Behind all the pomp of the Aukus submarine deal in San Diego there was a detail that could prove a much bigger obstacle than even the massive USS Missouri moored near the three leaders. Under the agreement, Australia will be responsible for storing high-level nuclear waste from the decommissioned reactors.
And that is no easy feat. The US and UK naval reactors that will power both the Virginia-class subs and the future SSN-Aukus boats are fuelled by highly enriched uranium-235.
Once removed and decommissioned, any spent fuel from naval reactors is usually reprocessed to extract usable nuclear fuel for civilian generation and the remaining radioactive waste concentrated. The Australian government has promised not to reprocess spent fuel, which means it will probably be sent offshore.
Overseas, the process typically involves extracting usable fuel such as uranium and plutonium, and then vitrification, in which radioactive waste is concentrated and melted down into a “big glass block” weighing tonnes, according to Dr Patrick Burr, a senior lecturer in nuclear engineering at the University of New South Wales. “It’s actually a very small volume, but it is extremely radioactive,” he said.
After this complicated and hugely expensive process has been completed, there remains one big question – where will this waste be stored?
Nuclear reactor fuel yields high-level waste, which is not only more radioactive. “When you have high-level waste, it is actually physically hot, so [you] need to think about thermal management as well,” Burr said.
As some experts have pointed out, Australia has not even found a permanent site to store low-level nuclear waste, let alone highly radioactive waste.
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So far, the government has not given any details on that other than the defence minister, Richard Marles, saying it will be on land that is either owned by the defence department or to be acquired in future. Marles also said this won’t need to be solved until well into the 2050s.
But that is not enough to satisfy many Indigenous communities, who fear the prospect of high-level nuclear waste dumps on traditional lands, and for whom the spectre of British nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s still looms large.
In South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula region, a proposed storage facility near Kimba for low-level nuclear waste has faced staunch opposition from traditional owners, as well as environmentalists and farmers, despite a ballot supported by about 60% of residents conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission.
The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation chair, Jason Bilney, said the Barngarla people had not been consulted, opposed the plan and had been in a legal battle with the federal government against the proposal.
He said he believed any storage of high-level nuclear waste would not be suitable in that area given the lack of granite and rock to hold the toxic waste, which could take hundreds of thousands of years to break down. “The ground is dirt,” he said. “High-level stuff needs to be stored and contained within the solid rock formation and Kimba doesn’t have that.”
Bilney said many traditional owners in the region had a deep distrust and fear of defence testing and nuclear waste after the nuclear weapons testing conducted by the UK in Maralinga.
The tests caused many of the local Anangu Pitjantjatjara people to suffer from radioactive illnesses, with elders and family sickened and the land contaminated.
Bilney said his grandfather, who was from the Maralinga area, always remembered the trauma and the fear, which has continued through the generations.
“That’s why I’m so strong and so passionate about being an advocate for my people and all Indigenous people,” he said.
“There is still a big fear that that could happen again … It’s that generational effect and even now people are still passing away of cancers.”
Bilney said while the bomb testing was not the same as storage of high-powered uranium rods, that fear remains.
“It’s that generational effect. It’s people just dying from the effects of the atomic bomb and still suffering trauma. This is going to be stored into the earth. It’s going to destroy our way of life for us.”
He said there was a real concern that storage of nuclear waste on traditional lands and any restrictions on access could harm the cultural and spiritual knowledge that had been passed down for thousands of generations.
“It’s our biggest worry. We are the oldest culture for over 60,000 years and this is going to outlast it.
“We want to pass down to the next generation and to continue this for decades to come to protect and preserve our sites and our storylines and that connection to country. And if they put it on country, we won’t be able to share that and we will lose those storylines. It will sever those ties.”
One possible location could be a defence site within the Woomera region, an area spanning 122,000 sq km about 450km north-west of Adelaide. The area has long been used for nuclear testing and as a military base.
The Woomera prohibited area takes in the traditional lands the Maralinga Tjarutja and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yunkunytjatjara, as well as the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara, Arabana and Kokatha.
A Kokatha traditional owner and senior lawman, Andrew Starkey, said their traditional lands took in huge swathes from Ceduna to Woomera but that was not recognised by native title.
“Our country is a huge bit of South Australia,” he said. “It starts from the Port Augusta region up to Woomera, around to Coober Pedy and through Tallaringa down around to the west coast, back around through to Whyalla – that’s traditionally Kokatha country.
“Having to fight 20 years to be recognised over a piece of country that’s now going to be targeted to be used as a radioactive waste dump, we’re very concerned about this.”
He said he was strongly against any proposed nuclear waste storage facility in any defence site in his traditional homelands.
“We don’t want it and anyone with any common sense is going to say the same thing. We don’t want that in our back yard.”
He said there were still defence testing sites in the remote desert, with unexploded ordinances, rockets and materials dating back decades – in 2021 an unexploded rocket was found near Lake Hart, a culturally significant site.
“There’s a lot of historic waste that’s still lying around in the Woomera area from the very early days of when they were testing things. It’s bad enough that when we go out to our sites that we’ve got to dodge missiles that are lying around on our heritage sites.”
The federal government has been contacted for response.