Australian radioactive waste bill passed

13 March 2012

Australia has taken a step nearer to setting up a national facility for the management of its radioactive waste with the passage of new legislation by the country's senate.

The National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 aims to establish a single-site facility for managing the waste arising from Australian use of radioactive material in medicine, industry and research. Such material is currently stored at numerous sites at Australian universities, hospitals and laboratories.

The new legislation repeals an earlier radioactive waste management act and is based on volunteerism followed by a decision-making process based on "natural justice". This means that no site can be considered as the location for the facility unless it is voluntarily nominated, with the agreement of persons with "relevant rights and interests". Under the "natural justice" provisions, decisions are made according to a code of "fair procedure" including a right to a hearing by the relevant government minister before any decision is reached.

Energy and resources minister Martin Ferguson released a statement welcoming the passage of the legislation, pointing to the "procedural fairness rights" enshrined in the new bill and also noting the bill's reaffirmation that Australia will not accept any internationally generated nuclear waste.

Although the bill allows nominations to be volunteered in any Australian state or territory, in practice one location is the focus of attention. Muckaty Station, in the Northern Territory, was nominated as a potential site for the waste facility by its traditional Ngapa owners under existing legislation in 2007. That nomination is recognised in the new legislation, although the nomination is currently the subject of litigation by some traditional owners in the federal courts.

With no nuclear power program, Australia produces relatively modest amounts of low and intermediate level radioactive wastes, mostly from its production of radioactive isotopes and their subsequent use in hospitals, laboratories and industry. In addition, Australia must also manage used fuel from the Lucas Heights research reactor that has been reprocessed overseas.

The country's total inventory of low-level and short-lived intermediate level waste is estimated to be just over 4020 cubic metres, plus about 600 cubic metres of long-lived intermediate level waste. Most of the existing facilities where the waste is currently stored were not specifically designed for long-term use. A purpose-built centralised facility would minimise safety and security risks compared with the current system, the legislation notes.

The amended bill as passed by the senate will now be reintroduced for approval to Australia's House of Representatives.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News