Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine plan sparks concern about storage of radioactive waste

For decades, one of the major obstacles to developing nuclear energy in Australia has been that regions across the country have been opposed to housing the reactors or the waste.

Jonathan Pearlman

Jonathan Pearlman

The Straits Times


The nuclear-powered submarines plan was announced on March 13 at a press conference by (from left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

March 24, 2023

SYDNEY– Australia’s landmark decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of a security pact with the United States and Britain has sparked fierce debate over where to store the nuclear waste from the vessels.

The decision, announced by the leaders of the three countries in California earlier this month, involves Australia acquiring three to five Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines from the US in the 2030s and then, from the 2040s, developing eight new nuclear-powered vessels based on a British design.

As part of the deal to secure the submarines, Australia has committed to store the radioactive waste that they will generate.

But this has triggered heated debate about which part of the country would be required to hold the waste.

For decades, one of the major obstacles to developing nuclear energy in Australia – which has the world’s largest known supply of uranium – has been that regions across the country have been opposed to housing the reactors or the waste.

Though Australia will probably not need to store spent fuel from its new submarine fleet until the 2050s, the federal government has already promised that the waste will be stored in a purpose-built facility on a remote defence site, and that it will establish a process for determining the exact location within the next 12 months.

“Defuelling Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines is not expected to occur for decades,” says an Australian Defence Force fact sheet on the submarines.

“(Defence) will undertake a review in 2023 to identify locations in the current or future Defence estate that could be suitable.”

Despite being a vast country with large swathes of sparsely populated territory, many Australians remain anxious about the prospect of living close to a radioactive waste site.

Adding to these worries are the memories of British nuclear testing in remote territory in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s – a programme that led to widespread contamination and has been linked to cancer and other illnesses among local Aboriginal residents and military personnel.

Australia is set to become the first country which does not have nuclear weapons to have nuclear-powered submarines.

But this has only added concerns about its ability to store the highly toxic waste that the submarines produce.

Following the submarine announcement earlier this month, states across Australia were quick to say they did not want to house the waste.

Victoria suggested Western Australia, which has the largest land size, might be suitable.

Western Australia suggested South Australia was the best option.

And South Australia said that it was not necessarily the safest state to secure the waste.

Queensland went further, saying simply that its legislation barred storage of nuclear waste.

“Under no circumstances will Queensland be the dumping ground for nuclear waste,” said a spokesman for State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

A federal MP from the ruling Labor party, Mr Josh Wilson, broke ranks this week, expressing concern about Australia’s capacity to safely store the waste.

Several other Labor MPs have also reportedly raised similar concerns.

Analysts believe the most likely storage site is Woomera, a vast military site in South Australia that is used for missile testing and secret weapons programmes.

The area spans 122,000 sq km, about the size of North Korea.

A former Liberal-National Coalition minister, Mr Nick Minchin, who is from South Australia, said on Thursday that he believes Woomera is the best place to store the waste.

He said he had previously proposed the area for storing lower-level nuclear waste from medical procedures and from the country’s only nuclear reactor, which is in Sydney and is used for research purposes.

“Having previously assessed Woomera, it ticks all the boxes in terms of remoteness, stability and space,” he told The Australian Financial Review.

But Australia has so far spent years trying to agree on where to house its low-level waste.

A plan to build a facility in Kimba, a town in South Australia, has divided local communities and angered Aboriginal groups.

A Kimba resident who opposed the facility, Ms Sue Woolford, said she does not believe official assurances that the area would not be used to store the highly radioactive submarine waste.

“It’s always ‘announce then defend’ with governments,” she told SBS News last week.

“Clearly, they haven’t learnt from the lessons of Kimba.”

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