Green light for first nuclear waste storage

Australia’s first purpose-built low-level radioactive waste facility has been granted final approval in Western Australia to start dealing with the nation’s massive stockpile of hazardous nuclear medicine, mining and other industrial waste that is spread across the country.

The Australian has confirmed that the WA government has granted a final approval licence to Australian firm Tellus Holdings to store low-level radioactive waste at a repository in Sandy Ridge, 240km northwest of Kalgoorlie, which could take hundreds of thousands of tonnes of stored waste from around the country.

With the federal government confirming it would need to establish a future high-level nuclear waste facility to deal with reactor fuel from the AUKUS nuclear submarine program, questions have been raised about the growing stockpiles of lower-level radioactive waste currently stored in more than 100 facilities across the country.

The Sandy Ridge repository will be the country’s first commercial facility to be licensed in Australia to take low-level radiological waste and store it in a stable geological repository, and is one of only a handful of its types in the world.

It is also licensed to take low level radioactive waste from the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney, as well as from defence facilities.

The commonwealth’s own proposed radioactive waste facility, Kimba in South Australia, is estimated to be at least a decade away from being constructed.

The licence approval, following agreement with traditional owners, will see it remediate contaminated oil and gas infrastructure, end-of-life mines and also deal with Australia’s massive stockpile of low-level radioactive waste from nuclear medicine, including diagnostic, treatment, research and other industries.

The near-surface geological repository will also be licensed to take low-level radioactive waste generated in the processing of critical minerals, which is estimated to eventually generate millions of tonnes of waste every year, as well as radioactive waste from the dismantling of offshore oil and gas rigs, which is estimated to cost more than $40bn.

The site is located in one of the most geologically stable zones in the world with the company claiming it was one of the “safest places” in Australia to store hazardous and low-level radioactive waste.

It is not licensed to take the high-level nuclear waste that would be produced by the need to one day dispose of nuclear reactors from submarines. However, the company said it could contribute its geological expertise and knowledge as the commonwealth begins a search for a geologically safe location for this purpose.

According to the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, the country’s stockpile of radioactive waste is spread across more than 100 locations around Australia, including science facilities, universities and hospital basements – and is increasing.

Tellus chief executive Nate Smith told The Australian the site would provide a critical link in developing Australia’s first multibillion-dollar hazardous waste industry.

“Putting AUKUS aside, we create massive amounts of low level radioactive waste … there is no other place to put it other than shipping it offshore,” Mr Smith said.

“With this approval, we believe Sandy Ridge truly is the safest place for hazardous waste in Australia. A licence to dispose of low-level radioactive material is only given to companies that can demonstrate the highest environmental safety standards – we are one of only a handful worldwide.

“Australians are more environmentally conscious than ever before. In providing this new option, we are proud our clients need no longer compromise between economic development and responsible environmental outcomes.”

Sandy Ridge was granted approval in 2021 to take class V hazardous waste.

However, the McGowan government only granted final approval in January this year for the facility to take low-level radioactive waste as well, following a review by WA’s Radiological Council which advises the minister for health.

It is estimated that there are 18,000 reported disused sealed radioactive sources stored throughout Australia, some in the basements of hospitals and universities.

It is also believed there is a considerable unreported source of materials being stored.

The Australian
By Simon Benson
16 March 2023

© 2023 The Australian Newspaper

Christopher Chan
Christopher Chan