Spent nuclear fuel rods to be shipped from Lucas Heights to France for processing

Handle with care: Nuclear waste being transported through Wollongong on its way to Port Kembla in December 2015. Spent fuel rods could be delivered to Port Kembla in the middle of this year. Picture: Adam McLean
Handle with care: Nuclear waste being transported through Wollongong on its way to Port Kembla in December 2015. Spent fuel rods could be delivered to Port Kembla in the middle of this year. Picture: Adam McLean

Spent fuel rods from the  Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) facility at Lucas Heights will be sent to France to be reprocessed in the middle of this year.

The rods will have the unused uranium and plutonium removed and used over the course of several years.

Once all useful material has been removed, the waste will then be returned to Australia for storage.

Sending the rods to France will involve the rods being transported by road to a nearby port and then loaded onto a ship.

The exact details of the operation – including the port, delivery route and dates – will not be made public until after the rods arrive in France.

The container to be shipped to France being loaded on Wednesday, April 11. Picture: ANSTO

The container to be shipped to France being loaded on Wednesday, April 11. Picture: ANSTO

Regarding the shipment of the fuel rods, Lucas Heights' OPAL reactor manager Dave Vittorio said they will be stored in secure casks.

“These casks are purpose-engineered to safely transport this type of material without risk to people or the environment,” Mr Vittorio said.

“Even a jet plane strike could not penetrate them.”

Hef Griffiths, ANSTO Chief Nuclear Officer, said that for 60 years, Australia has benefited from research and nuclear medicine production at ANSTO, and this is the first transport of fuel from OPAL. 

“Alongside the benefits that come with the state-of-the-art OPAL reactor, comes the responsibility to safely manage the by-products,” Mr Griffiths said.

He said the benefits include production of around 5.5 million nuclear medicine doses for Australian patients since 2007, used for diagnosis and treatment of heart, lung, and skeletal conditional and cancers.

The OPAL reactor uses low-enriched uranium fuel. Once the fuel is used, the assemblies are transferred to an adjacent service pool until they are ready to be sent for reprocessing. This week ANSTO has been loading the assemblies into transport casks ready for their jouney to France.

As with nine previous shipments, this operation will be conducted in collaboration with agencies including state and federal police, road and maritime authorities, and regulators.

“When it comes to the Australian nuclear industry, we don’t take risks and we don’t take chances, and this operation, as with all previous operations, will be carried out safely,” Mr Griffiths said.

Port Botany would be an option for the secret shipment – both it and Port Kembla in the Illawarra have previously been used to ship nuclear waste in and out the country.

Twenty-five tonnes of waste was returned to the ANSTO facility at Lucas Heights, from where it originated, after processing in France.

Under cover of darkness, a 95-tonne forged steel container carrying nuclear waste was lifted off a ship at Port Kembla and onto the back of a truck and driven to Lucas Heights.

The major part of the waste was in a 6.5-metre-long forged steel cylindrical container with walls more than 20cm thick. Fully laden, it weighed 112 tonnes.

Roads along the route were closed and hundreds of police were involved in the operation.

The journey wasn’t entirely without incident. About 1.30am, as the one-kilometre-long convoy made its way along the M1  through the Royal National Park, two deer jumped out of the bush in front of the leading vehicle.

 After providing a momentary scare, the deer scurried off into the darkness and the convoy continued on its way arriving at Lucas Heights at 3am.

The planned shipment mid-year would be the 10th time spent nuclear fuel has been exported from Australia.

WHY IT’S HAPPENING

Eight-five per cent of the waste is associated with nuclear medicine production at Lucas Heights, and the remainder stems from nuclear research.

Spent nuclear fuel are sent to France for reprocessing and then returned to Australia.

The reprocessed waste will return many years from now, and is expected to be sent to a national permanent repository on a site yet to be chosen by the federal government.