U.S. Agrees to Accept Australia's Spent Nuclear Fuel

CANBERRA, Australia, January 24, 2005 (ENS) - The United States has agreed to receive Australia's spent nuclear fuel until 2016, taking some of the pressure off the Howard government to find a homegrown solution to the problem of where to put the unwanted radioactive material.

The deal to send the spent fuel rods from the current research reactor as well as from the proposed replacement reactor at the Lucas Heights suburb of Sydney was finalized at ministerial level late last year following talks between the U.S. Energy Department and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

The deal was revealed Thursday in a letter from ANSTO released by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). But while this interim solution does lift some pressure from the Howard government, there is still intermediate and low level nuclear waste to be handled in Australia.

Today, Dr. Brendan Nelson, federal minister for science, education and training, told reporters he will announce "an offshore location" for that waste "in the very near future."


Dr. Brendan Nelson, a physician, is Australia's minister for science, education and training. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
"The Americans are in fact going to store the spent fuel rods which have been used by existing and the replacement reactor at least up until 2016. But nonetheless we have deadlines drawing down upon us," Nelson said.

"We have about 32 cubic metres of intermediate level waste which will be reprocessed and returned to Australia, beginning in around 2011 from Britain and from France, and we need to make sure, at least to satisfying the licensing requirements of ARPANSA in Australia that we have satisfied their needs in terms of storage, certainly by the end of this year," the minister said.

Nelson said the location of the waste storage site would be, "Not the Australian mainland and not Tasmania," but he declined to reveal the exact location at this time.

It would have to be "geologically and scientifically sound as a storage facility," he said.

Nelson stressed that the Australia government "has been forced into this" because of "the intransigence of the states and territories."

During last year's election campaign, environmental and aboriginal groups together with the states of South Australia and New South Wales forced the Prime Minister John Howard to abandon plans to locate a nuclear waste repository in South Australia.

The New South Wales Government, he pointed out," is storing intermediate level waste in Lidcombe, at the EPA. It’s storing low level waste in a whole range of university and hospital settings throughout Sydney."

"We have low level waste stored in universities, in hospitals, the Peter McCallum Institute in Melbourne, and in fact in South Australia," Nelson said. "Nuclear waste is currently stored in 80 sites in suburban settings in universities and hospitals and industrial settings across 134 sites that used nuclear sourced material."

"It makes sense," Nelson said, "that if we are beneficiaries for nuclear sourced materials we also have a responsibility to see that we store our waste safely and effectively, preferably in remote locations and as far as possible centralize that storage process."

Nelson said tens of thousands of Australians are "alive and fit and well today" because of nuclear medicine, and Australian needs to be "at the leading edge of nuclear scientific research, and that is what this is about."

Moving toward that goal, Nelson named the proposed Lucas Heights replacement reactor today. He called it OPAL – the Open Pool Australian Light-water reactor after its modern, open pool design and also for the Australian gemstone, opal.


The Lucas Heights HIFAR research reactor will soon be replaced and its spent nuclear fuel sent to the United States. (Photo courtesy ANSTO)
“OPAL is a name designed to give this $330 million scientific investment a recognizably Australian name, said Dr. Ian Smith, ANSTO’s executive director. “We aim to make this OPAL as internationally renowned as the Australian gemstone.”

The Lucas Heights research reactor and its proposed replacement is controversial in part because it is located in a suburb of Sydney, separated from homes only by a 1.6 kilometer buffer zone, which the government says far exceeds siting requirements for research reactors in other countries.

"A nuclear reactor in our largest city is a daily nuclear threat to Sydney," said national nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the country's largest environmental group. "Moving some of the radioactive waste offshore does not protect Sydney from the risks of an operating reactor or Australia from the risks of the rest of the waste."

ACF has called for the federal nuclear regulator, ARPANSA, to reject ANSTO's application for an operating license for the new reactor - a call supported by other national environment groups, local residents and the New South Wales government.

"The costs and risks of the new Sydney reactor remain secret," said ACF campaigner David Noonan. "Details on health impacts, emergency procedures and security, sabotage and accident assessments are still confidential while ANSTO and the federal government are seeking backroom solutions to a long-term environmental threat."

The government says that the location of Lucas Heights facilitates reliable delivery of radiopharmaceuticals with short half-lives to hospitals and nuclear medicine centers throughout Sydney, and to the airport, for national and international distribution. It also enables researchers to have reasonable access to ANSTO’s facilities.

In technical terms, OPAL will be a 20 megawatt pool reactor using low enriched uranium fuel, and cooled by water. It will be a multipurpose facility for radioisotope production, irradiation services and neutron beam research – it is a neutron factory.

OPAL has the potential to produce around four times as many life-saving medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer than the present Lucas Heights reactor, as well as generate medical isotopes not previously available.

ANSTO signed a contract with the Argentine company INVAP S.E. and its Australian alliance partners, John Holland Construction and Engineering Pty Ltd and Evans Deakin Industries Limited, for the design, construction and commissioning of a replacement for the aging Lucas Heights research reactor on July 13, 2000.

OPAL, which will cost $330 million, is due to be fully operational in 2006.

But environmentalists are not convinced of the need for the facility or its safety. Noonan said, "The Sydney reactor is an unsafe and unnecessary facility situated in an inappropriate place and nothing about this U.S. deal changes this radioactive reality."

The U.S. decision represents a special exemption for Australia, in part to reward ANSTO for helping develop a low-enriched uranium fuel capable of producing radio-pharmaceuticals but not capable of being used to make nuclear weapons.

The NSW government yesterday repeated its opposition to the storage and transport of nuclear waste through the state.

Danny Kennedy, Greenpeace campaigns manager for the Australia Pacific said, "This is the worst possible solution because it will cause the proliferation of nuclear transport and temporary storage of high-level nuclear material in an era of high security concern.

"There is still no long term solution to the problem of radioactive waste," said Kennedy, "and shipping it around the world in secretive arrangements just makes things worse."