Nuclear Waste

MAPW Radioactive Waste Policy 2012


Nuclear waste is a long-lived and serious environmental hazard. It remains a problem in every country in which nuclear fuel cycle activities operate, especially those related to nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Although much radioactive waste is low-level waste, which is mostly short-lived, and can be managed and disposed of responsibly, no country has implemented a permanent disposal solution for the most hazardous radioactive waste: intermediate-level and high-level waste.

There is no level of radioactive waste that is regarded as risk-free, hence the need for appropriate management. Even low-level exposure poses a small but finite risk of harm, especially the development of cancers. The 2005 report of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation) VII, stated “A comprehensive review of available biological and biophysical data supports a “linear-no-threshold” risk model – that the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” This risk is greater for children than for adults, and greater for females than for males. There are also risks of genetic damage to humans and other life forms.

While the vast majority of nuclear waste has been created during the production of nuclear power or nuclear weapons, MAPW recognises that nuclear technologies and expertise play a role in medicine and some areas of science. Australia has a radioactive waste legacy from industrial, research, military and medical activities.

Australia’s nuclear waste burden is comprised of low-level and intermediate level waste that is accumulating at the Lucas Heights reactor and a large number of other facilities around the country. It also includes reprocessed Lucas Heights spent fuel, which is intermediate-level waste due to return to Australia from 2015 onwards, from France and Scotland. Australia has no high-level radioactive waste. Most medical waste is very short lived (“exempt”) and therefore can be stored locally and then disposed of without special treatment. An exception is the significant stockpiles of radium, not used medically since 1976 but constituting intermediate level waste sitting at various hospital sites around the country and requiring long term safe disposal.

Australia needs to dispose of this radioactive waste legacy appropriately and minimise further waste burdens on future generations and the environment. As a society we need therefore to move towards a sense of pro-active stewardship and “harm-minimisation” with “disposal” being the final option. A fundamental principle must be that no new activities involving radioactive materials should be introduced without a full life-cycle waste management plan, with exploration of alternatives, minimisation of waste, and a proper disposal plan: the so-called ‘cradle-to-grave’ strategy. A crucial aspect of this approach is to find alternatives to nuclear power and medicine to minimise the future production of radioactive waste.

Disposal solutions must be made on the basis of international best practice and Australia’s legal obligations. Australia is a signatory of the “Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management “ a legally binding treaty. In addition, Australia participates in the development of international safety standards from which international best practice is derived.

Current best practice suggests that low-level waste can be buried at a depth of about 30 metres, while intermediate-level waste should be buried in geologically stable ground well away from groundwater, at a depth from 30 to 300 metres. However current plans in Australia are for above-ground storage of intermediate waste, with institutional controls required indefinitely. Intermediate-level waste must be isolated from the biosphere for up to a million years, and current scientific modelling cannot predict geological stability for this time frame. While nuclear proponents generally downplay or deny the risks of unexpected consequences, evidence indicates that, even in the short term, plans and predictions can go awry. Even deep geological disposal can only be regarded as the best currently available option, not a perfect solution. Policy makers and politicians should be well apprised of the scientific principles on which these proposed practices are based, and their limitations.

Disposal solutions must also be made with genuine consultation and fully informed consent of all affected communities. Current practice falls well short of providing either. Nor should the provision of basic health and educational services be used as inducements to landowners to accept a repository – these should be provided to all citizens anyway.

It should be noted that Indigenous Australians in particular have already suffered from imposition of radioactive contamination. The British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga and other sites in the 1950s were conducted with scant regard for their welfare, and the “clean-up” of their lands left plutonium-contaminated debris in shallow burial trenches.

Transport of nuclear waste to centralised storage or disposal facilities greatly increases the risk of accidents, sabotage and contamination. The risk of illegal access is greatest during this phase. The manufacture of a “dirty bomb” (radioactive material dispersed by conventional explosive) would be a relatively easy task for a terrorist organisation once it has obtained the radioactive material. Therefore transport must be minimised, and undertaken with great attention to safety and security.


  1. Reduction at source (waste minimisation) is the fundamental principle in reducing the risks of environmental contamination from nuclear wasteThe use of reactor-produced isotopes in medicine should be minimised in favour of those techniques and imaging modalities that do not rely on them. Further development of these techniques is needed.
  2. An independent Australian national radioactive waste management authority should be established with adequate funding and autonomy to develop, implement and oversee a radioactive waste management policy, based on international best practice.
  3. There should be broad stakeholder representation in its governing board.As part of this process it will be necessary to develop and publish a full inventory of radioactive waste in Australia - what it is, where it is, and who has jurisdiction.
  4. All radioactive waste must be deailt with according to international best practice. Storage must only be used for short-lived radionuclides, and longer-lived radionuclides as an interim stage of a predetermined permanent disposal solution.
  5. Storage should never be for an indeterminate time period. Transportation of radioactive material for disposal should be minimised wherever possible, and in accord with all radiation safety standards and jurisdictional safety requirements.
  6. If there is to be such transport, there must also be consultation with all those communities along the proposed route, including emergency, police, health and environmental protection services.Radioactive waste transport, storage or disposal should not be imposed on unwilling communities. 
  7. All residents involved must be in a position to give fully and properly informed consent, and the process of obtaining this should be transparent and open to public scrutiny. Radioactive waste storage facilities and practices should be subject to regular independent audits and public review to increase transparency and ensure compliance with Australia’s policies, international obligations and best practice including proper consultation with affected communities.