The vast majority of Australia’s future radioactive waste will be produced by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) Lucas Heights facility in Sydney, the latest figures show.
For 40 years governments have pushed for a national radioactive waste storage facility, often claiming it is because currently waste is held at more than 100 sites across the country.
But the latest statistics show almost all of it is in that one facility.
A new inventory of Australia’s radioactive waste, published in September by the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, shows a larger than expected increase in waste in the future.
Australia’s waste is either low level (LLW), which is mainly from laboratories, or intermediate level (ILW), which is from nuclear medicine. ILW emits more radiation and requires more shielding.
There are many variable factors, but the report notes that “the estimated volumes of Ansto’s future LLW and ILW are substantially greater than previously reported”. It estimates the levels of LLW in 100 years and ILW in 50 years.
For LLW, that is a change in how future levels are measured. For ILW, it was a matter of having to revise existing estimates.
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“For LLW, the changes are mainly due to revised estimates of future waste generation rates (about 10% increase annually) and increased timeframes (100 years instead of 50 years waste volumes),” the report notes.
“For ILW, the main reason is that volume uncertainty is now included in the packaged volume estimate, where it had not been included previously.”
Ansto’s waste is estimated to make up 12,972 cubic metres of the country’s 13,287 cubic metres LLW (97.6%) in the next 100 years, and 3,753 cubic metres of the country’s 3,887 cubic metres ILW (96.8%).
Dave Sweeney, the nuclear free campaigner from the Australian Conservation Foundation, is opposed to the federal government’s plan to move the country’s waste to a single facility near Kimba in South Australia.
He says it should stay where it (mostly) is.
“It’s Ansto’s waste facility,” he says. “Ansto’s 97% of intermediate and low level waste. It’s not a national facility. It’s Ansto’s facility.
“It’s absolutely striking.”
Sweeney says Ansto has the capacity to store the waste indefinitely, especially considering a recent $60m investment to expand its storage capacity.
The local Aboriginal people, the Barngarla people, are also opposed to the site being on their traditional lands.
The South Australian Greens senator Barbara Pocock says there is “no pressing problem” with waste storage, so they may as well leave it where it is.
“They’re better off leaving it safely,” she says, “well protected, with all the right safeguards in place, than to pull it out and have a double-handling non-solution.”
Pocock is also concerned about the transport of waste from Lucas Heights and other facilities to the planned South Australian site.
“There hasn’t been a proper discussion in the SA community on the views of the transport of nuclear waste through our communities,” she says.
An Ansto spokesperson says having a single facility is “in line with international best practice”, and moving the waste is in line with commitments given to the Lucas Heights community.
“The vast majority of the radioactive waste we produce is directly associated with the production of nuclear medicine that every Australian, on average, will need during their lifetime,” the spokesperson says.
“Because of this, Ansto will always need to have facilities to properly treat, prepare and consolidate these wastes before they can go to a national radioactive waste management facility. But we are not the appropriate place for Australia’s waste to be held.”
The spokesperson says a facility of the size needed would not fit on the Ansto campus, that existing storage will be at full capacity within a decade, and the new storage will be at capacity by 2038.
“Ultimately Ansto must be in the business of medicine production and supporting research, not diverting more space, more personnel and more resources to long-term waste management,” the spokesperson says.