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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4076

(Question No. 561)


Senator Lees asked the Minister representing the Minister for Science and Technology, upon notice, on 28 April 1997:

(1) Has the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation ANSTO followed up the recommendation and conditions of the McKinnon Reactor review; if so, what was its findings; if not, why not.

(2) Has ANSTO estimated the amount of low, intermediate and high level waste in solid, liquid and gaseous form that would be created if it reprocessed existing spent fuel.

(3) What levels of radioactive discharge are expected if existing spent fuel is reprocessed.

(4) Has ANSTO explored other options of dealing with this spent fuel for conditioning; if so, has ANSTO estimated the amount of low, intermediate and high level waste in solid, liquid and gaseous form that would be created if it conditioned existing spent fuel.

(5) What levels of radioactive discharge are expected if existing spent fuel is conditioned.


Senator Parer —The Minister for Science and Technology has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) The McKinnon Reactor review, or Research Reactor Review (RRR), was established to advise on whether Australia had a need for a new nuclear research reactor. The RRR reported to the previous Government in 1993. When that Government responded to the report, it said that it "broadly accepted the findings of the Research Reactor Review".

In accordance with the recommendations of the RRR, the then Government accepted that a final decision on replacing HIFAR should be deferred for about five years, and it kept HIFAR operating. To ascertain HIFAR's remaining life, and to provide additional assessments of safety margins, the Government provided funds for a probabilistic safety assessment (PSA), which is being undertaken by independent consultants, and which is now nearing completion. The PSA was commissioned by the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism.

However, for the reasons below, the previous Government did not endorse the RRR's recommendation that work be commenced with a view to the establishment of a high level radioactive waste repository for the management of the spent nuclear fuel generated by HIFAR. Nor did it provide funds specifically for access for scientists to international advanced neutron scattering facilities.

The RRR recognised the significance of a research reactor to the overall national interest. It said that the Government might want to make a positive decision about a new research reactor for the same reasons and in the same way as it does for defence and other national interest issues. Nevertheless, the RRR included in its recommendations five conditions. It said that if these were satisfied within a period of about five years, it would be appropriate to make a positive decision on a new reactor. Since the RRR reported, these conditions have generally been satisfied but, as recognised by the report, the conditions are not in themselves prerequisites for a decision.

The Government is, of course, responsible for following up the recommendations and conditions of the RRR. The Government has been doing so, primarily through the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism, which has been assisted by ANSTO. The present position with respect to the RRR's conditions is set out below.

High Level Waste Site—The RRR perceived that management of research reactor spent fuel required that a high level waste site be established. The previous Government did not accept this view, and neither does the present Government. The nature of the spent fuel is such that it cannot be stored indefinitely because the aluminium cladding may corrode and fission products could then be released. To avoid this, the fuel should be chemically processed, separating out the unused uranium from radioactive waste. The waste products would then be conditioned into a form suitable for disposal. If in the form of intermediate level waste, this waste could be permanently stored in Australia, along with our other holdings of radioactive waste in this category, and at a considerably lower cost than for high level waste. The Government has been developing a strategy for the management of research reactor spent fuel. ANSTO has participated in the process, and shipped 114 spent fuel elements to the United Kingdom for processing in 1996. The Government is currently considering options for the remaining spent fuel.

Spallation Neutron Sources—The Government has been monitoring the use of spallation neutron sources. As part of this process, ANSTO has kept international developments under review. Although a spallation neutron source is a very useful scientific tool, a multi-purpose research reactor would be a more suitable neutron source for Australia. A spallation source would be more expensive than a research reactor. The minimum cost for a basic accelerator would be in the range $300 million to $400 million, and the research instrumentation and other facilities would bring the total to more than $600 million. Moreover, a spallation source could not support the range of nuclear activities required in Australia. For example, it could provide only a limited capability for bulk radioisotope production and it could not provide for commercial irradiations. (In this regard, the RRR noted that if a spallation source were to be chosen, a small reactor would also be necessary).

Cyclotron Radioisotope Production—The Government has been monitoring progress with the use of cyclotrons for the production of technetium. As part of this process, ANSTO has, among other things, maintained contact with the author of the scientific paper who proposed the use of cyclotrons for this purpose in 1991. ANSTO has reported that its investigations show significant technical problems remain unresolved, and there are no plans anywhere in the world for the commercial production of technetium from cyclotrons. Moreover, it is unlikely that commercial production from cyclotrons would meet the needs of mainstream nuclear medicine groups. The output from cyclotron production would be of a lower quality than the output from reactor production, it would result in a poorer scan image quality, and it would cause increased radiation doses to patients. In addition, the specific activity of the technetium isotope would be insufficient for many nuclear medicine procedures. ANSTO's conclusions are supported by an Environmental Impact Statement of April 1996, relating to the US Department of Energy's Medical Isotopes Production Project, where it was concluded that technetium production from cyclotrons was neither technically feasible nor economically viable in the foreseeable future.

Neutron Scattering in Australian Science—The Australian neutron scattering community has a long and distinguished tradition and, as noted by the RRR, its research using HIFAR has been of a high quality. ANSTO has found that utilisation of HIFAR for neutron scattering applications continues to increase. Between 1993 and 1996 the number of university research projects using HIFAR in this field increased by about two-thirds, and the number of postgraduate research students using HIFAR for neutron scattering research increased by one-third. Access to the key neutron scattering instruments on HIFAR was fully booked in 1993. Since then, ANSTO has made significant improvements in the efficiency of data collection for neutron scattering experiments, but these improvements have not satisfied demand for instrument time, and access continues to be fully booked today. ANSTO has concluded that this usage indicates there are strong and diverse applications of neutron scattering in Australian research.

National Interest—Government policies on non proliferation issues, possible new safeguards agreements and expanded uranium mining, together with the growth of the use of nuclear technology in the Asia-Pacific region, all point to an increased need for technical nuclear expertise in the national interest. The on-going acquisition and retention of this expertise is a matter of high priority for the Government. Australia's technical nuclear expertise is based on the operation of a multi-purpose research reactor, and ANSTO, as the operator of the reactor, is the main repository of this expertise. ANSTO is consulted on nuclear matters by other Government agencies on a daily basis.

(2) & (3) Firm estimates of quantities of wastes would require a detailed plant design proposal. As the Government has not concluded its consideration of the options for dealing with ANSTO's spent fuel, a detailed proposal is not available and neither are detailed estimates of the quantities of wastes that would arise. However, ANSTO has made indicative estimates, drawing on generalised knowledge of the chemical processes that would be used, and based on the use of Synroc for the conditioning of intermediate level radioactive wastes.

On this basis, ANSTO has estimated that there would be: no high level waste; two cubic metres of intermediate level waste in Synroc; and either 50 cubic metres of low level waste in ceramic or up to 250 cubic metres of low level waste in cement. The liquid and gaseous wastes produced would be treated on-line and solidified. Such wastes have been included in the calculation for the amount of solid waste that would be generated. There would be some residual liquid and gaseous emissions which would be released under controlled conditions and would be within the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) recommended safe regulatory limits for radiation exposure of workers and members of the public. As the levels of radioactive discharges would depend entirely on the design of the plant, it is not possible to give exact levels.

It should be noted that the NH&MRC's recommended regulatory limits are based on international standards and are publicly available. ANSTO's emissions and discharges are well monitored and are generally well below the relevant regulatory limits. The Australian Radiation Laboratory provides independent surveillance of effluent releases. ANSTO's radioactive discharges are published in ANSTO's Environmental Survey at Lucas Heights Research Laboratories—Annual Report, which is available to the public. They are also published in the annual report of the Safety Review Committee (SRC), which was established under the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act 1987 to review and assess the effectiveness of the standards, practices and procedures adopted by ANSTO to ensure the safety of its operation. This report is tabled in Parliament.

(4) Yes, ANSTO has explored the currently available options for conditioning spent aluminium-clad research reactor fuel. Each of these options involves the initial step of chemical processing. The conditioning of the resulting waste then differs.

The currently available conditioning methods are cementation, used in the United Kingdom, and glass vitrification, used in France. Estimates of the amounts of solid wastes generated from processing ANSTO's existing spent fuel, using the currently

available conditioning processes or the Synroc process, are set out in the following table.

Liquid and gaseous wastes would be solidified, although there would be some residual emissions. It should be noted that the total amount of radioactivity immobilised in all these options is identical. It should also be noted that the glass vitrification process currently in use in France would condition the research reactor waste together with power reactor waste, and result in some high level radioactive waste.

Were ANSTO to condition the existing spent fuel and not use Synroc, it would be likely to use the cementation process, as it has some expertise with the use of cement. The amounts of radioactive waste generated would be as given in the table for the cementation process.

Solid Waste Generated from Processing ANSTO's Existing Spent FuelANSTO Synroc ProcessCementation Process (as used in the UK)Glass Vitrification Process (as used in France)
High levelNilNil1.2m3 in glass
Intermediate level2m3 in Synroc250m3 in cement1.2m3 in cement
Low level50m3 in ceramic or up to 250m3 in cement20m3 in cement20m3 in cement

(5) See response to Question 3. Radioactive discharges would depend entirely on the design of the plant. Any discharges to the environment, no matter which conditioning process was used, would be required to be maintained within relevant regulatory limits.