Nuclear Waste

Lucas Heights

Lucas Heights near Sydney has been the centre of the Australian Government's nuclear operations since 1956.

The facility was initially under the control of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), which was set up in 1953.

Over the years the focus of the facility has changed from preparing for nuclear power in Australia to a broader range of nuclear activities including nuclear power, uranium mining , nuclear medicine and nuclear research, industrial uses, and environmental management of former uranium mining sites such as Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory.

An attempt by the AAEC to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay south of Sydney was eventually abandoned in 1972. No further attempts to build nuclear power stations in Australia have been made since then.

The AAEC was replaced in 1987 by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO).

Two nuclear reactors have been built at Lucas Heights. The smaller reactor Moata has been mothballed. The larger reactor HIFAR (High Flux Australian Reactor) is over 40 years old (began operations in 1958) and is due to be shut down within the next ten years.

A decision has been made to replace HIFAR with a bigger reactor built in Argentina. This project awaits the drawing up of firm plans for the management of nuclear waste from the reactor. These plans have been set back by the South Australian Government's decision to prohibit importation of intermediate and high level nuclear waste into SA.

Lucas Heights is by far the largest single source of radioactive waste in Australia. This waste includes the mothballed Moata nuclear reactor and will eventually include HIFAR.

Reactor fuel waste

The most dangerous nuclear waste generated at Lucas Heights is the spent fuel, which is currently being stored in pools of water. Spent fuel is an inevitable part of operating HIFAR and is constantly being produced. If the larger Argentinean nuclear reactor is built then the rate of production of  nuclear fuel waste will increase significantly.

When spent nuclear fuel rods are removed from a nuclear reactor, they are hot and very radioactive. The spent nuclear fuel must be cooled and workers must be protected against the ionizing radiation. The spent nuclear fuel is stored in ponds of water at the nuclear reactor site. The storage ponds are steel lined concrete tanks, about 8 metres deep. The water cools the spent nuclear fuel rods and acts as a shield to protect the workers against the ionizing radiation. The heat and radioactivity decrease over time - after about 40 years they are down to about 1/1000 of what they were when taken from the reactor, but they are still highly radioactive. The longer they are stored, the easier they are to deal with.

Some  nuclear fuel waste is sent to plants in the United Kingdom and France where plutonium and unused uranium are separated from the most highly radioactive isotopes. The plutonium is formed from the dominant uranium isotope U-238. The separated uranium and plutonium may be used in either nuclear weapons or as fuel for nuclear reactors. In both France and the UK the reprocessing is carried out by the Government, which also controls the nuclear weapons facilities.

The plutonium presents a special problem because it is the preferred explosive for nuclear weapons.

In some cases the plutonium is mixed with uranium to make mixed oxide (MOx) nuclear reactor fuel.

Disposal of spent nuclear fuel waste and encapsulated waste has been delayed for many years due to the difficulty of finding suitable disposal sites.

Greater technical detail can be found on this topic by searching through the listed briefing papers and education resources at
In this section - Nuclear Waste

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