Radioactive Waste Repository & Store for Australia

Appendix to Australia's Uranium paper

  • Australia has a relatively small amount of low-level radioactive waste and rather less volume of intermediate-level waste.
  • Six volunteered sites were shortlisted for a national repository for both categories of waste, and one site has been selected from these, as the culmination of a 28-year process.
  • In July 2020 the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency was set up to manage all radioactive waste.

While Australia has no nuclear power producing electricity, it does have well-developed usage of radioisotopes in medicine, research and industry. Many of these isotopes are produced in the research reactor at Lucas Heights, near Sydney, then used at hospitals, industrial sites and laboratories around the country.

Each year Australia produces about 45 cubic metres of radioactive waste arising from these uses and from the manufacture of the isotopes – about 40 m³ low-level waste (LLW) and 5 m³ intermediate-level waste (ILW). This LLW is now stored at over a hundred sites around Australia. This is not considered a suitable long-term situation. Early in 2015 the government said there were 4248 m³ of LLW awaiting disposal and 656 m³ of ILW awaiting better storage. Two containers – about 25 tonnes – of ILW from reprocessing ANSTO research reactor fuel in France arrived in December 2015.

Since the late 1970s there was an evolving process of site selection for a national radioactive waste repository for LLW and short-lived ILW. There was also consideration of the need to locate a secure storage facility for long-lived intermediate-level waste including waste which will be returned to Australia following the reprocessing of used fuel from Lucas Heights. The site selection process formally commenced in 1992.

A commercial LLW repository was opened in 2021 by Tellus. The Sandy Ridge facility is located about 240 km northwest of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, and has been licensed since January 2023. The repository uses kaolin clay on a bed of impermeable granite to isolate LLW and other hazardous wastes. A large airdome protects the repository from rain, wind and hazardous waste leaks.

A second facility, the Mt Walton East Intractable Waste Disposal Facility, was established in 1992 and is located about 480 km northeast of Perth, and managed by a division of the WA Department of Finance. It is solely for Western Australia’s LLW.

In July 2020 a new body to manage radioactive waste was set up, the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency (ARWA) within the Department of Industry, Science, Energy & Resources. It will act as the authority on radioactive waste in Australia and work with stakeholders including waste producers, industry, the community, and government agencies, to best manage radioactive waste. It will become a non-corporate Commonwealth entity based in Adelaide, South Australia, and will lead the process to deliver Australia’s National Radioactive Waste Management Facility in Napandee near Kimba, SA.

International practice

In other countries vastly more such waste is produced. Around the world, nuclear power generation produces over 150,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level waste each year, and the extensive use of radioisotopes in medicine and industry would add to this. The UK and France each produce about 25,000 cubic metres of LLW annually.

LLW and short-lived ILW is disposed of in various ways, mostly in shallow burial. It is often incinerated or compacted first, to reduce the volume. Near-surface disposal of such waste has been going on in about 70 facilities in several countries for over 35 years. A further 30 repositories are expected to open in the next few years.

Classification of radioactive waste

There are several systems of nomenclature in use, but the following is generally accepted:

  • Exempt waste – excluded from regulatory control because radiological hazards are negligible.
  • Low-level waste (LLW) – contains enough radioactive material to require action for the protection of people, but not so much that it requires shielding in handling or storage.
  • Intermediate-level waste (ILW) – requires shielding. If it has more than 4000 Bq/g of long-lived (over 30 year half-life) alpha emitters it is categorised as 'long-lived ILW' – category S – and requires more sophisticated handling and disposal.
  • High-level waste (HLW) – sufficiently radioactive to require both shielding and cooling, generates >2 kW/m³ of heat and has a high level of long-lived alpha-emitting isotopes.

In Commonwealth government documents, low-level waste is 'category A', short-lived ILW  'category B' if amenable to embedding in concrete prior to disposal, or 'category C' if bulk material. Both require at least 5 metres of cover. Long-lived ILW is 'category S'.

Repositories are often located in populated areas and farming areas. France's main repository (for 1 million cubic metres), the Centre de l'Aube, is in the Champagne district, a former one is among Normandy farms, and the Drigg site is in UK in a scenic part of Cumbria, albeit not far from the Sellafield industrial complex.

Long-lived intermediate-level waste requires a higher degree of isolation from the biosphere and it is put into engineered geological repositories, or held in surface storage pending the development of such repositories.

High-level waste (HLW), typically the used fuel from power reactors or the waste left over from reprocessing this used fuel, contains most of the radioactivity from the nuclear fuel cycle. It generates heat due to the high radioactivity and requires cooling as well as shielding. (Australia does not have any high-level waste. It has spent fuel from the research reactor* – if waste, it would be defined as 'intermediate-level', and the waste which results from reprocessing it abroad would be returned as long-lived ILW for disposal or storage.)

* Spent fuel from the HIFAR research reactor contains relatively high-enriched uranium and requires reprocessing because of the degradability of the aluminium cladding of the fuel.

Australian needs

Any radioactive waste which requires it will be stabilised and solidified. Only waste in solid, stable form and devoid of corrosive or reactive materials would be accepted at the repository or store.

Toxic waste disposal

Other toxic waste in Australia is either sent to licensed disposal sites or held in storage. Much of this, such as chromium waste, copper-chrome-arsenic, mercury compounds, PCBs, organochlorines and hexachlorobenzene is in liquid form. Radioactive waste is treated much more conservatively than other toxic waste in relation to risks to people and the environment. Most of the other toxic waste does not break down naturally in a way which corresponds to the progressive decay of radioactivity. Some have actually had significant health and environmental effects.

In countries with nuclear power, civil radioactive waste comprises about 1% of overall toxic waste. In Australia that proportion is very much less.

Low-level and short-lived intermediate level waste will be disposed of in a shallow, engineered repository designed to ensure that radioactive material is contained and allowed to decay safely to background levels. Dry conditions will allow a simpler structure than some overseas repositories. The material will be buried in drums or contained in concrete. The repository would have a secure multi-layer cover at least 5 metres thick, so that it does not add to local background radiation levels at the site.

Over half of the present 400+ m3 of LLW is lightly-contaminated soil from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) mineral processing research over 40 years ago (and could conceivably be reclassified, since it is no more radioactive than many natural rocks and sands). Annual arisings are small (the 40 cubic metres would be three truckloads).

Long-lived intermediate-level (category S) waste will be stored above ground in an engineered facility designed to hold it secure for an extended period and to shield its radiation until a geological repository is eventually justified and established, or alternative arrangements made.

There is about 650 cubic metres of category S waste at various locations awaiting disposal, and future annual arisings will be about five cubic metres from all sources including states & territories, Commonwealth agencies and from radiopharmaceutical production. To this will be added about 30 m3 of returned waste from reprocessing spent ANSTO research reactor fuel in Europe. This will be conditioned by vitrification or embedding in cement.

Eight shipments of used fuel from ANSTO’s research reactors have been sent overseas between 1996 and 2009 – four to France, three to the USA and one to the UK. The French ones were for reprocessing, and the vitrified intermediate-level waste from that was required under French law to be repatriated by the end of 2015. Following arrival by nuclear-rated ship at Port Kembla, 25 tonnes of vitrified waste was transported under the supervision of state and federal authorities to ANSTO’s Lucas Heights campus. There it is being stored in a purpose-built facility until a national waste repository is sited and built by the federal government. Waste from reprocessing in the UK will be repatriated later. Used fuel sent to the USA will be retained and disposed of there, in line with US policy.

Australian plans – siting

In 1992, with the full cooperation of all state and territory governments, the Commonwealth government initiated an Australia-wide survey to site a low level waste repository. In May 2003 a final site for the national repository near Woomera in South Australia was decided. The disposal area of the repository would be about 100 metres square, with long trenches up to 20 metres deep. It would be set in a 2.25 square kilometre buffer zone.

In 2001 the government decided to locate the ILW store on the same site as the LLW repository. For this, a secure building with concrete vaults for the category S waste would occupy a similar area at Woomera.

But in mid-2004, bowing to state-level political implications, the Australian government abandoned these plans and told the states each to set up their own, to international standards. This failure in cooperation appeared to conclude twelve years of thorough bipartisan progress to locate and licence a single national facility. "All states and territories accepted the need for the safe and secure disposal, in one place, of low-level waste. But no-one wants it in their backyard." The Commonwealth government, owner of most existing low-level waste (then totalling about 3700 cubic metres) and virtually all the ILW, started to look for a new site on commonwealth land to take only its waste.

Northern Territory plans

In July 2005 the government announced that a new Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Facility would be located at one of three sites in the Northern Territory, selection to be based on "field assessment", followed by environmental assessment and licensing. This would involve co-located ILW store and LLW repository, and the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 was passed. In the light of "the failure of the states and territories to cooperate with the Australian government in finding a national solution for the safe and secure disposal of low-level radioactive waste" and their making a political football out of it in 2004, they would need to make their own arrangements elsewhere.

In May 2007 the Northern Land Council (NLC), an elected Aboriginal body in the Northern Territory, with the Ngapa clan who are the traditional owners, nominated the Muckaty pastoral holding as a potential site for the national radioactive waste facility. If the site is suitable the traditional owners would sign over 1.5 square kilometres for a long lease and receive A$ 12 million in benefits. In September 2007 the government accepted this nomination and Muckaty was assessed along with Harts Range, Mount Everard and Fishers Ridge as potential sites for a low-level waste repository and an intermediate-level waste store, then planned to open in 2011. However, a change of federal government derailed plans and the issue again became a political football.

New legislation

In April 2012 a new National Radioactive Waste Management Act came into effect, establishing a slightly different legislative framework for siting the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility for both ILW and LLW on volunteered land. It applies to all Australian radioactive waste, not simply that which is the direct responsibility of the commonwealth government. The 2005 Act was repealed.

The Muckaty, NT site remained under consideration, but some of the traditional owners dissented and launched legal action to again derail the process. The NLC then withdrew the application in June 2014 due to “divisions within the aboriginal community” exacerbated by “outside pressures”.

New call for site nominations

Following the Muckaty withdrawal and arising directly from it, in March 2015 the federal government called for nominations by 5 May 2015 of sites from any landholder “to store Australia’s intermediate-level radioactive waste and dispose of low-level waste.” An independent advisory panel would assess the nominated sites against a number of "criteria and objectives including community well-being, stable environment, environmental protection, health, safety and security and economic viability," after which, and following public consultation, the government would negotiate with the landholder of the selected site. "The government will also engage with the community in closest proximity to the selected site and will discuss a package of benefits in recognition of the potential construction and operational requirements of the facility.”

In response, 28 sites were nominated by landholders and by November 2015 these had been reduced to a shortlist of six, in three states and NT. After public consultation in each area, involving Geoscience Australia and ANSTO, a provisional selection was made in April 2016 of three sites in South Australia. The first was Wallerberdina Station, near Barndioota, 40 km west of Hawker in the northern Flinders Ranges, with two sites near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula also being suitable. In December 2019 the local community at Hawker voted 53% against this proposal so in February 2020 the government identified Napandee, 20 km west of Kimba, as the preferred site, since 62% of that community was in favour. Kimba is on the Eyre Highway. The owners of the land will sell about 160 ha to the Commonwealth on generous terms and the local community would receive about $31 million community development package. 

Transport to any site will be regulated according to the relevant code of practice, but the low-level waste will require little in the way of special provisions. Low-level and short-lived intermediate level materials are transported in Australia every day and are considered less hazardous than flammable and toxic liquids such as petrol.

South Australian Royal Commission

In February 2015 the South Australian government announced a royal commission on nuclear power and related matters. Its draft terms of reference include inquiring and reporting on “the feasibility of establishing facilities in South Australia for the management, storage and disposal of nuclear and radioactive waste from the use of nuclear and radioactive materials in power generation, industry, research and medicine (but not for, or from, military uses), any circumstances necessary for those facilities to be established and to be viable, the risks and opportunities associated with establishing and operating those facilities, and any measures that might need to be taken to facilitate and regulate their establishment and operation.”

The Royal Commission’s recommendations did not address the national repository and store plans, but did include a recommendation to pursue the opportunity to establish used nuclear fuel and intermediate-level waste storage and disposal facilities in South Australia. This is discussed in the information paper on International Nuclear Waste Disposal Concepts.

Notes & references

General sources

Australian government, Our Radioactive Waste information kit, including: A Radioactive Waste Repository for Australia: Site Selection Study – Phase 3: Regional Assessment, public discussion paper, Bureau of Resource Sciences (1997); Our Radioactive Waste: Managing it Safely The Facts, not Fiction, Community consultation, Department of Primary Industries and Energy (1998)
National Radioactive Waste Repository, Site Selection Study Phase 3, A Report on Public Comment, Australian government (June 1999)
Website of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy & Resources' Australian Radioactive Waste Agency
Radioactive Waste Management in Perspective, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (1996)
Management of Radioactive Waste in Australia, ANSTO (January 2011)

Radioactive Waste – Myths and Realities