Guarded nuclear shipment to secretly depart Sydney

A nuclear shipment will quietly and secretly makes its way through Sydney. Source: AAP

Any day now a decade's worth of heavily guarded nuclear cargo will be secretly transported through Sydney's streets and sent to France for reprocessing.

If you look out the window and glimpse a convoy winding through Sydney's streets guarded by swarms of federal agents and state police, don't be alarmed.

Any day now a decade's worth of spent nuclear fuel assemblies weighing 24 tonnes will be moved out of Sydney's Lucas Heights facility in a highly sensitive transport mission months in the making.

A decade's worth of spent nuclear fuel assemblies will be moved out of Sydney's Lucas Heights facility.
A decade's worth of spent nuclear fuel assemblies will be moved out of Sydney's Lucas Heights facility.

The radioactive cargo is set to be shipped to La Hague, in France, but details about the port, routes and specific timing of the operation remain classified with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) only disclosing it will happen mid-year.

An ANSTO spokesman has assured the public of the operation's safety, saying the radioactive materials will be enclosed in specially-designed transport casks reinforced with lead and made to withstand almost anything, including a jet fighter crash.

"There is no credible chance of any accident or incident that could result in the cask being compromised," an ANSTO spokesman said.

It will be the 10th transport mission of spent nuclear fuel assemblies, with the last shipment sent to the United States in 2009.

The spent fuel has come from Australia's multi-purpose OPAL reactor, whose uses include the production of around 5.5 million nuclear medicine doses for Australian patients, used for the diagnosis and treatment of heart, lung and skeletal conditions and cancers.

The reprocessing project will cost $45 million, including the contract with France, equipment, staff and other costs.

Once the uranium and plutonium are extracted, they will be recycled into overseas civil power and research programs, with the remaining materials vitrified into a safer form for waste storage and sent back to Australia.

"It's putting it all into a furnace and melting it with glass forming materials so the radioactive materials are bound up in the glass," says Hef Griffiths, ANSTO's Chief Nuclear Officer.

"What we get back is a very low volume, highly durable waste form."

The spent fuel assemblies, which would have been considered high-level waste, become transformed into an intermediate level waste, Mr Griffiths told AAP.

But the question of where it will be stored remains.

The waste from this year's transport mission will be returned from France in many years' time and sent to the yet-to-be-built National Radioactive Waste Management Facility where it will be kept in storage for several decades.

Eventually, the waste will need to be moved again to a permanent disposal facility.

Source AAP - SBS

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