respectively.

Although this year has seen a renewed effort to host the NRWMF, this time driven by a voluntary approach as a lesson from the failed forceful approaches, a site would earliest be chosen mid next year and a facility not be operational for a while. A quicker interim solution to store the returning spent fuel was therefore needed. The resulting new hangar was part of the tour that the Anti-nuclear and Clean Energy Collective from Friends of the Earth was shown on a tour of ANSTO and following talks this week as part of its Radioactive Exposure Tour this June and July.

The so called Radtour has been taking a great number of interested people and anti-nuclear activists to key nuclear sites in Australia for over 25 years, providing an opportunity to learn about the country and affected communities in a way that is rarely part of public narratives. It has thereby created strong bonds with Aboriginal and other communities throughout the country.

The visit to Lucas Heights provided a great opportunity to have an insight into the OPAL reactor and into how the reprocessed fuel will be stored. 20 long canisters of about 3m diameter, containing 170l of reprocessed fuel in barrels, protected by special shielding will be brought back from France at the end of the year and stored vertically next to each other in a simple hangar with insulated metal roofing. Depending on the Sellafield export programs one more canister is expected to arrive to the facility or the new NRWMF from the UK around 2020.

Even though the waste can be temporarily stored at ANSTO and possibly at a national facility later on, the question remains of how it will one day finally be disposed of. Long-lived intermediate level waste can remain hazardous for up to 250,000 years and therefore needs to be safely managed and closely monitored. According to an ANSTO representative, there are discussions if the deep borehole methodology, where the waste gets buried about 5000m underground, might be a suitable option to do so in Australia. The technology is very new and highly debated and so far has never been carried out.

Further questions remain about what is going to happen to the waste still at ANSTO, which has not been classified as such yet. The previous reactor HIFAR finished operating in 2008 and still has not been decommissioned. There will be tonnes of material adding to the current radioactive waste stockpile. ANSTO is currently about one year into a four year process of identifying what sort and amounts of materials will have to be handled. This process is however limited by an agreement with the nuclear regulation agency ARPANSA on not removing parts of the reactor as that would already be classified as decommissioning and ANSTO does not have a license to decommission yet.


Interestingly, the visit to Lucas Heights revealed another nuclear waste issue that apparently has been forgotten. None of the numerous employees and scientists present at the discussion knew what happened to the radioactive waste water - heavy water - from the HIFAR reactor. Is it still on site, has it been treated or even discharged? The risks in the latter would be enormous and the fact that no one had any information on it therefore both shocking and scary.

This is a strong reminder of the importance of independent monitoring of nuclear activities and the accountability civil society helps to enforce on operators. For Friends of the Earth, this is just the beginning of a tour that will release many more valuable lessons and incredible stories.

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About the Author

Anica Niepraschk is a political scientist specialised on governance issues and civil society participation in democracies. She is based in Melbourne.

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