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Friday, 24 August 1984
Page: 365


Senator PRIMMER —Has the attention of the Minister for Resources and Energy been drawn to newspaper reports that the Government is undecided about how to deal with spent nuclear fuel rods currently in storage at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission research establishment at Lucas Heights? Can the Minister advise the Senate about the current arrangements for managing those spent fuel rods and about future options for their management?


Senator WALSH —I am aware of a number of Press reports, I think on 14 and 15 August, on that matter and also of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation AM program, I think of 15 August. The position is that there are currently stored at Lucas Heights about 1,200 spent fuel rods. Over one-third of those rods are of United States origin; the remainder came from the United Kingdom. The Press reports and, more particularly, the ABC AM program report and the interview with Mr Bissett, a former officer of the Atomic Energy Commission, contain a number of inaccurate statements and assumptions, the most important of which is that Mr Bissett said in the course of the interview, and the ABC repeated it in an editorial fashion, that if these spent fuel rods were returned to the United States for reprocessing that material could finish up in nuclear weapons, both in the form of plutonium and highly enriched uranium 235.

That is wrong on both grounds. On technical grounds-this is something that Mr Bissett, because of his association with the Commission, ought to have known-the plutonium component of the rods which are taken out of the Lucas Heights reactor is very low. I understand that for the entire 1,200-odd rods in storage at the moment there is less than 700 grams of plutonium, which is not regarded as being recoverable. I believe it would be technically feasible at an astronomical cost to recover it, but it is not under normal circumstances recovered and it certainly would not be recovered by a country such as the United States, which has pretty free access to other sources of plutonium.

As to the highly enriched uranium 235, enriched to an average level in the spent fuel rods of 65 per cent, if the material were returned to the United States for reprocessing that highly enriched uranium would be credited to Australia and probably reimported in refabricated fuel rods. The other residues would remain in the United States but the highly enriched uranium would be returned to Australia. It is correct that a decision has not yet been made- indeed, I have not yet made a recommendation to the Government-on the disposal of these rods, but if the Lucas Heights reactor is to continue operating it will be necessary within the next couple of years to make a decision either to expand the existing storage capacity or to return some of the rods to the United States for reprocessing. The United States is willing to reprocess United States rods; it will not, at this stage anyway, reprocess rods of United Kingdom origin. There are some costs involved in either option and a decision has yet to be made .

I want to make just one other brief comment about the typically hysterical tone in which this was reported both in the Press and probably even more so by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in conformity with its customary practice, and based to some extent on misinformation from Mr Bissett. Mr Bissett suggested that the rods which would be transported back would, because of the decay of fission products, generate extreme levels of heat which would make them very dangerous to transport, and so on. The facts are that the rods, for about a 12- month period after being withdrawn from the reactor, are put in water for thermal cooling and then-this has been the case for the last 20-odd years-put into underground storage. The rods which could, if the Government made this decision, be transported to the United States for reprocessing are not those that have just been withdrawn from the reactor; they are those that have been in underground storage for some time, and they are not generating a great deal of heat. Finally, on a question of fact once again, it was reported in some or all of those reports that this had not happened before. That is not correct. In the early 1960s some similar fuel rods of United Kingdom origin were returned to the United Kingdom for reprocessing.