Nuclear Waste Disposal in Oz: a Can to be Kicked Down the Road

Nuclear waste is a problem for Australia right now but, in future decades, it is likely to become a much more significant problem for us, particularly if the much spruiked nuclear-powered submarine program – known by the clunky acronym AUKUS – manages to get off the ground.

I’m worried about AUKUS on multiple grounds. The economic implications are huge for us, particularly the tab we’ll have to pick up: on present counts, in excess of a third of a trillion dollars. Geoffrey Robertson, the high-profile human rights barrister, has noted that the cost of defence procurements of this nature typically blows out to something like three times the original estimate. On this basis, we could actually be up for in excess of a trillion. Our government likes to point out that, when spread out over 30 or so successive budgets, the cost is not so very prohibitive. But 368 billion dollars overall – that’s the present oft-quoted figure before any consideration of blow-outs – would buy a shitload of useful things. One I can think of is a brand new national electricity grid, capable of handling the requirements of the renewable energy future to which, as I understand, we are committed. I’m sure you can think of others.

Then there are the geopolitical implications. China’s rapid development over the last few decades – economically, technically, and strategically – is plain for all to see, and they just love to flaunt it, sometimes in a very confronting way. Jealous of China’s increasing assertiveness, the US is more than a little inclined to push back. But this is the US’s battle, not ours. We don’t have to go along with such antics.

Since WW2, we have sheltered militarily and otherwise under the umbrella we assume the US is holding out for us. But the world has changed. It may no longer be prudent for us to take this approach. The umbrella appears increasingly leaky. Perhaps we should look more closely now to the countries of the western Pacific, including China, when addressing our security concerns. Needless to say, we would have to keep our eyes wide open, a given in any foreign policy consideration. Such a change of policy – to regional co-operation rather than regional confrontation – would sit uncomfortably with AUKUS. And on more counts than one.

But I want to deal with an implication of a quite different nature, and no less serious, that AUKUS has in store for us. Assuming these nuclear powered subs get up and running, are we equipped to handle the new technology their acquisition would require?

I am a rarity in Australia. I have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. So, I consider myself pretty well qualified to express opinions on matters nuclear. I like to think that, when it comes to the sort of technology to which AUKUS will require we commit, my voice is a little more informed than that of your average Joe.

We in Oz will be going from babes-in-the-wood as regards nuclear matters to the recipients of state-of-the-art nuclear technology, involving highly enriched uranium fuel, i.e. the stuff capable of being used to make nuclear weapons. We’ll have to get ready for this in a tearing great hurry, and Murphy’s law says that, in our unseemly haste, things will go wrong. Given the magnitude of our inexperience and the complexity of the technology, it will likely be multiple things that go wrong, and they will go badly wrong. It’s naive to expect any other outcome.

We have no skin in the game. The only phase of the nuclear fuel cycle for which we have (or have had) the physical infrastructure properly in place is the mining of uranium ore. We have (wisely, I believe) declined to be involved in the other phases, e.g. energy production via nuclear power plants. Because of this, we have had no opportunity to ‘learn the trade’. Nor do we have the educational infrastructure needed to train personnel, such as nuclear engineers and the like. Where is there a Homer Simpson to be found in Australia?

We are in trouble. Big trouble. We’re about to be thrown in the deep end before we’ve had swimming lessons.

In this blog, I’d like to consider (as just one example of a much more general problem) what hopefully is the final phase of the nuclear fuel cycle: the disposal of nuclear waste. A moment of truth for us, and for our political masters, must surely have come when it dawned on us (and on them) that we, the denizens of Oz, would be required, as part of the AUKUS arrangements, to deal with the waste from the reactors driving the submarines. That’s we in AU, not those in the UK or in the US. It’s we who’ll be left holding the proverbial can.

But given the projected design of the subs – with the reactors supposedly not needing any attention until the subs are decommissioned – isn’t it a fact that we won’t face this problem until the useful life of the subs and their reactors has ended? Only then will the hard shells containing the reactors be cracked open. Only then will the fuel rods – bristling with fission products, highly enriched uranium residue, and by-product plutonium – get to see the light of day.

Some would urge us to keep things in perspective. Apropos of the above considerations, wouldn’t we have thirty or so years of grace after we take delivery of the spanking new subs before we have to deal with the problem of waste disposal? Let’s get real here. Most of us will be dead and buried by then.

This is a way of thinking to which we (sadly) are fast becoming inured. Let’s give the can a hefty kick down the road. Isn’t it yet another of the problems we can bequeath to our children and grandchildren? They come from sturdy stock. They’ll be up to the task. Just like they’ll take the effects of global heating in their stride when the time comes, while we, their forebears in the here and now, are free to burn up those fossil fuels with preposterous impunity. We all know that Greta Thunberg is mentally deranged. Andrew Bolt told us so.

Getting back to nuclear waste disposal …

Have we the ability to dispose of this waste? Well, we run a small nuclear reactor for the purposes of research, and the supply of the needs of nuclear medicine, at Lucas Heights, on the outskirts of Sydney. And, for decades now, we have not been able to find an acceptable depository for the waste even from this piddling operation. The nimbys, mostly well-off white Anglos, are ready to squash with vigor any suggestion it should be in their backyard. Likewise, the first nations’ people, once bitten twice shy over Maralinga and the like, are ready to resist vehemently any attempt to have it put on their land.

The AUKUS reactors will produce a new category of waste, known as HLW (or ‘high-level nuclear waste’) with which we have hitherto not been required to deal. Inexplicably, none of the waste from Lucas Heights has been classified as high-level. HLW, essentially comprising spent fuel rods, presents the most problems when the time comes for disposal. These rods contain a highly radioactive mix of enriched uranium residue, serendipitous plutonium, and fission products. These are Frankenstein substances not existing in nature. They are inimical to life on our planet.

Such waste would probably be exported initially to one of the handful of countries around the world that run nuclear reprocessing plants. France comes to mind. Once there, commercially useful uranium and plutonium would be extracted by them, and gladly accepted for their own reactor program, before the remaining waste, bristling with really nasty fission products of no dollar value, would be returned to us, possibly in vitrified form, i.e. as very heavy glass-like bricks. These bricks, our problem now, would represent for us a management problem on a scale with which we have not previously had to cope. Because of their high temperature, a consequence of the internal heat generated through their ongoing radioactive decay, we would have to store these bricks underwater for a considerable time, measured in years, until they cooled down sufficiently. But where? Once they are cool enough, we would have to find a suitably stable geological structure, deep underground, in which they could be stored safely for hundreds of years. But where?

Do we really want to expose ourselves to this level of difficulty and hazard? If AUKUS manages to get itself up, we surely will have to.

What the hell are we letting ourselves in for?