The nuclear facility in Sydney’s south produces radioisotopes for industrial and medical use. (ABC News: Philippa McDonald)
Ten years worth of nuclear waste from Australia’s only reactor will be exported for reprocessing in a secretive high-security operation later this year.
- The spent fuel rods will be reprocessed in France, then returned to Australia
- Australia’s only nuclear reactor is located at Lucas Heights in Sydney’s south
- The timing and route of the operation are a closely guarded secret
Spent nuclear fuel waste from the Open-Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor will be taken to a French facility, then return Down Under for storage.
The OPAL reactor — located at Lucas Heights in Sydney’s south — has a radioactive “core” about the size of a bar fridge and produces radioisotopes for industrial and medical use, including cancer treatment.
It is operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
Over the past decade, spent fuel rods have filled up a storage pond that sits aside the reactor, which is the size of a small swimming pool.
The rods are now due to be sent to France’s La Hague plant sometime in the middle of the year, but the date and route to the port remain confidential.
The La Hague plant deals with almost half of the spent fuel reprocessing from the world’s light water reactors.
It is the 10th time ANSTO will export nuclear waste and the first time for a decade.
The other nine times involved waste from ANSTO’s older High-Flux Australian Reactor, which was decomissioned in 2007 after 50 years of service.
Nuclear waste a controversial topic
There are approximately 100 nuclear waste storage sites around Australia.
Several Sydney councils have banned the transport of radioactive material within their boundaries.
The process has also been the subject of protest campaigns by organisations including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
ANSTO Chief Nuclear Officer Hef Griffiths said spent fuel has been transported for reprocessing since the 1970s.
“In that time we estimate there’s been about 250,000 shipments like this worldwide,” he said.
“The safety record is pretty impeccable.”
Mr Griffiths said the casks used to hold the spent fuel assemblies are “designed to withstand the impact of a fully laden F-16 fighter jet crashing into it without any release”.
Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said transporting spent nuclear fuel was not without incident.
“There are numerous documented examples of problems transporting spent fuel,” he said.
“In Germany and France in the 1990s there were serious contamination incidents which led German chancellor Angela Merkel to suspend the transport of nuclear fuel between the two countries.
“It’s dishonest for ANSTO to be claiming there’ve been no incidents of any consequence involving spent fuel transport,” Mr Green said.