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Australia’s nuclear waste is scattered in ‘cupboards and filing cabinets’ – and the pile is growing

More than 20 tonnes of reprocessed nuclear fuel will stay at Australia’s only reactor in southern Sydney, while nuclear waste will remain scattered in “cupboards and filing cabinets” around the country, after the federal court blocked plans for a long-term storage site in outback South Australia.

The site in Kimba was selected more than 40 years after Australia started planning for a centralised repository. But this month, that decision was quashed by the courts.

There is currently no live national facility option, and the waste pile is growing.

Successive governments and agencies have said there are more than 100 sites that are storing nuclear waste littered across the land, in hospital basements and universities, on defence and mining sites and in research laboratories.

There’s no definitive list, because of a licensing split between the federal and state governments, but the vast majority is produced and stored at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) facility in Lucas Heights.

A national inventory published last year found Australia’s 2,061 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste (ILW) will more than double to 4,377 cubic metres in the next 50 years.

ILW is generated from the production of nuclear medicine including from the reactor at Ansto and needs purpose-built containers with shielding.

The inventory predicted that the 2,490 cubic metres of low-level waste will more than quadruple to 13,287 within the next five decades.

LLW includes gloves, paper, gowns and other ephemera used in nuclear medicine. Much of it can be left to “delay and decay”, and can be disposed of as regular rubbish.

Ansto’s waste makes up about 93% of the LLW, and about 96.5% of the ILW.

Ansto is also responsible for the spent fuel rods from its Opal research reactor at Lucas Heights, in Sydney’s south, which are sent to France, the UK or the US for reprocessing.

Last year, the UK shipped two tonnes of ILW to be stored at Sydney’s Lucas Heights facility until it could be transported to a national facility – it was part of a waste-swap deal after Australia sent spent fuel rods from Opal predecessor to be recycled.

Barngarla Traditional owners protest outside the Federal Court in Adelaide. Photograph: Matt Turner/AAP

In 2015, 25 tonnes of radioactive waste from France was returned to Australia after reprocessing – that too will be housed at Lucas Heights until a dump is selected and built. Since then, Australia has sent more spent fuel rods to France to have the uranium and plutonium extracted, but their return has not been announced, and it’s not clear what will happen with such deals now that Kimba option is off the table.

The current government policy is to build a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF) to dispose of LLW permanently, and ILW temporarily while a permanent dump is built.

A nuclear waste container.
The government is now considering the Federal court judgment and may appeal. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

The traditional owners of the land around Kimba, the Barngarla people, took the government to court, and won – former resources minister Keith Pitt’s declaration of the site was cast aside because of his “apprehended bias” and “pre-judgement”.

Now, the process is on hold as the government considers the judgement, and as the case continues with final details to be ironed out.

Top nuclear waste expert, emeritus professor Ian Lowe, says waste is kept in “cupboards and filing cabinets in universities and hospitals”.

Repatriation of nuclear waste from the UK onboard the Pacific Grebe, docked in Port Kembla to be transported to Lucas Heights.
Repatriation of nuclear waste from the UK onboard the Pacific Grebe, docked in Port Kembla to be transported to Lucas Heights. Photograph: Australian Nuclear Science and T/AAP

“When I was in the department of applied physics at the University of NSW [in the 60s], the used sources that had come to the end of their useful life were just in a locked cupboard,” he says.

When calling for a national storage site, politicians have variously said the waste is kept in filing cabinets, shipping containers, under stairs and in basements.

“It’s clearly not optimal … the reason it hasn’t been a problem is there’s not actually anything very nasty you can do with low level waste. It’s not very radioactive,” Lowe says.

Ansto says such waste needs “minimal shielding”, while some major hospitals use “delay tanks” and other facilities use drums.

So, Lowe says, finding a national waste repository is not urgent because it has been stored this way for 60 years.

Lowe, who is from Griffith University, says it’s not even clear if centralising the waste is the best option. He says there’s an implicit risk in transporting the waste from the various sites to a new site, and there should be a safety comparison with leaving it where it is.

“I haven’t even seen a crude, back of the envelope calculation,” he says.

With the intermediate level waste, which is “much nastier stuff”, he says he “couldn’t see the point of moving it from temporary storage at Lucas Heights to temporary storage at Kimba while we work out a permanent solution”.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Greens are pushing for it to remain at Lucas Heights for now.

The ACF’s Dave Sweeney says the waste at Lucas Heights is secure, and that keeping it there could be a “circuit breaker” after years of political wrangling. He accepts that Lucas Heights is not set up to permanently dispose of the waste, but points out that the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency has said it is safe there.

And, he says, much of the LLW currently being managed in hospitals was never going to get to Kimba anyway. On top of all that, Kimba was only ever going to hold ILW temporarily until a permanent facility was built.

“We need to actually take a breath and get very serious, systematic and credible about how we advance radioactive waste management,” he says.

“[This shows] the need for and a clear ability to deliver a circuit breaker and inject some responsibility, credibility and respect into this process.”

A spokesperson for resources minister, Madeleine King, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the future of a NRWMF while the Barngarla case is still before the court. The government has lodged a submission to the federal court and could appeal the decision.

Ansto says it is “international best practice” to have a single facility, and that Lucas Heights is not the “appropriate place” for the waste to be held. It says the Ansto campus is not big enough, and that it will be full in 15 years anyway.

Lowe says only Finland and Sweden have managed to solve the issue with long-term waste storage, and they did it by finding communities who are keen to have the waste in return for investment.

He says permanent disposal of all types of waste will need somewhere geologically stable.

“That probably means remote parts of SA, WA, NT, but there’s any number of parts of Australia.

“The point is finding a community that’s happy to have it there.”

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