Government searching for nuclear waste site as time runs out

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Next year more than 11 tonnes of Australian nuclear waste will return from France after being sent overseas more than a decade ago. The government now faces the difficult and controversial task of finding a permanent home for it.

On the outskirts of Sydney, scientists at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor are creating treatments to target some of the world's most deadly diseases.
 
It's delicate work, but the plant has been specialising in the field of nuclear medicine for over 50 years.
 
Through that work, tonnes of nuclear waste has been produced - all regarded as low or intermediate level - as opposed to the high level waste that's produced in other countries that have nuclear power plants.

With no permanent facility, much of Australia's nuclear waste is currently stored at Lucas Heights and about 100 other temporary sites around the country - including at hospitals.

A succession of federal governments has tried and failed in bids to find a permanent storage site.

General Manager of Operations at the Lucas Heights Nuclear Reactor, Lubi DimItrovski, says there are very specific requirements for a site to qualify as a permanent repository.
 
"Basically, you need to have a disposal site which is low population, low rainfall and is the best site for a facility you can maintain for a long period of time," he says.

"Remember, radioactivity always decays, so you are decaying it and you want to take it away from a population area. It's safe but final disposal is best for international best practice to get a low population density, a low rainfall and the best site to store the waste and to permanently dispose of it."

Muckaty Station deal off the table

A deal with Indigenous owners to use Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory for a permanent waste storage site collapsed earlier this year.

Since then, the Abbott government has been urging other Indigenous owners in the Territory to offer their land - for an expected payment of tens-of-millions of dollars.

But a deadline of September 30 has been reached with apparently no offers being made.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is now expected to open a national tender, urging landowners elsewhere in Australia to offer their land.

He says other landowners have already indicated they'd be interested, and he's 'extremely confident' a site will be found.

"At the moment I'd prefer to say that they have been from all over Australia," he says.

"They are eminently suitable sites and I'm sure the only problem I will have will be choosing between a number of these sites."

However nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth, Dr Jim Green doesn't think it will be that easy.
 
"No sites have been nominated. There's been various interest at various sites in the Northern Territory but no nomination. At at least one site in Western Australia there's been some interest but I'm not at all convinced that there are going to be any nominations because while there are pockets of interest, that's a long way short of having broad community support and I'm not sure that there's going to be broad community support in any of those sites in the northern territory or WA."

Nuclear waste returns

Next year, more than 11 tonnes of nuclear waste will return to Australia after being sent to France more than a decade ago.

There, it's been reprocessed into a more stable - but still highly radioactive - form.
 
Lucas Heights Plant Manager, David Vittorio explains.

"Reactor fuel is created in a form that's useful for reactors. It's not actually a form that's useful for long-term storage so the whole idea of reprocessing is repackaging it into a chemical form and a materials form so that it's suitable for long-term storage," he says.

"So really what we're receiving from France is in a glass matrix, suitable for long term storage."

Under an agreement with France, Australia must take back the reprocessed waste in 2015.

Even if a permanent storage site is identified, and agreement is reached with the owners, the facility won't be ready in time to receive that waste.

Ian Macfarlane admits a permanent site will take years to build.

"Realistically we're looking at three to five years depending on the permitting, the construction phase is dependent on the site but is something that we can work through reasonably quickly," Mr Macfarlane says.

"The design of the structure is already being done and that's not dependent on where the site is. It basically needs a flat piece of ground. So we will work through that. But the main thing is that we do make the decision, start the construction, to put in place a permanent storage site."

Mr MacFarlane acknowledges that there's no inventory recording exactly where and how much nuclear waste is temporarily stored at various sites around Australia.

But he says that's not the government's priority, and the focus has to be on finalising plans for a permanent storage site.

"I don't think that communities should have an expectation that nuclear waste is being stored in a capital city in a metropolitan area. Even though it's very, very safe, the long term solution- so we're talking about a solution that's going to be for literally centuries- the long-term solution is to build a purpose built building in a remote location where it can be stored for time infinitely for the future."

Dr Jim Green from the Friends of the Earth accepts that nuclear medicine has made major contributions to human health.

But he says successive federal governments haven't done anywhere near enough to prepare for what he calls the developing crisis in nuclear waste management.

"It's best understood as the latest chapter in a long-running saga of how Australia deals with radioactive waste. We've got this spent nuclear fuel which is high level nuclear waste and later classified as long-lived intermediate level waste and that's sent overseas for reprocessing and that's the waste that's going to come back. But we've also got much larger volumes of low and intermediate level waste which is stored in Australia. And we've also got hundreds of millions of tonnes of radioactive tailings waste at the uranium mines and another part of Australia's radioactive waste puzzle and our problem is the nuclear weapons test sites in particular Maralinga in South Australia."

Decades into the nuclear industry, long-term storage of nuclear waste remains a major international problem.

If the federal government's plans do finally succeed, Australia will become one of the few countries in the world with a permanent waste repository.

Source SBS

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