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Tuesday, 13 September 1983
Page: 716


Mr KENT(10.53) —Australia is presently spending about 30 per cent of its annual energy research funding on nuclear energy research. Almost all of this nuclear research is being carried out at the research laboratories of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at Lucas Heights. One of the two major projects, centrifugal enrichment, is to be scaled down. However, this project was very costly and calls into judgement the strategies of the AAEC.

The same question can be asked about the scaling-up of the synroc development. The $1m pilot plant for synroc is for non-radioactive simulated mixtures of isotopes. While synroc process has some scientific basis it is far from being scientifically demonstrated as an answer to the high level waste problem which has plagued the nuclear industry from its inception in the 1940s. The justification of claims for the advantages of synroc over glass come from limited laboratory tests on non-radioactive isotopes and an analogy between synthetic rock and natural rock. The number of variables and the time scales of the extrapolations used call for much more evidence to be gained at great expense before critics are likely to be satisfied, if ever.

Testing in the AAEC laboratory has made very little way on the incorporation of radioactive isotopes. This restricted approach to the real problem of the handling and performance of high level waste, or even isotopes fractionated from it, must relate to practical considerations. One is that the AAEC is remote from the actual handling of high-level waste in either spent-fuel storages or reprocessing plants. From the 1981-82 annual report it seems that only now are actual tests with some fission products being carried out.

The building of a pilot plant for non-radioactive simulated mixtures of fission products seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The information likely to be gained in the way of fabrication techniques may not be much more than is known now about ceramics technology. It will certainly add little to finding out how to quantify the cost of operating a 'hot' plant in which handling of radioactive materials calls for complex and very expensive equipment and safety measures. In supporting these initial stages of synroc development the Government is being committed to a very expensive program before any convincing appraisal of synroc can be made.

Ironically, the claims for synroc are based largely on claims that it performs better than glass. Professor Ringwood has so devastatingly criticised glass that it can hardly be taken as a credible material to serve as a basis for comparison . Workers overseas have found synroc enbarrasingly susceptible to leaching if it has aluminium in its formulation. No doubt experiments will be made to exclude aluminium, but these results raise two questions: Why a pilot plant until these problems have been resolved in the laboratory, and what other damaging effects may occur in the conditions to be faced over hundreds of thousands of years?

So far little interest has been evinced overseas in synroc. This raises the question of whether AAEC is beginning an indefinite development program open ended in terms of ultimate cost. The two countries either operating or building a vitrification plant, France and the United Kingdom respectively, are planning to put their glass blocks in cool storage for up to 50 or more years. This decision is an acknowledgment by the authorities involved not only of the limitations of presently known disposal methods as they appraise them but also of the fears of people. The synroc process will have to come up with a very spectacular demonstration of safe disposal if those fears are to be dispelled. In the United Kingdom even the exploratory drilling for disposal sites has been stopped because of fierce opposition of local governments.

Last week Professor Ringwood circulated an unsolicited paper telling us how wise it would be to export our uranium. The good professor should have left the question of whether or not we are going to hawk our uranium around the world to the Labor Party to decide. He should have concentrated more on telling us how much the nation is spending on his research into high level radioactive waste disposal and whether he is proposing to make Australia the world's dumping ground of high level radioactive waste. His paper left many questions unanswered in this regard.