Radioactive Waste: Australia

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy written question – answered on 12th October 2017.

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Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, what estimate he has made of the total volume of UK-generated radioactive waste that will be sent to Australia's proposed national radioactive waste facility; what the origins are of the waste that will be returned to Australia for disposal in that facility; and what the level of radioactivity is of all the waste that will be sent to that facility.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

In 1996 the Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) signed a contract with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) for the processing of spent nuclear fuel from the Australian research reactor at the Dounreay reprocessing facility. The contract contained an obligation to return uranium and an option to return waste which is supported by a MoU between the UK and Australian Governments in the form of an intergovernmental letter. The radioactive waste, which arose from the processing, comprises several tens of drums of cemented waste. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) assumed responsibility for the material when it became owners of Dounreay in 2005.

Cemented waste is challenging in terms of transport and volume, and for the ANSTO waste the return would require multiple moves or the provision of new flasks to ensure transport can be secured. The Scottish and UK Governments consulted on a proposed policy of radioactive waste substitution for the radioactive waste arising from historic fuel reprocessing contracts with overseas customers at Dounreay in 2010. Agreement was reached between the Scottish and UK Governments on 16 March 2012. Waste substitution is an internationally accepted practice where a radiological equivalent amount of waste is returned to the customer in a form that is acceptable. A contract was signed in 2014 with the NDA to enable waste substitution.

The substituted radioactive waste will be in the form of four vitrified residue containers holding waste which falls within the activity levels of Intermediate Level Waste. The vitrified residue (sealing of radioactive waste in molten glass poured into engineered stainless steel containers) comes from Sellafield. Waste in this form is immobilised. The cemented drums containing the Australian-origin radioactive waste from the processing of the spent nuclear fuel will be retained and managed at Dounreay pending final disposal, as the Dounreay Intermediate Level Waste stores are designed to accept it.

The vitrified residues are forecast to be returned to Australia by 2022 and are expected to be stored in an authorised storage facility located at Lucas Heights near Sydney, where the Australian research reactor is located. Following storage at Lucas Heights the vitrified residues will be co-located with a new disposal facility for Low Level Waste and will be temporary stored at that facility.

The Australian Government accepts that it has an international obligation to receive the vitrified residues. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS) is charged with identifying a site – National Radioactive Waste Management Facility – for its Low Level Waste currently stored in 100 different places around Australia. The NDA has been informed that following a public consultation process across Australia, DIIS is now actively engaged in dialogue with two communities in South AustraliaWallerberdina Station, near Hawker, and at Kimba. A decision on where the facility will be located has not yet been made.

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