Radioactive waste facility in Australia: what's happening?

What’s happening with the radioactive waste facility in South Australia?

More of a mausoleum than a crypt, the burial chamber planned for Australia’s decaying radioactive waste will consist of free-standing concrete vaults, above-ground, on agricultural land near Kimba on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

The first National Radioactive Waste Management Facility (NRWMF) will be 1710km west of Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), by road. That’s an 18-hour drive from Lucas Heights in Sydney, across the Hay Plains and through the Riverland, on the most direct route.

While precise transport routes remain undecided, the federal government is clear that the vast majority (97%) of the waste destined for Kimba will come from ANSTO.

Person standing in front of shelves of red barrels
Low level waste (LLW) in 200 litre metal drums at ANSTO. Credit: ANSTO

The NRWMF will be the final resting place for Australia’s low-level waste (LLW) and a secure half-way house for intermediate-level waste (ILW), which will be interred for 50 years before being moved to a more suitable facility, below ground.

At least, that’s the current plan. There’s a court case to be heard, a public inquiry to be instigated and a series of regulatory hurdles to be cleared before construction can begin.

2021 Radioactive Waste Inventory

Australia’s National Inventory of Radioactive Waste 2021 reveals ANSTO is expected to produce 12,972 cubic metres of LLW and 3753 cubic metres of ILW. (That adds up to 16,725 cubic metres, out of the national total 17,163 cubic metres.)

Australia has no High Level waste.

Other Commonwealth22
Research and education112
Australia’s low level waste, in cubic metres. Source.

Other Commonwealth11
Research and education
Australia’s intermediate level waste, in cubic metres. Source.

On November 29, the Morrison Government’s Resources Minister, Keith Pitt, declared the NRWMF would be established 24km west of Kimba at Napandee, a 211 hectare property.

But the Traditional Owners, the Barngarla People, did not provide consent. And they had made their opposition abundantly clear, in the lead-up to the announcement.

So within a week, the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) announced their intent to challenge the Minister’s decision. The application for judicial review was lodged in the Federal Court on December 20 and a separate constitutional challenge followed. The case will go to trial in March.

Group of people on a protest march, holding signs saying 'don't dump on sa,', 'we say no dump', 'nuclear waste is never safe'
Protesters at a public rally in Kimba on October 15, 2022. The Barngarla people invited everyone to rally against the nuclear waste dump proposal. Credit: Kim Mavromatis, MAV Media SA.

Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King says she “will not pre-empt the outcome of the court process currently underway” and has repeatedly refused requests from BDAC, conservationists and Greens Senator for SA, Barbara Pocock, to halt work on the project until the case is heard.

“While there is no native title on the site, the Government is committed to progressing the facility in a way that protects cultural heritage and delivers economic benefit to the Traditional Custodians,” she told Cosmos.

“Activities on the site will be governed by a Cultural Heritage Management Plan – informed by information shared by the Barngarla people – which includes strict management measures to preserve cultural heritage sites and objects.”

Person in suit stands in front of cylinder approx three times his height
Australian Radioactive Waste Agency CEO Sam Usher standing in front of a 100-tonne TN-81 transport and storage cask that contains intermediate level waste (ILW) at ANSTO’s Interim Waste Store. The container is so well shielded that a person standing 10m away for one hour would receive the equivalent radiation dose to eating half of one banana. Credit: ARWA.

Australian Radioactive Waste Agency (ARWA) Chief Executive Officer, Sam Usher, says the declaration of the site was a “significant milestone for Australia and its nuclear industry” and the “culmination of a long process” of site selection.

But it’s also the start of another lengthy process, with many regulatory hurdles along the way.

“We have acquired the site and we have made a referral through the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act,” he told the SA Environment, Resources And Development Committee on 31 October, pointing to several “key regulatory and approval steps”.

“But there are still, as you can see, a number of licence applications that are required before the final decision to actually start construction is granted.

“Even going through the construction, we still need to apply for operating licences for the facility through ARPANSA (the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) … We are not anticipating the facility to become operational until early in the next decade.”

Key regulatory and approval steps

  • Draft Environmental Impact Statement
  • EPBC Environmental Impact Assessment
  • NRWMF Siting License 
  • Safeguards Permit 
  • Public Works Committee Approval
  • NRWMF Construction License
  • NRWMF Operating License

Source: AWRF CEO Sam Usher.

Person in australian radioactive waste agency jacket talking to people outdoors
Australian Radioactive Waste Agency CEO Sam Usher with locals at the Kimba Show on September 24, 2022. Credit: ARWA.

Recruited from the nuclear waste industry in Britain and appointed in January, Usher was called to address the Committee to help resolve the timing of a public inquiry required under state law.

The Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000 seeks to “protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of South Australia and to protect the environment in which they live by prohibiting the establishment of certain nuclear waste storage facilities in this State”.

It states: “If a licence, exemption or other authority to construct or operate a nuclear waste storage facility in this State is granted under a law of the Commonwealth, the Environment, Resources and Development Committee of Parliament must inquire into, consider and report on the likely impact of that facility on the environment and socio-economic wellbeing of this State.”

When the Committee sought Usher’s opinion on the timing of a public inquiry, he suggested the Environmental Impact Statement, “expected to be completed in the next three or four years or so”, would address the “environmental and socio-economic wellbeing impacts” on the state.

But he added that “delivery of the facility is a matter of national importance” and override powers within the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 would be used where necessary.

Two red radioactive waste barrels with windows, one showing rocks and one showing medical waste and other plastics
Example of low level waste (LLW) inside the 200 litre metal drums, showing the types of waste that may be inside. Left: radiation-contaminated swabs, paper tissues, plastic gloves, used vials and waste metal items like medical tools used by scientists, right: concrete rubble from dismantling buildings. Credit: ANSTO

As ARWA Principal Legal Counsel Kirsty Braybon put it: “Commonwealth legislation puts in place a process whereby we can effectively override the state laws that stop us from doing what we need to do.”

On reflection, Committee chair and Labor MP Jayne Stinson told Cosmos that she felt the “threshold” for a public inquiry had not been met and would not, for a long period of time.

“It’s really the most massive exercise in ‘How long is a piece of string?’. There are so many movable parts in this equation that it’s very difficult to tell, but it is most likely that this could stretch out well beyond the next term of parliament,” she said.

She said the phrase “construct or operate” was significant, pushing the timing of the inquiry further into the future. The Committee would also want to see the court case resolved first, especially as the Premier recently reinforced SA Labor’s long-held position that the Barngarla People should have the right to veto the project.

“In this day and age, when we’re talking about Voice, Treaty and Truth, we can’t just turn around and say, ‘Oh, well, those are our values but in this particular instance, we’re going to ignore the voice of Aboriginal people’. I think that’s just preposterous and it’s inconsistent with what most South Australians would think,” Stinson said.

“There are so many movable parts in this equation that it’s very difficult to tell, but it is most likely that this could stretch out well beyond the next term of parliament.”

Jayne Stinson

“So yes, we do think that the voices of Aboriginal people should be front centre in this debate, and I would say that’s not just the view of the Premier, but of our Cabinet and also our Party.”

Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation Chair, Jason Bilney, is frustrated about having to fight another legal battle so soon after the two-decade effort to win native title.

While it is true that there is no native title on the site in question, that’s because it is freehold land. The former farm is surrounded by parcels of native title land, within the Barngarla Determination boundary. (Native title is extinguished by certain forms of property tenure).

Mr Bilney maintains that the site is a “very significant place for Barngarla people, we’ve travelled through it, it’s part of our songlines, our storylines and it’s connected to female dreaming, through the aquifers running underneath it”.

Large cylinder being lowered onto truck by crane
A TN-81 cask being loaded onto a truck. This contains spent fuel from the research reactors at ANSTO that was sent to France for reprocessing. After reprocessing, the waste material is mixed with molten glass to produce a durable waste form. The molten glass is then poured into stainless steel canisters, each of which weighs around 500 kilograms when full. Those containers are sealed and inserted into a TN-81 transportation and storage cask made of steel. Credit: ANSTO

Objections to the facility also run deep, because there is a history of past injustices surrounding nuclear weapons testing, so any talk of radioactive waste reopens old wounds. And then there are questions around the “temporary” storage of long-lived radioactive waste.

“We don’t want the dump on our country, and we were excluded from the start,” he says.

“It’s about not repeating the mistakes of the past, the atomic bombs set off, let alone kicking the can down the road, booting it halfway across the country, when they just spent millions to upgrade ANSTO.

“They want to bring [ILW] halfway across the country to another temporary storage facility, when they’ve got one and just spent all of that money? Find somewhere permanent, with broad community support.”

Nuclear industry expert  Professor Ian Lowe, says ILW “needs to be securely stored for many thousands of years in a properly engineered site”.

He agrees that the “sensible approach … would be to continue storing the ILW securely at Lucas Heights while there is a proper process of designing a permanent disposal site and consulting communities to negotiate informed consent for a location”.

More from Ian Lowe: 3 reasons why radioactive waste in Kimba is premature

Radioactive waste being stored on back of a truck
Radioactive waste repatriation. Credit: ANSTO

ARWA is working with CSIRO to review and assess technical ILW disposal options, but this process has barely begun.

“This work is ongoing and will enable ARWA to engage with government in a number of years regarding the available options to develop a robust, technical achievable outcome,” Usher says.

And that’s before siting options even begin to be considered.

After 70 years of nuclear technology in Australia, the facility at Napandee is the closest the federal government has come to solving the problem of radioactive waste.

“It’s about not repeating the mistakes of the past, the atomic bombs set off, let alone kicking the can down the road, booting it halfway across the country, when they just spent millions to upgrade ANSTO.”

Jason Bilney

Money is flowing into the town, with the third round of community grants announced on November 2 injecting a further $2 million into projects such as upgrades to the Kimba District Hospital facilities, a new Kimba Youth and Community Hub, a ‘shop local’ marketing initiative to support local businesses, and refurbishment of the Kimba Op Shop. This builds on $4 million of grants and 50 projects already funded in Kimba under the program.

There’s the promise of 45 ongoing jobs in the facility, plus all of the construction work.

And there’s plenty of work for scientists in the next phase of “site characterisation works” to begin this week.

Red barrels being moved about by pickup truck in store room
Low level waste (LLW) in 200 litre metal drums at ANSTO. Credit: ANSTO

“We’ll be doing surveys of naturally occurring radiation, to get a radioactive baseline, geophysical surveys to map the soil and rock layers on the site … geotechnical surveys to measure soil strength, we will be looking to measure the electrical resistance … in the soil and we will also be looking at flora and fauna on the site, looking at basic vegetation sampling and testing, we’ll also be doing dust and air sampling/testing and getting benchmark weather information, so meteorological work as well,” Usher says.

He’s also keen to acknowledge the Barngarla people as the traditional owners of the land and emphasises ARWA is “committed to identifying, understanding and then mitigating any risks [to] cultural heritage that’s on the site”.

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