Successful Repatriation of Australia's Radioactive Waste
Sunday 13 March, 2021
The Australian Government’s nuclear agency, ANSTO, together with NSW Police and multiple state and federal authorities, has completed an operation to repatriate radioactive waste from the UK.
This is the second time radioactive waste has been repatriated to Australia. The first was in December 2015 and the next is not anticipated until the mid-2030s.
About 85 per cent of radioactive waste produced at ANSTO is directly associated with the production of nuclear medicine that every Australian is likely to benefit from in their lifetime.
Nuclear medicine is used in the diagnosis of a variety of heart, lung and muscular-skeletal conditions, as well as diagnosis and treatment of certain types of cancer.
Australia’s current and former nuclear reactors at Lucas Heights operate based on an array of nuclear fuel rods, each of which only last a few months before they are sent to secure storage areas to cool down.
The fuel rods are then bunched and sent to partners in the UK, France or the US for reprocessing – which involves removing uranium and recycling that into their power programs and solidifying remaining waste.
This “vitrification” process involves breaking up the material, mixing that waste in molten glass and solidifying that in steel canisters.
Four of those canisters – each containing 500 kilograms of vitrified waste that is radiologically equivalent to 114 rods sent to the UK in a shipment in 1996 – were received back from the UK today.
The canisters are inside a 100-tonne TN-81 transport and storage cask that is 6.5m long, 3m in diameter and has 20cm thick steel walls.
“For decades Australians have benefited from medical, environmental, industrial and minerals research at Lucas Heights,” said Group Executive, Nuclear Operations and Nuclear Medicine, Pamela Naidoo-Ameglio.
“Those benefits include production of millions of doses of nuclear medicine, increased profitability of our mining industry, irradiation of silicon used in everything from fast trains to hybrid cars, and a base of knowledge that secures Australia’s position in international nuclear non-proliferation talks.
“Along with these benefits comes a responsibility for Australia to safely deal with the by-products including radioactive waste.
“Australia does not shy away from that responsibility, and ANSTO has comprehensive plans to safely manage it, which we have carried out today.
“We would like to thank all of the Police and State and Federal agencies which were involved in the operation.”
About the contents of the TN-81
The TN-81 transport and storage cask is regularly used for transports around the world – usually with larger volumes of waste with higher levels of radioactivity.
The cask which returned today has capacity for 28 x 500kg canisters, but only contained four with a radiological equivalence to spent fuel sent to the UK in a shipment in 1996.
This is far less than the 20 x 500-kilogram canisters inside the cask safely repatriated from France in 2015, which is already inside ANSTO’s Interim Waste Store.
“Similar casks have been successfully used in 180 nuclear shipments around the world over more than 40 years,” said ANSTO’s Paula Berghofer, who is ANSTO’s General Manager of Waste Management Services.
“This was the second repatriation project and twelfth successful transport of spent fuel or reprocessed waste which ANSTO has carried out since 1963.”
About the storage plan
The TN-81 casks will be stored at ANSTO until a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is operational.
The TN-81 casks are suitable and safe for storage over the course of many decades (subject to ongoing regulatory approval), however eventually their contents will require permanent disposal.
Early work is already underway on planning for a separate disposal facility for intermediate-level waste, in several decades time.
“The government has progressed plans for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, and started work on options for the eventual disposal facility for intermediate level waste,” Ms Berghofer said.
Images and footage from the repatriation operation which was conducted over the past 24 hours are available for download by clicking here.
Historical footage of the HIFAR reactor, where the fuel came from, is here, including Prime Minister Menzies opening it in 1958 (@43 secs) and Minister Bishop closing it in 2007 (1min 18 secs).
Australia’s nuclear capability, and our sovereign nuclear medicine manufacturing capability, is at the centre of the modern health system on which we all rely. Every Australian, on average, will need nuclear medicine during their lifetime, for the diagnosis of heart, lung, and muscular-skeletal conditions amongst others, and diagnosis or treatment of certain cancers.
Along with the many benefits which come from having a domestic nuclear research and nuclear medicine production program, comes a responsibility for Australia to safely deal with the by-product of radioactive waste. This is something which Australia has done successfully for decades.
for a second waste repatriation in 2022
Planning is now underway for a second repatriation project which is scheduled to take place in 2022. The waste which will return is radiologically equivalent to the used fuel rods that were sent to the UK for reprocessing in one shipment which took place in 1996.
Like in the successful 2015 operation, the waste that returns to Australia will be transported in a forged steel transport and storage cask called a TN-81 - a kind of container that has been successfully used in 180 nuclear shipments around the world over more than 40 years. These containers are so heavily shielded that a person can stand next to them with no detectable traces of radiation above normal background levels, with no special personal protective equipment required.
As people would expect, a number of Federal, State and private sector organisations are involved in the planning for this shipping and trucking operation, to move the TN-81 cask from the Sellafield waste facility in the UK to a purpose-built Interim Waste Store at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights campus.
The TN-81 from the UK will be co-located with the one which arrived back from France in 2015. The two casks will remain at ANSTO until a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is established at around the end of this decade, at which point the plans are to send it to that specialised facility. The Federal Government has acquired a volunteered piece of land near Kimba on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula, for the facility.
While Australia has extensive experience in managing operations such as this one, we know that some in the community will have questions, and we have endeavoured to provide as many answers as possible below. Please always reach out to ANSTO to ensure your specific question is answered if it's not covered below.
to manage radioactive waste by-products
At the heart of ANSTO’s current and previous reactors which enable nuclear medicine production are a core of uranium fuel assemblies (otherwise known as fuel rods), each of which last about three to four months. Used fuel rods are then moved to specific storage areas at ANSTO to cool down until they were ready for the next step: reprocessing. Reprocessing involves extracting and recycling valuable uranium that the rods contain and breaking down and solidifying the rest of the material so that it is suitable for long-term storage and ultimate disposal.
While Australia’s nuclear program is significant, it is comparatively small on a global scale, and for this reason we have not developed our own spent fuel reprocessing capability. Instead, we rely on partners overseas in countries with much larger nuclear programs. Australia has exported our spent nuclear fuel rods to the US, UK and France a total of 10 times since 1963 and managed one repatriation of waste from France in December 2015.
Nuclear medicine production and by-products
Australia’s nuclear capability, and our sovereign nuclear medicine manufacturing capability, is at the centre of the modern health system on which we all rely. Most Australians will need nuclear medicine during their lifetime, for the diagnosis of heart, lung, and muscular-skeletal conditions amongst others, and diagnosis or treatment of certain cancers.
History of nuclear medicine
Critical to the production of nuclear medicine, is a nuclear research reactor, of which Australia has had three over the past 60 or so years, all of which have been based at Lucas Heights. The first of these was the High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR), which was turned on by then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, on Australia Day in 1958, and went on to enable production of millions of doses of medicine. HIFAR was also used to make early Australian discoveries in areas such as materials research and agriculture, and to assist industry. HIFAR was finally shut down in 2007 after close to 50 years of safe operations, and is now in the very early stages of decommissioning.Watch video
Frequently asked questions
While Australia has experience in safely managing operations such as this one, we anticipate there will be lots of questions about this and so we have endeavoured to provide answers to some common questions below. Please always reach out to ANSTO to ensure your specific question is answered if it's not covered below.
Definitions and terminology
If something is radioactive, what does that mean?
If something is radioactive, it means that it is emitting radiation. Radioactivity occurs naturally in the earth, the sea and the atmosphere. Most everyday objects and materials people encounter have small amounts of radioactivity, and this is not harmful to human health. This normal level of radioactivity around us is sometimes referred to as “background radiation”.
How do you measure radiation?
The becquerel is a quantity used for the measurement of radiation, similar to the litre for volume and the kilogram for weight. It is the most commonly accepted international system of measurement for a radiation dose. On average each person in Australia receives about 1 millisievert of radiation each year from the natural background, including from the sun, granite kitchens or even some fertilisers.
Average natural background doses in many places overseas are higher. Doses of two or two and a half millisieverts per year are quite normal, and some places such as Cornwall in the United Kingdom have annual average background radiation doses as high as around 20 millisieverts.
What is radioactive waste?
Radioactive waste can arise as the by-product of the operation or decommissioning of nuclear facilities such as reactors. Not all by-products from these processes are radioactive waste. The term relates only to by-products that emit higher levels of radiation than natural background radiation.
How much radioactive waste is there in Australia?
As at 10 January 2018, Australia had 4,975 cubic metres of Low Level radioactive waste. Each week ANSTO’s nuclear medicine manufacturing facility produces around 15 litres of low level waste.
As at January 2018, there were 1,771 cubic metres of Intermediate level waste in Australia.
Each week ANSTO’s nuclear medicine manufacturing facility producing 30 litres of intermediate level waste.
What are the different levels of radioactive waste?
Radioactive waste is classified into three main categories: low, intermediate and high level waste. Items that can be classified as radioactive waste include gloves and clothing that protect personnel involved in nuclear-related operations, smoke detectors, medical waste and building materials and equipment such as reprocessed spent fuel from reactors.
What is Low Level Waste?
Low Level Waste emits radiation at levels that usually require minimal (or no) extra shielding during handling, transport and storage in order to ensure the safety of people and the environment.
Low Level Waste generally comprises laboratory wastes (cloths, paper, plastic and glassware), equipment (metal and plastic) and bulk materials (concrete from decommissioning or soil) with minor levels of contamination from contact with radioactive materials.
To be classified as Low level, it must have radioactive content not exceeding four giga-becquerels per tonne (GBq/t) of alpha activity or 12 GBq/t beta-gamma activity.
What is Intermediate Level Waste?
Intermediate Level Waste emits higher levels of radiation than Low Level Waste. It includes waste from the production of nuclear medicines, residual waste from the reprocessing of spent fuel used in research reactors, and disused radioactive sources from industry and medicine.
To ensure the safety of people and the environment in its immediate vicinity, Intermediate Level Waste requires additional shielding during handling, transport and storage needing little or no provision for heat dissipation during its storage and disposal.
What is High Level Waste?
High Level Waste is generated from nuclear power reactors and the proliferation of weapons. Australia has neither of these, and therefore there is no High Level Waste in Australia. High Level Waste has high levels of radiation and generates substantial heat that needs to be considered in the design of a disposal facility for such waste.
What is spent nuclear fuel?
Nuclear reactors are powered by fuel assemblies which are colloquially known as “fuel rods”.
At the heart of the old HIFAR reactor – which is in the early stages of decommissioning and which you can still tour to this day – was a core of 25 uranium fuel rods.
Each lasted about three-four months before being moved to specific storage areas at ANSTO to cool down until they were ready for the next step: reprocessing.
What is reprocessing?
Reprocessing is the method where uranium is extracted from spent fuel rods. The extracted uranium is recycled for creating new nuclear fuel rods for research or power reactors. In line with international agreements, it can only be used for peaceful purposes. The leftover waste is more stable and compact, and suitable for vitrification.
What is vitrification?
Vitrification is a proven method for breaking down and safely immobilising the by-products of spent nuclear fuel so that it is in a form suitable for long term storage. The process is used by many countries across the world.
Once uranium is stripped from the spent fuel rods and sent for recycling, the remaining material is vitrified. This involves breaking the material down, processing it into molten glass form and pouring that into sealed, stainless steel canisters (that usually weigh around 500kg). Those canisters are then placed into a specially designed sealed, shielded metal cask so that they are suitable for transport and long-term storage. The specific cask used for the Australian waste is the TN-81 cask design.
What does “immobilised” mean?
If waste has been immobilised, it means it is in a form where the radioactivity is solidly locked inside the material and cannot escape.
Origins and uses of the spent nuclear fuel
Why does Australia have a nuclear program?
Australia’s nuclear capability, and our sovereign nuclear medicine manufacturing capability, is at the centre of the modern health system on which we all rely.
For more than 60 years, Australians have benefited from this nuclear medicine production, and also from the environmental, industrial and minerals research undertaken at Lucas Heights.
- Production of millions of doses of nuclear medicine
- Research into areas as diverse as longer-life batteries to the structure of common foods
- Irradiation of silicon used in everything from fast trains to electric cars
- Improved efficiency of our mining industry
- A knowledge base that secures Australia’s position in international non-proliferation discussions
Along with these many benefits comes a responsibility for Australia to safely deal with the by-products including radioactive waste, which is something we have done for more than 60 years.
More than 80 per cent of Australia’s radioactive stream is directly associated with the production of this nuclear medicine.
Where did the Intermediate Level Waste which is to return from the UK, come from?
In one shipment in 1996, the Australian Government sent spent nuclear fuel from the now retired HIFAR nuclear research reactor to the United Kingdom for reprocessing. The UK is one of several counties which has expertise in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel due to its large nuclear energy program.
The HIFAR reactor operated for around 50 years at Lucas Heights, 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 contracts and international best practice, the fuel was reprocessed in the UK, and the remaining waste will be returned to Australia in the 2022 financial year, inside a heavily shielded TN-81 transport and storage cask. Subject to regulatory approval, the Intermediate Level Waste will be stored in ANSTO’s Interim Waste Store at Lucas Heights, next to a similar TN-81 which returned from France in 2015 after a similar repatriation project.
Why did Australia export spent nuclear fuel?
Australia does not have a facility capable of converting spent fuel into a form suitable for permanent storage. The UK is amongst the countries which has developed this capability due to its large nuclear energy program. Exporting the spent fuel to the UK allowed the removal of residual uranium, which was recycled to create new fuel rods for the HIFAR reactor. The remaining waste has been safely immobilised in a stable vitrified (glass) form so that it suitable for long-term storage and eventual disposal.
What did the UK do with the spent fuel?
The material was sent to Dounreay reprocessing plant in Scotland. Here the unused uranium was extracted for reuse as new HIFAR reactor fuel rods.
How much uranium was extracted in Dounreay?
The spent fuel was exported to the UK in a shipment in 1996. The spent fuel included approximately 16 kilograms of uranium, which was removed and recycled to create new fuel rods for the HIFAR reactor.
Were there guarantees the recycled uranium was used peacefully?
Yes. All uranium extracted from the spent fuel is legally required to be used for peaceful uses, in line with safeguards agreements covering Australia and the UK.
How much waste will return to Australia?
The Intermediate Level Waste returning from the UK will comprise four stainless steel canisters (containing the vitrified waste) which each weigh 500 kilograms and have a volume of 170 litres. The stainless steel canisters will be placed inside a single large shielded dual-purpose storage / transport container called a TN-81 which will weigh about 100 tonnes when empty.
How much will it cost to bring the waste back here and store it?
In the 2015 Budget, approximately $26.5 million was set aside for the safe repatriation of the waste from the UK.
Is there more waste to come from other countries?
Yes. Between 1963 and 2018 there were ten overseas shipments of spent nuclear fuel - five shipments to France, three shipments to the United States and two to the United Kingdom. Of that material:
- Waste from France for four shipments between 1999 and 2004, was returned in December 2015, and is safely held in an interim storage facility at Lucas Heights.
- Waste from a 1996 shipment to the United Kingdom will return in the 2022 financial year.
- Waste sent to the United States will stay there on a permanent basis, in line with their unique domestic arrangements to repatriate enriched uranium.
Into the future, we anticipate repatriating approximately one TN-81 every 20 years from reprocessing of OPAL spent fuel in France.
Is the waste returning to Australia dangerous?
No. Intermediate Level Waste is only hazardous if unshielded and uncontrolled. It does not generate significant heat and is shielded during handling, processing and storage to ensure safety for people and the environment.
The TN-81 which returned from France contains 20 x 500 kilogram canisters of intermediate level waste, compared to the four x 500 kilogram canisters in the TN-81 which will return from the UK. The TN-81 already in Australia is so heavily shielded that you cannot detect radiation when standing next to it. No special protective clothing is required when up close to the intermediate level waste shielded in the TN-81.
As another comparison, the Zwilag facility in Switzerland holds more than 20 similar containers to the one returning to Australia, including some with much more radioactive material. Because it is so heavily shielded and well controlled, the employees of Zwilag can walk around next to those containers with no special protective equipment.
Will there be any substitution?
Yes. In line with agreements in place, Australia will get a radiological equivalent amount compared to the spent fuel sent to UK. A strict accounting procedure is used to compute the equivalent amount, and that procedure is audited by independent parties.
In line with agreements negotiated by ANSTO, the waste returning to Australia will actually come from a different UK nuclear fuel reprocessing facility, Sellafield, to where the spent fuel was originally reprocessed in Dounreay. The Sellafield wasteform was selected because vitrified waste has a superior performance over time compared with cemented wastes forms, as for the Dounreay facility. What this means is that we will receive radiologically equivalent material which is in a far denser form, which is lower in volume and easier to store and eventually dispose of.
When will the next export of spent nuclear fuel occur?
After the 2022 shipment, it is anticipated that there will be a repatriation project about one every 20 years arising from reprocessing of OPAL spent fuel in France. Waste from multiple exports of spent fuel from the OPAL reactor will be returned in each TN-81 cask.
Transport via ship and truck
How will the Intermediate Level Waste be transported?
The Intermediate Level Waste will be transported from the UK in a dedicated, nuclear category rated (INF) ship, which is purpose-built for nuclear shipments.
Specialised ships and containers have been safely used in 180 nuclear shipments over more than 40 years - covering more than eight million kilometres. Once the ship comes into a port, it is proposed that it will be transported to the Interim Waste Facility at Lucas Heights by truck. The transport is subject to review under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and approval by ARPANSA. It is also subject to the ARPANS Act and the ASMA Act.
What is the process for stabilising the waste in the transport and storage container?
Consistent with international best practice, a multi-tier approach will be taken for the transport and storage of the waste. These can be described as follows:
- Firstly, removing the uranium for recycling.
- Secondly, stabilising the material into a glass (vitrified) form.
- Thirdly, pouring that glass into stainless steel canisters which each weigh 500 kgs (when full).
- Finally, insertion of the steel canisters into a shielded TN-81 transport and storage cask.
The TN-81 is made from forged steel. It is designed to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material 2018 Edition (SSR-6, Rev. 1) and ARPANSA’s national Code for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material (2019).
It is 6.5 metres long and 3 metres in diameter. Its walls are more than 20 centimetres thick and it weighs 100 tonnes when empty and 102 tonnes when loaded.
The container has impact limiters at each end to protect against projectiles and crashes, and can withstand drops of 9 metres, temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius, or a jet plane strike.
In testing, similar containers have withstood a crash impact of over 160km/hr.
Who is designing and building the TN-81 transport and storage cask?
The cask was designed by Orano NPS, whose specialisation includes the design and construction of containers to transport nuclear materials. It was assembled in Belgium with components from several nuclear-capable countries including Italy, Switzerland and France. The containers are widely used in Europe for transport and storage of waste. ANSTO engaged specialists to verify the fabrication and construction of the canister.
Has a similar TN-81 cask been used before?
Yes, the cask is a well-tested design, and is widely used throughout Europe for the transportation and storage of nuclear waste. The same cask was used in the successful 2015 repatriation of spent fuel wastes from France.
Was the same type of cask used to transport the material to the UK?
No. The material which was exported to the UK was spent fuel, which had different design and size characteristics to the reprocessed vitrified waste, and therefore different transport containers
How heavy is the TN81 cask?
The container will be approximately 100 tonnes when empty, and 102 tonnes when fully loaded.
Have there been any accidents involving this container type?
No there have been no accidents resulting the release of radioactivity which has harmed people or the environment.
What would happen if the cask cracked while it is in transit?
There is no credible chance of that happening. The cask is designed to withstand a drop of 9 metres, temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius, an earthquake or a jet plane crash.
Similar containers have been successfully used in 180 nuclear shipments around the world over more than 40 years.
Which port will the container arrive in?
For security reasons, we don’t comment on the ports, routes or timing associated with radioactive waste transports.
How will the safety of wharf and transport workers be ensured?
The safety of people involved in the loading and unloading of the container from the ship and transport to an Interim Waste Store will be ensured in a number of ways.
We can confirm that the TN-81 cask is tested by professionals for radioactive contamination at each major stage of the transport operation to ensure no contamination of people or equipment.
How will the waste be transported from the port to Lucas Heights?
Via a truck with a specialised multi-axle trailer suitable to carry the loaded container (which will weigh around 102 tonnes). The multi-axle trailers allow for the weight to be spread evenly.
Prior to leaving the dock, the truck will undergo a series of inspections to ensure compliance with the safety requirements of the independent nuclear regulator, ARPANSA, and other regulators.
What route would the truck take?
For security reasons, we don’t comment on the ports, routes or timing associated with radioactive waste transports.
We can confirm that we work with local state agencies and assess quality, traffic impacts and security considerations when considering the correct route.
Will there be any traffic impacts?
The route and timing will be coordinated to minimise traffic impacts.
What happens if there is an accident during shipping and trucking?
Every appropriate safety precaution will be taken to ensure there are no issues during the transport operation.
Specialised ships and containers have been used in 180 nuclear shipments over more than 40 years. The ships have safely covered millions of kilometres and there has never been a single incident resulting in the release of radioactivity.
And the engineering of the container will be extremely high. It could withstand a drop of 9 metres, temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius, an earthquake or a jet plane strike. In testing, similar containers have withstood a crash impact of over 160km/hr.
What security precautions will be in place during transport?
A full security plan will be put in place, and will inform decisions about the port, route, and timing of the transport. It will be developed in consultation with relevant Federal and State police, transport and security agencies.
Storage in Australia
Where is it proposed that the TN-81 will be stored?
It is proposed that the TN-81 will be stored next to the one which arrived from France in 2015, in ANSTO’s Interim Waste Store. They will remain there until establishment of a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility, at which point they will likely be sent there for storage, pending them meeting strong Waste Acceptance Criteria.
What security features does the Interim Waste Store have?
ANSTO has 60 years’ expertise in safely managing nuclear material and by-products, and is therefore able to safely manage the Intermediate Level Waste on an interim basis.
The building complies with the international and Australian requirements for storage of this class of material. Those requirements are set by organisations such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
More generally, as is on the public record, the existing security measures at ANSTO are appropriately extensive and include checkpoints, barriers, security cameras, electronic pass systems and armed 24-7 security personnel.
Will the TN-81 increase the radioactivity of Lucas Heights?
No. There is no discernible difference between radioactivity levels at Lucas Heights and those anywhere else in the country, and this operation will not change that.
What will happen to the interim waste storage facility after the removal of the Intermediate Level Waste?
As is on the record, after the waste is moved to a national repository, preliminary planning is for the building to be used in activities associated with the production of nuclear medicine. This would be subject to regulatory approval.
Alternative solutions considered
Why can’t the waste stay in the UK?
There are two reasons that this cannot happen.
Firstly, it is an accepted international principle that countries are responsible for the management of any radioactive waste that they produce. This is fair and equitable.
And secondly, in line with that, under the agreements the Australian Government signed up to with the UK, we are obligated to repatriate the material from the UK.
Couldn’t the waste stay in the UK until establishment of a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility?
No. The Australian Government has indicated that the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility will be delivered by about the end of this decade. Under contracts, it is not feasible for Australia’s waste to remain in the UK for that period of time.
Why can’t the waste be kept at Lucas Heights permanently?
Radioactive waste is spread over more than 100 locations including science facilities, universities and hospitals, and international best practice is that it be consolidated into a purpose-built facility.
The national facility could not be at Lucas Heights. It requires a 40-hectare footprint while the whole Lucas Heights campus is only 70 hectares (and it contains 100 buildings).
In addition, under Australian law, the national facility cannot be located at Lucas Heights.
Licensing and more information
Who will license the transport operation?
The transport operation will be subject to applications to the independent nuclear regulator, ARPANSA, and under the EPBC Act.
More broadly, ANSTO will consult with a number of organisations including relevant Australian and NSW Government agencies, local councils, and the medical and scientific community.