Frequently Asked Questions about managing the return of waste

 

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Origins and use 

 

Q. Where did the intermediate level waste come from?
A. In the 1990s, the Australian Government entered into agreements with the French Government for France to reprocess spent nuclear fuel used by the HIFAR research reactor. France has expertise in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel due to its large nuclear energy program. 
  
The HIFAR reactor operated for around 50 years and was retired in January 2007. During its life, HIFAR had numerous purposes including the supply of millions of doses of nuclear medicine, and providing neutron beams to study the structure of materials. 
 
In line with agreements entered into in the 1990s, the fuel was reprocessed in France and the waste was returned to Australia by the end of 2015. The intermediate-level waste is being stored in a licensed, purpose-built facility at ANSTO's Lucas Heights campus. It will remain there until a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is sited, designed, licensed and constructed.
 

Q. Why did Australia export spent fuel?
A. Australia does not have a facility capable of converting spent fuel into a form suitable for long-term management. France has developed this capability due to its large nuclear energy program. Exporting the spent fuel to France has allowed the removal of residual uranium and plutonium, which will be recycled.

The reprocessed waste was safely immobilised in a durable vitrified (glass) form. With appropriate ongoing management, the resulting vitrified waste can be safely managed for thousands of years - allowing any remaining radioactivity to safely decay over time.
 

Q. What did France do with the spent fuel?
The material was sent to France's La Hague nuclear fuel recycling facility. The reprocessing plant at La Hague extracts the unused uranium and the plutonium for reuse in nuclear fuel. The remaining waste was processed, producing a durable solid waste form that can be safely managed for thousands of years.
 

Q. How much uranium and plutonium was extracted in France?
A. The spent fuel was exported to France in four shipments that occurred between 1999 and 2004. The spent fuel amounts to 20 stainless steel canisters and a total weight of 10 tonnes, which is removed during reprocessing and will be recycled and used for nuclear energy generation. The remaining waste was vitrified and returned to Australia for safe storage.
 

Q. Were there guarantees that the recycled uranium and plutonium were used peacefully?
A. Yes. All nuclear material (uranium and plutonium) extracted from the spent fuel is subject to the peaceful uses provisions of the Safeguards Agreements between Australia and France. It continues to be tracked by ASNO as Australian Obligated Nuclear Material.
 

Q. How much waste will return to Australia?
A. The intermediate-level waste returned from France comprises up to 20 stainless steel canisters (containing the vitrified waste) with a total weight of about 10 tonnes. The total volume of vitrified waste is 3.6 cubic metres.
 
The stainless steel canisters have been placed inside a single large shielded dual-purpose storage/transport container which weighs about 112 tonnes. 
 
In addition, Australia also received six drums of intermediate-level waste in cement. These are technological wastes such as gloves, protective clothing and obsolete equipment that have been generated during reprocessing and vitrification. The six drums of waste is proportional to the amount and activity of the waste reprocessed in France. 
 
The total volume of all the reprocessed waste, including the technological wastes, returned from France to Australia is approximately 6.8 cubic metres.
 
 

Q. How much did it cost to bring the waste back to Australia?
A. The Australian Government invested approximately $30 million to ensure the safe repatriation and interim storage of Australian waste from France. The budget was allocated from Treasury to ANSTO.
 

Q. Is there more waste to come from other countries?
A. Between 1996 and 2009 there were eight overseas shipments of spent nuclear fuel - four shipments to France, three shipments to the United States and one shipment to the United Kingdom. Of that material:
 
  • Waste from France was returned in the second half of 2015, and is being held in an interim storage facility at Lucas Heights with regulatory approval.
  • Waste from the United Kingdom will return in the second half of this decade, and is expected to be transported directly to the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility.
  • Spent fuel sent to the United States will stay there permanently, in line with its unique domestic arrangements to repatriate highly enriched uranium

Q. Is the waste returning to Australia dangerous?
No. Intermediate-level waste is only harmful if not managed properly. It does not generate significant heat and is shielded during handling, processing and storage as a precautionary measure. 
 
As a comparison, the Zwilag facility in Switzerland holds over 20 similar containers to the one returned to Australia, including containers with much more radioactive material. Since it is so heavily shielded and well controlled, the employees of Zwilag can walk around next to those containers without special protective equipment.

Q. Will there be any substitution?
A. At France's La Hague facility, Australia's spent fuel has been reprocessed with other spent fuel from other reactors from other countries. As a matter of course, they do not run a reprocessing facility in short batches for specific countries or organisations.

In line with agreements in place, Australia was given an equivalent amount of waste compared to the spent fuel sent to France. This process is in line with that which applies to other countries that send spent fuel to La Hague. A strict accounting procedure is used to compute the equivalent amount, which is audited by independent parties.

Q. How much waste was held at Lucas Heights before the shipment from France?
A. ANSTO has 60 years experience in safely operating nuclear facilities and managing resulting by-products. It held and managed approximately 447 m3 of intermediate level waste and 1,949 m3 of low-level waste before the shipment form France.