Explainer: What is involved in disposing of radioactive waste from AUKUS nuclear submarines?

Australia will dispose of high-level nuclear waste from AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines, according to details revealed when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met leaders of UK and US on March 13.

Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed the radioactive waste – including spent nuclear fuel – would require a new facility to be built on “current or future” Defence land with the process of selecting a site beginning in 2023.

Cosmos asked experts in nuclear science, environmental planning, community and First Nations engagement what finding a site and disposing of high-level nuclear waste might involve.

The submarines are a decade away, why start looking for a radioactive waste site now?

The first Australian Virginia Class submarines aren’t expected until the early 2030s, however the task of identifying a site for disposing of radioactive waste begins this year. 

The first step, a review of potential sites, will be undertaken by the Department of Defence in 2023, together with the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, a fact sheet on the department’s website says.

Australia’s radiation safety regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, says it does not have a role in the initial site selection. 

Dr Brad Jessup, an environmental law specialist at the University of Melbourne, expects the process of selecting a high-level nuclear waste site, community engagement and environmental and regulatory approvals will “take the best part of a decade”.

The low and intermediate-level nuclear waste site at Kimba in South Australia is the culmination of a three-decades-long process, and still subject to legal challenge

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Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (SSN 781) / Credit: Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Read more: Nuclear issues escalate under AUKUS

What are the technical options for disposing of high-level nuclear waste? 

Tony Irwin, a nuclear engineer at the Australian National University says Australia will need to be ready to manage low- and intermediate-level radioactive wastes from routine submarine operations from 2033, and manage high-level waste and spent fuel from around 2060 (when the first submarines are decommissioned).

He says, high-level nuclear waste, including spent fuel (containing large amounts of highly enriched uranium) will be both highly radioactive and producing heat, so it would initially be placed in a cooling pond. 

After cooling down enough to be transported, Irwin says there are four options for disposal.

The first is to store the material inside a dry cask made from steel and concrete. This is how most nuclear power station waste is dealt with, Irwin says.

The second is to send the fuel offshore for re-processing, which currently happens with high-level waste from Lucas Heights facility. “The reprocessing removes the uranium and plutonium and leaves you with fission products and minor actinides [lower-level radioactive elements]”, he says. 

The third option, is deep geological disposal, typically 500 metres underground. Or, using disposal technologies like CSIRO’s deep borehole techniques, or the waste treatment technology Synroc, developed by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Association.

A fourth option, could potentially involve re-using the fuel in a fast-neuron reactor, he says.

Curtin University nuclear scientist, Associate Professor Nigel Marks, says while Australia has managed to avoid dealing with high-level waste in the past – by sending it to France for re-processing – under AUKUS there is a clear commitment to manage the waste onshore. 

“There’ll be no dodging this particular bullet,” he says.

From a scientific point of view, high-level waste is relatively straightforward to deal with. “The real problem with radioactive waste is social and political,” he says.

“The great mistake Australia can make is for a government body to make a decision on where it should go, make an announcement, defend it, and then eventually abandon it.” 

“That is not a winning strategy,” he says.

Marks says Australia should copy the Scandinavian approach. For example, in Sweden, the government outlined the requirements, risks and benefits of hosting nuclear waste and invited communities to bid for the facility. 

 “You can’t impose these things on the community,” he says.

“That’s why the Scandinavians are so impressive because first of all, they get their society on board. And then second, they actually get on with it,” he says

The ‘do nothing’ option

However the worst outcome would be not deciding on a site, Marks says.

The ‘do nothing’ option is attractive to governments but potentially leaves high-level nuclear waste in temporary storage – sitting in ponds with locked gates and cameras.

This remains the case for Australia’s AUKUS partners, the UK and UK, yet to resolve the long-term disposal of their high-level waste. 

What would the approvals process look like?

Jessup says any high-level nuclear waste facility will likely need approval under both Federal and state environment, planning and nuclear-specific laws.

Federal laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act – require detailed assessment of environmental, safety and social matters.

Those processes are likely to consider not just the disposal site, but also how the waste would be transported there – through communities and across state and territory borders – he says.

The EPBC Act aims to weigh up all the benefits and risks of major projects. Yet even where there are significant risks, the Environment Minister can still decide to approve the project, Jessup says. And he adds there might be no assessment at all if a national security exemption is invoked. 

Complicating matters, Jessup says currently most Australian states have laws in place prohibiting nuclear activities.

Cosmos asked the Defence Department for further information on the process, timeline and criteria for site-selection but did not receive a response.

Community trust requires public discussion and transparency 

According to the Department of Defence, the process for selecting a site for high-level nuclear waste will include engaging with community and First Nations groups.

Community engagement expert, Professor Sara Bice from the Australian National University, says best practice consultation for something as controversial as nuclear submarines or high-level radioactive waste would ideally begin early, be transparent and involve public discussion about whether the technology is desired in the first place.

“We’re beyond the point where communities can have genuine consultation on this issue. Because the decision has already been made for them. The government has decided that this is a type of weaponry and defence mechanism that is going to occur within Australia. So, things like the nuclear waste sites […] will have to occur in order for AUKUS to proceed.”

The option of a site in outback South Australia has been floated by the Premiers of Victoria and Western Australia. 

But Bice says there are implications of proposing a waste site in outback South Australia, given that state already went through a robust process – with a Royal Commission, public engagement and a Citizen Jury – to consider high-level waste in 2015 and 2016. That process concluded with 27 Native Title groups and the majority of the Citizen Jury rejecting the idea.

Re-opening the discussion of nuclear waste in South Australia suggests the expectation you might get a different outcome, she says.

“I think that’s a bit disingenuous, and it undermines the thing that we look for most when we talk about a social licence, which is trust.”

She says when large, controversial decisions are made without public discussion or consultation, it creates fear and conditions ripe for opposition and protest.

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Gawler Ranges, near Kimba, South Australia / Credit: Tim Phillips Photos / Getty Images

A First Nations voice in deciding where the high-level waste site goes

Consent of Traditional Owners and Aboriginal people was an essential consideration in South Australia’s Royal Commission and engagement process in 2015 and 2016. At the time, then-premier Jay Weatherill said First Nations groups would have veto rights over any proposed nuclear waste disposal site. 

Wind the clock forward to today, and one Aboriginal group – the Barngala people – are taking the federal government to court over attempts to build the Kimba nuclear waste disposal facility on Country. After being excluded from a vote of local ratepayers, Barngala conducted its own vote, which was unanimous in opposition to the facility. This led to legal action to try and stop the project.

Amy Rust is a Kokatha woman who previously advised Aboriginal affairs ministers in Canberra and South Australia and now leads engagement for the First People’s Assembly of Victoria.

Rust says the consultation process with Traditional Owners in relation to the Kimba facility left a lot to be desired.

“I think in every metric that you could look at, the intermediate waste facility in Kimba has failed to respect the wishes of Traditional Owners, the Barngala people,” Rust says. “You don’t see the government being taken to court about this sort of thing if they’ve listened to the wishes of Traditional Owners there.”

A First Nations Voice to Parliament, recently legislated in South Australia, and national ‘Voice’ being put to a referendum this year could enable a more effective and transparent means of consulting with First Nations people on issues such as high-level nuclear waste.

Most importantly, Rust argues, governments should consult First Nations people from the outset.

Read more: What’s happening with the radioactive waste facility in South Australia

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