ANSTO is regulated by an independent nuclear safety regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
Australia is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which sets international standards for safely managing radioactive waste.
What is radioactive waste?
Radioactive waste contains radioactive elements that send out higher levels of radiation than natural background radiation.
Radioactive waste can be classified into three main categories - low, intermediate and high.
Low-level waste emits radiation at levels which generally require minimal shielding during handling, transport and storage.
Ninety-two per cent of the radioactive waste produced by ANSTO is low-level waste, made up of paper, plastic, gloves, cloths and filters which contain small amounts of radioactivity.
This waste is shredded and compressed into 200 litre drums, which are safely stored on-site. The radioactivity is measured using a scanning system.
The drums are bar-coded and the radioactive content of each drum is entered into a database to ensure that the waste is safely, securely and efficiently managed in compliance with the standards set by the IAEA and the Australian regulator ARPANSA.
Intermediate-level waste emits higher levels of radiation and requires additional shielding during handling, transport and storage.
A contact dose rate of 2 millisieverts per hour and above is used to distinguish between low and intermediate waste. Intermediate-level waste at ANSTO is generated from radiopharmaceutical production and reactor operations. Approximately 3.5 cubic metres of solid intermediate-level waste is generated each year.
High-level waste has higher levels of radiation which requires increased shielding and isolation from human contact and requires cooling due to its heat-generating capacity. It is produced from the operation of nuclear power plants. No high-level waste is produced at ANSTO.
Radioactivity gradually diminishes as the radioactive elements decay into more stable elements, so waste gradually becomes less radioactive and safer to handle over time.
Nuclear medicine waste cycle
The diagram below provides a simplified flowchart of the waste products resulting from the production of nuclear medicine at ANSTO.
What sort of waste is stored at ANSTO?
ANSTO stores low-level waste and a small amount of intermediate-level waste. ANSTO currently holds and manages approximately 447 m3 of intermediate-level waste and 1,949 m3 of low-level waste.
What about used or spent fuel?
Used or spent fuel from the OPAL Reactor is not categorised as waste in Australia. It is stored at ANSTO until it is ready for shipment overseas for permanent storage, or for reprocessing to remove uranium and plutonium for re-use in nuclear programs located in other countries.
Used or spent fuel from ANSTO's previous reactors has been shipped overseas for permanent storage in the USA and for reprocessing in France and the United Kingdom. Waste produced from the reprocessing of the used fuel sent to France was returned to Australia as intermediate-level waste in 2015.
The reprocessed waste will eventually be stored in a national radioactive waste management facility following a site selection process by the Federal Government.
Does ANSTO manage all the radioactive waste in Australia?
No. Radioactive waste is managed at around 100 locations around Australia, including hospitals, industrial sites, mines and at ANSTO. In total ANSTO only manages about 45% of the low-level radioactive waste in Australia.
All radioactive waste in Australia is managed in accordance with national and international standards. The management of waste generated by Commonwealth bodies, including ANSTO, is regulated by an independent safety regulator ARPANSA.
State and local Governments, private companies, and individuals that hold radioactive waste are regulated by the local radiation protection regulator (usually an agency responsible for environmental protection or health) in each state or territory.
More information about the management of radioactive waste in Australia can be found at the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility website.