"Still no time to waste": expert

6 May 2016

Man transporting radioactive waste

National radioactive waste management: There is (still) no time to waste

It was twenty years ago last month that the Parliament of Australia released No Time to Waste, a hefty report which, amongst other things, noted that the search for a single place to store Australia’s radioactive waste had commenced almost 20 years before that, in 1979.

Fast forward to today, and there is still no national facility, and radioactive waste is still spread over more than 100 locations across Australia.

Current storage ‘solutions’ include hospital basements, research facilities including some in suburban Sydney, active mining sites where people work, and even some Universities. 

Today we have 4250 cubic metres of low level radioactive waste accumulated, and another 656 cubic metres of intermediate level waste, with more returned from France last year after reprocessing was completed, and more again due from the United Kingdom in a few years.

While this isn’t much compared to many overseas countries, it still needs to be managed properly.

Australia needs a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility to manage the waste which has banked up over 60 years, and is mostly associated with the production of nuclear medicine that on average, one in two Australians are likely to need at some point during their lifetime. 

We need this facility to be constructed at a single site in line with international best practice, we need it to be well-built, safe, monitored and well regulated, and we need it delivered soon. 

The fundamental problem has been the selection of a site for a radioactive waste facility.

The attempts made to do so following the No Time to Waste report followed a top-down path in which sites were determined in advance and then defended against community attack. Finally, the Parliament in 2012 settled on a process involving the voluntary nomination of sites.

Now it’s time for action.

Politically, the need for a centralised facility now has bipartisan support across multiple levels of government.  

Socially, the Government has moved from suggesting sites to prioritising community consultation in all stages of the project, especially site selection.

Environmentally, international experience has now demonstrated that highly-engineered and well-regulated low and intermediate level repositories can be managed safety with no impact on the community or agricultural industry. 

And with those factors ticked off, we are now well on the path, and we need to support the landowner at Barndioota and spur on our Government, if for no other reason than there is no alternative. 

A series of Band-Aid solutions have been put in place, like extending and extending again radioactive waste capacity at Lucas Heights, but these are no longer an option given ANSTO is fast filling with science infrastructure, and the developable areas around it are filling even quicker with homes.

Sending our waste overseas is not an option.

Ceasing the creation of nuclear medicine, the production of which is the reason for a lot of this waste, would cripple the health system and deny diagnosis or treatment to half a million patients a year.

A National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is the only option to manage the waste that is a direct result of more than 60 years of Australian medicine production and research.

I congratulate the Parliament for delivering a process that can achieve this outcome, and encourage the Government to forge on, in lock step with the Opposition, through the upcoming election.   

I believe that I can assure the landowners who nominated sites, and their local communities in particular, that their confidence that the Australian Government has the expertise to get this right is very well placed.

There is no Australian regulator that is more independent or strong than the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), which would oversee this facility.

Using the standards and guidance developed with international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the Australian nuclear regulator will make sure that this facility is safe, forever.

Australia needs its National Radioactive Waste Management Facility, and this will be overseen by a strict, independent regulator which places the safety and security of the facility, and the protection of those who live nearby, work in it and visit it, first.


Dr John Loy
Former CEO of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA)

First published in The Australian, 6 May, 2016.