Week 11 - Management, Storage and Disposal of Nuclear and Radioactive Waste

What risks and opportunities would arise if spent nuclear fuel was imported for storage and disposal in South Australia?


  1. Any risk assessment for the management of spent nuclear fuel should firstly consider the current management practice internationally. In considering the possible establishment of a new facility, it should firstly be accepted that transportation of spent nuclear fuel to any centralized facility presents risk which could be avoided entirely if waste is managed at or near its present locations.

    In some cases, spent nuclear fuel is currently stored in closer proximity to human populations than desirable, so I can understand some host nations’ desire to export their spent nuclear fuel liability to a distant receiving country like Australia. I also acknowledge the position presented by Barry Brook and Ben Heard that future reprocessing technology may be able to separate uranium and plutonium from the spent fuel and produce electricity as a by-product of this process. The risk associated with this vision of the future is that such technology currently expressed in theory may never eventuate, and the spent nuclear fuel may thus prove to be an extremely long-lived management liability.

    Risks which Australia should consider if considering the prospect of importing spent nuclear fuel include the possible appropriation of shipments by terrorist groups either in transit or after receipt. Similarly, a transport vessel may be attacked and join the number of sunken nuclear-fuelled submarines slowly corroding on the seabed around the world, destined to have unknown ecological impacts. As this Commission is no doubt aware, spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed to obtain plutonium and uranium, both of which can be then repurposed as weapons material. This has serious implications for nuclear weapons proliferation risk.

    Following receipt of spent nuclear fuel, the responsibility for protecting this material would presumably become Australia’s and would remain so for centuries (pending some technological breakthough in speculative technology). Should Australia enter war during the course of the life of the radioactivity contained in the stored spent fuel, or otherwise become a future terrorist target, any centralized repository of spent nuclear fuel represents a potential air-strike or bomb target.

    If such an attack were to occur, storage vessels may be ruptured and release radioactive material to the atmosphere, essentially functioning as a ‘dirty bomb’. Wherever spent nuclear fuel is stored, it is my opinion that every measure should be made to protect it from air-strike or terrorist attack. The fallout from such an event would lead to the establishment of a new sacrifice zone, akin to those surrounding stricken Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants. Consequences for human health would take years to manifest and be demonstrably linked to such an event- meanwhile displaced persons would suffer anguish and may, as in the case of Fukushima, lead to people taking their own lives. Should such a facility be located in the South Australian outback, those most directly affected would likely be indigenous Australians, who would mourn the event as a colossal, cultural loss as their connection to country is severely damaged.

    Obviously wartime or terror attack-proofing of spent fuel storage is not achieved in many locations where spent nuclear fuel is currently stored. I would assume that the quantity of these stores would be smaller than any proposed new facility, dedicated exclusively to the storage of spent nuclear fuel. Perhaps there is a case for improving management of spent nuclear fuel at or near existing storage.

    Should a new facility be constructed, it should (in my opinion) be secure and underground, in a position where water infiltration is extremely unlikely. Examples of corrosion and water infiltration proving problematic for nuclear waste storage facilities include Orchid Island (Taiwan) and Yucca Mountain (USA).

    When all is thoroughly considered, it might be concluded that the improvement and standardisation of current storage practise at or near locations where spent fuel is currently held provides an alternative pathway to proceed down if the objective of this exercise is risk minimisation.

  2. Michels Warren and Nuclear Waste Dumping in SA
    Michels Warren is a PR company working for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. The company was involved in the Howard government’s failed 6-year attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia. A great deal of information is available about the role of Michels Warren in this controversy thanks to documents released under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation.
    A September 27, 2000 email written by Stephen Middleton from Michels Warren talked about the need to “soften up the community” and “sell” the repository: “We will lose ground once again unless we can soften up the community on the need for the repository and the reasons why SA has been identified as the best location. The prospect of the Minister announcing the preferred site before we can get to the community with something that explains what it all means makes my head spin. The wider research into issues such as Lucas Heights, uranium mining, the nuclear fuel cycle etc etc can be tackled as a separate issue. It should not hold up anything we are doing in terms of selling the repository to South Australians. The rest of the country probably doesn’t care less about the repository, but it is a big issue in SA. Further delays could be potentially disastrous.”
    Why was a South Australian company willingly involving itself in the federal government’s nuclear dump plans? After all, Michels Warren itself acknowledges that the dump is an unwanted imposition on SA. A 2003 Michels Warren document released under FoI legislation stated: “The National Repository could never be sold as “good news” to South Australians. There are few, if any, tangible benefits such as jobs, investment or improved infrastructure. Its merits to South Australians, at the most, are intangible and the range and complexity of issues make them difficult to communicate.”
    So why was Michels Warren dumping on its home state? Money, of course. In total, Michels Warren was paid at least $487,000 to dump on SA … and possibly much more. Michels Warren staff were paid at rates up to $192.50 per hour for their work on the nuclear dump campaign.
    An August 16, 2000 “high priority” email reveals that Caroline Perkins, a senior official in the Department of Industry, Science and Resources – at that time under the direction of Senator Nick Minchin – was asked to compile information on protesters. “[T[he minister wants a short biography of our main opponents in the Ivy campaign by about 11am our time (pre-rally)”, the email said. The rest of the email is blacked out under FoI provisions. The email refers to a Michels Warren employee – no doubt Michels Warren helped compile the biographies.
    In 1999 Michels Warren was working hard “obviating the impact of campaigns by opponents and the ‘I’m With Ivy Campaign’ run by Ch 7.”
    The Michels Warren worksheet for February 2000 includes the following: “Liaise investigator re green planning. Liaise R Yeeles [from WMC Ltd.] re updated intelligence.” Was Michels Warren employing a private investigator as that comment suggests? Is Michels Warren now employing a private investigator as part of its work for Kevin Scarce and the Royal Commission?
    On March 28, 2000, Michels Warrne invoiced $150 for activities concerned with a “Protest at South Australian Parliament”, and $160 four days earlier to “Liaise WMC, Police and media re weekend protests.”
    And in April 2000: “check re new protest activities”, “liaise SA Police re same”, “internet search re protests”, and “update intelligence re OHMS Not Boms protest group”.
    In March 2000, Rosemary Marcon, a government official, asked Michels Warren for the details of an “activist website which we should monitor”. She was advised by Michels Warren that the site is http://www.lockon.org. Evidently that piece of ‘intelligence’ was off-beam – the website advertised streaming live shows from nude male dancers in Montreal!
    The FoI documentation is frequently contemptuous of opponents of the planned nuclear waste dump (about 80% of the South Australian population). The option of displaying the Environmental Impact Statement in the Conservation Centre of South Australia is treated as a joke. Opponents of the dump are described as “anti-nuclear anarchists”. Michels Warren co-founder Daryl Warren refers in a July 14, 2003 email to protests and “demons”. On July 10, 2003, Warren stated that: “It has become apparent during the week that people seem to have lost the plot on the repository as it becomes embroiled in a political fight.”
    In response to an invitation to the federal science minister to attend a conference at Adelaide University in March 2000, Michel’s Warren employee Stephen Middleton recommends against attending the conference. Middleton wrote: “The better option is to:
    (i) dismiss the gathering as nothing more than a stunt
    (ii) attempt to discredit it with counter media measures before, during and after.”
    The FoI material reveals that photographs were doctored to suit the government’s ends. A February 14, 2000 email from a senior government official to Michels Warren’s graphic designer refers to a photo “with the sandhills removed.” The rationale was explained in a December 13, 1999 email by the same government official: “Dunes are a sensitive area with respect to Aboriginal Heritage.”
    The February, 2000 email also asked: “Can the horizon be straightened up as well.”
    Scare campaign
    A recurring theme in the exchanges between the federal government and Michels Warren is the attempt to justify the dump by mounting a scare-campaign in relation to existing storage facilities. Yet they get their lines muddled up. One document released under FoI includes that statement that “none” of the waste “is stored satisfactorily” in existing stores. That is in direct contradiction to a June 2000 document document under Senator Nick Minchin’s name (“Radioactive waste: the eight biggest myths”), which states: “The safety of the storage of radioactive waste is proven by the fact that there are fifty stores around Australia housing radioactive waste and there has never been an accident exposing a person to unsafe levels of radiation.”
    And in a May 17, 2000 media release, Minchin said: “South Australians have nothing to fear from radioactive waste. The fact is that waste is already stored in downtown Adelaide in complete safety.” Anyone claiming otherwise was merely trying to “whip up anti-radioactive waste hysteria”, Minchin claimed. So by his logic, Michels Warren and the federal government itself are guilty of trying to whip up hysteria.
    Michels Warren has also been involved in the following campaigns (among others): a controversy over cadmium at West Lakes, Bridgestone tyres, bacteria in fast food, SA Water contamination, ETSA Utilities, the SA Freemasons, Telstra, WMC Ltd., and campaigns on behalf of the corporate owners of the Beverley and Honeymoon uranium mines in South Australia.

  3. My most important advice on this topic is to not only compare storage facilities for nuclear waste but for toxic waste altogether. I cant find the source right now, but if I remember correctly nuclear waste only poses a risk by external exposure the first 500 years; after that it is only dangerous by swallowing (in principle all those charts about storage times are calculated with internal exposure, simply because it is easier to calculate). In consequence it does not matter if you have nuclear waste or toxic waste in your repository, because you dont want to swallow heavy metals or chemicals irrespective of its radioactivity. But there is more: toxic waste does not decay over time, which means that its half life is infinite – but somehow we manage to put that sort of things in deep storage all over the world. (Even in Germany, ask for Herfa-Neurode, which is the biggest underground toxic waste repository world wide; and you know German pickiness about the nuclear storage.) The calculation of a responsible shielding time before it may be treated as regular toxic waste could be a task for the Royal Commission.

    There are a dozen reactor concepts in development (physically they work, the challenge is the engineering, but that is a matter of time) that will enable the full use of the Uranium and even if that is not achievable in the primare plan, this should be considered in future plans. Since nuclear waste does not take much room, it could be possible to store enough waste to supply australia for decades. Concepts like the Dual Fluid Reactor could transmute the whole waste to energy (not only electricity!), useful isotopes (for medicine, industry and research) and waste which will decayed after only 300 years and might then be used as raw material. But be careful, since those reactors are extremely efficient, not much waste will be used and therefore it must be supervisioned for a long time until its use – on the other hand the costs for mining and processing natural resources can be saved.

    The health risks in case of accidents or attacks are fairly small, but will for a long time be perceived as dramatic by the public, because we are used to media reports, movies or computer games that pick up the scary effects that radiation may have (in high doses). Lets look at three scenarios:

    1. The fuel rods ship sinks. Despite my belief that this scenario can be coped with by modern surveillance systems and by transporting the casks in top of the ship in floating containers, the worst thing that can happen is that all of the structure is dissolved and the nuclear inventory is released into the ocean. Considering the billions of tons of Uranium that are already dissolved in sea water only the fission products are relevant, which only constitute 4% of the inventory and will be thinned by the massive amount of water. But if the whole cask does not dissolve (which is most likely), the radiation will be shielded from the surrounding, reducing the possible impact by radioactivity with time. In either case the environmental problems from the ship diesel will be more concerning.

    2. Terrorists achieve a cask. The question here is: What can they possibly do with it? A nuclear weapon can NOT be made from spent fuel, so only a dirty bomb might be possible. But before that a lot of work needs to be done, which needs equipment and shielding (away from the fact that it wont be easy to obtain a 130 ton cask and get away with it) and the possible outcome is a small amount of radioactive material that can be distributed by a bomb (effectively thinning it as in the sea water). The effect on the public might be big (which is what terror intends) but will only be a minor risk, because you can shield yourself from it. Compared to the effort needed this is no good deal from the terrorists view, because a dirty bomb could be made with other materials that are easier to obtain and are more damaging. (Acids, drugs, flammable materials, different poisons are really easy to produce and can be used in a variety of ways.)

    3. Terrorists destroy a cask. Apart from the question what needs to be done to destroy a cask (would a rocket launcher be enough), in the worst case scenario this would have the impact of a dirty bomb, but without the preparation. The most damage will probably be done be the destruction event itself, but this risk may also be minimized by surveillance and keeping the transport away from cities. Again: There are trucks on our roads that contain hazardous material with a fraction of the shielding of a nuclear cask.

    In comparison with the everyday pollution by combustion engines in power plants, cars, etc. those (addressable) risks are negligible and must be dealed with nevertheless in view of the states that use nuclear power. Approaching this world problem with caution could lead to a win-win situation.

  4. Nuclear Fuel Rods are used in the reactor for a period of around 3 to 6 years,
    After that They are than transported to a Spent Fuel Storage Installation that is away from the reactor.
    The spent fuel rods are stored underwater for a period anywhere between 1yr to 20yrs.

    The Water Cools the spent fuel rods and provides shielding from Radiation.
    After the spent fuel rods have cooled they are reprocessed and held in Dry cask storage.
    The Dry Cask Storage Holds the Spent Fuel Rods, With the Combination of inert gases purged inside the storage Tanks.
    (1)Risks That May Need To Be Considered.

    (1A)Transportation eg.Taking into Consideration the severity of the consequences if an Accident would occur when Nuclear spent Rods are being by shipped from one country to another.

    (1A.1)To Consider the Safest way of Transporting the Spent Fuel Rods, to the Nuclear Waste Depot once Shipment has arrived in South Australia

    (1B)Environmental Impacts Eg.Marine Life,Oceans,Land,Plants,Animals,People,The World Etc.

    (1C)Terrorism,Sabotage,Vigilante Action and Protests

    (1D)Social Issues eg. General publics view on the matter. Pro’s and Con’s of a Nuclear Waste Dump.

    (1E)Damage of Storage Tanks by Poor design,Fault or Improper\Lack of Maintenace resulting in Radioactive contamination.

    (1F)Health Issues Relating to Exposure of Nuclear Waste
    (2)Opportunities that South Australia may Receive for Importing and Storing Nuclear Waste

    (2A)Large Financial Gains for South Australia and Australia would Result from this opportunity to import and store Nuclear Waste here in South Australia.

    (2B)Scientists from around Australia, and around the World may Come to South Australia to Work together, to Research a positive use for the spent fuel rods?.

    (2C)Education,Research and Job Creation Would definetly be seen as opportunities.

    (2D)South Australians would gain training and employment from this opportunity.

    (2E)New Technologies and Industries Would be Developed.

    (2F)Medical research would also benefit from this opportunity.

    (2G)Consideration of building our own nuclear power plants.
    I believe this would be a great opportunity for South Australia,
    but more information relating to environmental impacts and health issues,Would need to be discussed with
    the public, to give them assurance that this opportunity is a great benefit to South Australia and its People.