The mining of uranium and the disposal of spent fuel are the largest components of the costs in the uranium fuel cycle.
The disposal of long-lived radioactive waste within Australia could be one of the single biggest contributions we can make to the safety of our region, and even the world.
Domestically, Australia produces about 45 cubic metres – three truckloads – per year of low and intermediate level radioactive wastes. Much of this material is produced in the research reactor at Lucas Heights, then used at hospitals, industrial sites and laboratories around the country.
There are about 3,700 cubic metres of low-level waste stored at over a hundred sites around Australia. Over half of the material is lightly-contaminated soil from CSIRO mineral processing research. In addition there are about 500 cubic metres of long-lived intermediate level waste.
But having dispersed storage is not considered a suitable long-term strategy for the safe storage of waste. So the Federal Government has proposed a consolidation to a single repository site.
The plan is for a disposal area about 100 metres square within a two square kilometres area.
Low-level and short-lived intermediate level wastes would be disposed of in a shallow, engineered repository designed to contain the material and allow it to decay safely to background levels.
Intermediate-level wastes with lifetimes of greater than 30 years would be stored above ground in a facility designed to hold them secure for an extended period and to shield their radiation until a geological repository is eventually established, or alternative arrangements made.
Contrary to popular belief, this proposal is not about the ultimate disposal of high-level radioactive waste from the spent fuel of reactors.
The high level wastes produced by nuclear power stations are not yet a concern. If we are lucky we might have two operating nuclear power stations within 20 years. But we would not then be worrying about waste from them for another 50 years.
Even so, it may be with cheap coal and carbon dioxide burial – what we grandly call geosequestration – that we find conventional power plants are the better buy.
Currently, the concern is about the disposal of industrial waste, an area where governments have had great difficulties in finding acceptable solutions.
So what is the fuss about?
There is a worry about instability caused by earthquakes. Helen Caldicott in ABC News Opinion on Monday expressed concern that the Federal Government’s preferred site for a waste dump experienced recently a quake measuring 2.5 on the Richter scale.
However, an earthquake of this magnitude is classified as detectable but generally not felt. There are about 1,000 earthquakes of this intensity each day all over the earth. It might not even cause a ripple in your café latte.
Enrichment and reprocessing may provide further business opportunities. In this area, Australian scientists have made major technical contributions. But firms require access to large amounts of capital to pursue their development. None of our major mining or energy companies has expressed, at least recently, any desire to enter these markets.
The mining of uranium and the disposal of spent fuel are the largest components of the costs in the uranium fuel cycle. Australia could benefit from providing both services.
Indeed, there could be significant regional demand. Thailand, China and India might find an Australian waste storage facility extremely attractive. Countries that are genuinely earthquake prone, as Japan and Indonesia are, would no doubt welcome an opportunity even more.
Australia provides its reputation, its technical expertise and its high-quality infrastructure for all manner of services to Asia-Pacific region. We should not be blind to the potential of a waste storage facility.
This piece was first published by ABC Online and is republished here with permission from the author. Tom Quirk is a member of the board of the Institute of Public Affairs and chairman of Virax Holdings Ltd, a biotechnology company. He is a nuclear physicist by original training.