AUKUS submarine deal sparks serious nuclear waste question for Australia

Australia lacks a long-term nuclear storage facility and waste is currently housed at over 100 sites across the country.

Australia’s decision to invest in nuclear-powered submarines under its AUKUS agreement with the US and UK, has triggered debate around how to dispose of the waste they will create.

Associate Professor Nigel Marks, a nuclear materials scientist at Curtin University, believes the $368 billion announcement has “shifted the needle” in regards to the nation’s acceptance of nuclear technology, but authorities still haven't answered the question of what we will do with spent materials.

While this may sound like a daunting challenge, he believes the issue of storage is “more of a social problem” than a technological one. “It's not like scientists don't know what to do with it,” he said. “Australia has really good technology for locking up high-level radioactive waste.”

Left - Nuclear waste barrels. Right - Anthony Albanese and Joe Biden at the AUKUS announcement
Australia must now decide how it will house its spent nuclear materials. Source: Getty/Reuters

Assoc Prof Marks' conclusion was backed by Professor Andrew Stuchbery, Australian National University’s head of nuclear physics, who said Australia has an excellent reputation in terms of nuclear non-proliferation and security. “Safety is pretty good too, although we had an instance just recently of a (radioactive capsule) being lost by a mining company. But it was found,” he quipped.

Nuclear waste likely to be sent back to Australia

Storing the nuclear waste is a problem that's decades away as the submarines will not be delivered until the 2030s and 2040s, and the nuclear components are expected to last at least 30 years.

It’s likely the waste will be sent back to Australia after their nuclear engines are eventually decommissioned. The precedent for dealing with spent fuel has been set by the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor program, which creates medical supplies. That waste is shipped to UK, France or the US for reprocessing and then repatriated for storage, something Prof Stuchbery believes would need to continue because of nuclear proliferation considerations.

The waste problem posed by the submarine could force Australia to deal with its growing problem of radioactive medical waste, experts believe. “We've always really just done nothing, then tried to do something, and then it gets too hard. And we stop again,” Assoc Prof Marks said.

While a site in South Australia was nominated by the former Coalition government, local Indigenous landholders oppose the plan. Australia lacks a long-term storage facility, and waste is currently stored at around 100 sites around the country, with the majority held at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). Prof Stuchbery describes the ongoing debate as to where its permanent home should be as “a long saga”, but he's hopeful it will soon be solved.

“Nuclear medicine is probably a bigger problem for the country than this nuclear waste from eight submarines over a 30 or 40-year period is likely to be,” Prof Stuchbery said.

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