Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission WEEK 11 – MANAGEMENT,
STORAGE AND DISPOSAL OF NUCLEAR AND RADIOACTIVE WASTE, dan 17 Sept 11115 Any risk assessment for the management of spent nuclear fuel should firstly consider the current management practice internationally. In considering the possible establishment of a new facility, it should firstly be accepted that transportation of spent nuclear fuel to any centralized facility presents risk which could be avoided entirely if waste is managed at or near its present locations.
In some cases, spent nuclear fuel is currently stored in closer proximity to human populations than desirable, so I can understand some host nations’ desire to export their spent nuclear fuel liability to a distant receiving country like Australia. I also acknowledge the position presented by Barry Brook and Ben Heard that future reprocessing technology may be able to separate uranium and plutonium from the spent fuel and produce electricity as a by-product of this process. The risk associated with this vision of the future is that such technology currently expressed in theory may never eventuate, and the spent nuclear fuel may thus prove to be an extremely long-lived management liability.
Risks which Australia should consider if considering the prospect of importing spent nuclear fuel include the possible appropriation of shipments by terrorist groups either in transit or after receipt. Similarly, a transport vessel may be attacked and join the number of sunken nuclear-fuelled submarines slowly corroding on the seabed around the world, destined to have unknown ecological impacts. As this Commission is no doubt aware, spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed to obtain plutonium and uranium, both of which can be then repurposed as weapons material. This has serious implications for nuclear weapons proliferation risk.
Following receipt of spent nuclear fuel, the responsibility for protecting this material would presumably become Australia’s and would remain so for centuries (pending some technological breakthough in speculative technology). Should Australia enter war during the course of the life of the radioactivity contained in the stored spent fuel, or otherwise become a future terrorist target, any centralized repository of spent nuclear fuel represents a potential air-strike or bomb target.
If such an attack were to occur, storage vessels may be ruptured and release radioactive material to the atmosphere, essentially functioning as a ‘dirty bomb’. Wherever spent nuclear fuel is stored, it is my opinion that every measure should be made to protect it from air-strike or terrorist attack. The fallout from such an event would lead to the establishment of a new sacrifice zone, akin to those surrounding stricken Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants. Consequences for human health would take years to manifest and be demonstrably linked to such an event- meanwhile displaced persons would suffer anguish and may, as in the case of Fukushima, lead to people taking their own lives. Should such a facility be located in the South Australian outback, those most directly affected would likely be indigenous Australians, who would mourn the event as a colossal, cultural loss as their connection to country is severely damaged.
Obviously wartime or terror attack-proofing of spent fuel storage is not achieved in many locations where spent nuclear fuel is currently stored. I would assume that the quantity of these stores would be smaller than any proposed new facility, dedicated exclusively to the storage of spent nuclear fuel. Perhaps there is a case for improving management of spent nuclear fuel at or near existing storage.
Should a new facility be constructed, it should (in my opinion) be secure and underground, in a position where water infiltration is extremely unlikely. Examples of corrosion and water infiltration proving problematic for nuclear waste storage facilities include Orchid Island (Taiwan) and Yucca Mountain (USA).
When all is thoroughly considered, it might be concluded that the improvement and standardisation of current storage practise at or near locations where spent fuel is currently held provides an alternative pathway to proceed down if the objective of this exercise is risk minimisation.