About the amounts of Australia's radioactive waste
The majority of Australia's radioactive waste consists of low level and short-lived intermediate level waste.
These levels are defined by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) in the publication, Safety Guide on the Classification of Radioactive Waste.
- Low level—Australia has accumulated approximately 3820 cubic metres (m3) of low level radioactive waste from over forty years of research, medical and industrial uses of radioactive materials. The Commonwealth is responsible for about 3810 m3 of this waste, and the states and territories hold the rest (around 10 m3).
This total does not include uranium mining wastes, which are disposed of at mine sites. Over half of Australia's current low level waste by volume is ten thousand drums of lightly contaminated soil. This soil is a legacy of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) research into processing radioactive ores during the 1950s and 1960s.
Australia produces a very small quantity of low level waste. Each year, this amount is less than 40 m3 of waste, which is less than the volume of one shipping container. By comparison, Britain and France each produce around 25 000 m3 of low level waste annually.
- Intermediate level—Australia currently holds approximately 435 m3 of intermediate level intermediate level radioactive waste, and generates less than 5 m3 annually. This includes waste from the production of radiopharmaceuticals, wastes from mineral sands processing, and used sources from medical, research and industrial equipment. Intermediate level radioactive waste contains radioactive material at a concentration that requires greater isolation from the environment than is required for low level waste.
Some additional low level and intermediate level radioactive waste will be generated from decommissioning Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)'s former (HIFAR) and new (OPAL) research reactors. Decommissioning of the HIFAR reactor is anticipated to produce around 500 m3 of low level waste and a further 500 m3 of long-lived intermediate level waste. OPAL was commissioned in 2007 and has an estimated life of at least 40 years. It is anticipated that decommissioning of the OPAL reactor will produce around 70 m3 of low level waste and 50 m3 long-lived intermediate level waste.
The tables below indicate the types and quantities of radioactive waste currently held by civilian Commonwealth agencies. Further details of this inventory, as well as information on state and territory waste is available in the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management—National Report of the Commonwealth of Australia—14 October 2011 document.
Types and quantities of Commonwealth radioactive waste (as estimated in October 2011)
|Waste type||Waste description||Commonwealth waste inventory|
Low level waste
- Lightly contaminated laboratory items such as paper, plastic and glassware
- Lightly contaminated soil
- Operational waste from the research reactor
- Contaminated items from production of radiopharmaceuticals
- Research reactor decommissioning waste such as graphite, concrete and steel.
- 1710 m3 operational waste (held at ANSTO, Lucas Heights)
- 2100 m3 lightly contaminated soil from ore-processing research (CSIRO waste held at Woomera)
- 0.28 m3 waste held at ARPANSA, Yallambie.
Intermediate level waste
- Higher activity operational waste from ANSTO including irradiation cans, ion exchange resins, aluminium end pieces of fuel rods, control arms and general waste from radiopharmaceutical production
- Concentrates from mineral sands processing (thorium and uranium residues).
- 427 m3 at ANSTO, including 256 m3 operational waste, 165 m3 of thorium and uranium residues from mineral sands processing and 6 m³ liquid waste from production of Mo-99 for radiopharmaceuticals. These volumes will increase when the waste is conditioned for transport
- 6.50 m³ waste held at ARPANSA, Yallambie.
Australia also has an inventory of disused sealed sources held in storage facilities. Disused sealed sources are categorised by activity level, not volume. However, the volume of disused sealed sources makes only a small contribution to the overall volume of the total Australian inventory.
Anticipated used fuel reprocessing waste
|Source||Typical waste||Approximate volume (including cask)|
Residues from reprocessing HIFAR* used fuel
- Vitrified waste (from France)
- Cemented technological waste (from France)
- Cemented waste (from UK)
Approximately 5 m3 of vitrified (glass) intermediate level glass waste in 28 canisters by 2015. These canisters will be contained within a single shielded dual purpose transport/storage container.
Approximately 7 m3 of intermediate level technological wastes (comprising used gloves, protective clothing, used equipment) attributed to the vitrification process by 2015.
Approximately 25 m3 of cemented intermediate level waste in 51 stainless steel drums by 2020. Subject to the outcome of negotiations, this waste may be substituted for between 0.3–0.5 m3 of vitrified (glass) intermediate level waste.
* The United States has agreed to take back used fuel of US origin from OPAL until 2016. No waste will be returned to Australia from that used fuel.
High level radioactive waste
The IAEA defines high level radioactive waste as waste material that generates significant quantities of heat.. Managing this waste requires special procedures to address both the heat and the radioactivity. High level waste results from the reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors.
The previous HIFAR reactor and the current OPAL reactor at Lucas Heights, are research reactors. They do not generate electricity and do not produce high level radioactive waste.
Successive Australian Governments have agreed that Australia will not accept the radioactive waste produced by other countries. This position is based on the principle that countries deriving benefits from radioactive materials and nuclear power should make their own arrangements to safely manage and dispose of their radioactive waste.
Existing customs legislation gives the Australian Government the power to prohibit the importation of radioactive waste.
For more information about radioactive waste, see Radiation and radioactive waste.