Nuclear waste – international issues


Excerpt from Feb. 2020 joint submission to the Victorian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Environment and Planning Inquiry into Nuclear Prohibition

Friends of the Earth Australia, Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria


5.1 Introduction

“The disposal of radioactive waste in Australia is ill-considered and irresponsible. Whether it is short-lived waste from Commonwealth facilities, long-lived plutonium waste from an atomic bomb test site on Aboriginal land, or reactor waste from Lucas Heights. The government applies double standards to suit its own agenda; there is no consistency, and little evidence of logic.” ‒ nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson.[1]

The 2006 Switkowski (UMPNER) report noted: “Establishing a nuclear power industry would substantially increase the volume of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia and require management of significant quantities of HLW [high-level nuclear waste].”[2]

In the mid- to late-2000s, Dr. Ziggy Switkowski, former Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and head of the UMPNER Review, was promoting the construction of as many as 50 nuclear power reactors in Australia.[3] Over a 50-year lifespan, a 50-reactor (50-gigawatt) nuclear power program would:[4]

  • be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of low-level radioactive tailings waste (assuming the uranium came from Olympic Dam).
  • be responsible for 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste.
  • produce 75,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (approx. 25,000 cubic metres).
  • produce 750,000 cubic metres of low-level waste and intermediate-level waste.
  • produce 750 tonnes of plutonium, enough for 75,000 nuclear weapons.

A demonstrated ability to manage Australia’s current radioactive waste challenges would be necessary to establish confidence that Australia could manage the streams of radioactive and nuclear wastes arising from a nuclear power program.

However, Australia’s current radioactive waste challenges are either being mismanaged or not managed at all:

  1. Previous governments failed in their attempts to impose a national radioactive waste repository and store on unwilling communities in SA (1998‒2004) and the NT (2005‒2014).
  2. The current push to establish a national radioactive waste repository and store in SA is strongly contested and aspects of the proposal are currently subject to legal challenges and a Human Rights Commission complaint, initiated by Traditional Owners of the targeted sites.
  3. The management of radioactive tailings waste at past and current uranium mines has been deficient in many respects.[5] Cases in point here include continuing contamination concerns at both Mary Kathleen (Queensland) and Rum Jungle (NT).
  4. At the former uranium mine at Radium Hill in SA, a radioactive waste repository “is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice” according to a 2003 SA government audit.[6]
  5. The Port Pirie uranium treatment plant in SA is still contaminated over 50 years after its closure.[7] It took a six-year community campaign just to get the site fenced off and to carry out a partial rehabilitation. As of July 2015, the SA government’s website stated that “a long-term management strategy for the former site” is being developed.
  6. SA regulators failed to detect Marathon Resource’s illegal dumping of low-level radioactive waste in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.[8] If not for the detective work of the managers of the Sanctuary, the illegal activities would never have been detected. The incident represents a serious failure of SA government regulation.
  7. The ‘clean-up’ of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s was mismanaged and breached Australian and international standards regarding the disposal of long-lived radioactive waste.[9] Four scientists with first-hand information were highly critical of the ‘clean up’.[10]
  8. CSIRO faces a $30 million clean-up bill after barrels of radioactive waste at Woomera were found to be “deteriorating rapidly” and possibly leaking. An inspection found “significant rusting” of many of the 9,725 drums. An ARPANSA report found that the mixture of water and concentrated radioactive material inside some of the drums has the potential to produce explosive hydrogen gas.[11]

Former Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin has commented on the difficulty of managing wastes from a nuclear power program:[12]

”My experience with dealing with just low level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around the management of the high level waste a nuclear reactor would produce.”

Likewise, current Federal Resources Minister Senator Matt Canavan noted in June 2019:[13]

“We have been trying for 40 years to find a long-term repository for radioactive waste that is produced at Lucas Heights and some legacy waste we have from other activities. If we can’t find a permanent home for low-level radioactive waste associated with nuclear medicines, we’ve got a pretty big challenge dealing with the high-level waste that would be produced by any energy facilities.”

5.2 Global challenges with nuclear waste

There are no operating repositories for high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world. The one and only deep underground repository for long-lived intermediate-level waste − the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the US – was shut for three years following a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel.

Finland and Sweden are the countries most advanced with deep geological repository projects. However the planned high-level nuclear waste repository in Finland is years behind schedule. The planned high-level nuclear waste repository in Sweden has hit a snag with the Swedish Land and Environmental Court ruling that SKB’s application can only be approved if “SKB can provide documentation that shows the final storage facility complies in the long-term with requirements of the Environmental Code despite the uncertainties remaining on how the canisters protective capability is effected by a) corrosion due to reaction in oxygen-free water” and four other issues regarding copper corrosion, including the influence of radiation on three additional variables. Amongst other things, SKB has not carried out corrosion tests with a canister containing spent fuel.[14]

Other countries operating nuclear power plants ‒ including the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Germany, etc. ‒ have not even established a site for a high-level nuclear waste repository, let alone commenced construction or operation. To give one example of a protracted, expensive and failed attempt to establish a high-level nuclear waste repository, plans for a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were abandoned in 2009 ‒ and current attempts to revive the project are being strongly contested. Over 20 years of work was put into the repository plan and well over A$10 billion wasted on the failed project. The repository plan was controversial and subject to scandals including one involving the falsification of safety data in relation to groundwater modeling. Studies found that Yucca Mountain could not meet the existing radiation protection standards in the long term and subsequent moves by the US Environmental Protection Agency to weaken radiation protection standards generated further controversy.[15]

A January 2019 report details the difficulties with high-level nuclear waste management in seven countries (Belgium, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland, the UK and the US) and serves as a useful overview of the serious problems that Australia has avoided by eschewing nuclear power.[16]

5.3 Long-term costs of high-level nuclear waste management

Estimated construction costs for high-level nuclear waste repositories are in the tens of billions of dollars and cost estimates have increased dramatically.[17] For example, the construction cost estimate in France was €25 billion (A$40.3 billion) as of 2016, well above the 2005 estimate of €13.5‒16.5 billion (A$21.8‒26.6 billion).[18]

The UK provides another example of dramatic escalations of cost estimates. Estimates of the clean-up costs for a range of civil and military UK nuclear sites including Sellafield have jumped from a 2005 estimate of £56 billion (A$109 billion) to over £100 billion (A$194 billion).[19]

Operation of waste repositories adds many billions more to the costs. The US government estimates that to build a high-level nuclear waste repository and operate it for 150 years would cost US$96.2 billion (in 2007 dollars) (A$144 billion), a 67% increase on the 2001 estimate.[20]

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Royal Commission estimated a similar figure: A$145 billion over 120 years for construction, operation and decommissioning of a high-level nuclear waste repository.[21]

5.4 Fire and chemical explosion in the world’s only deep underground nuclear waste repository

No operating deep underground repositories for high-level nuclear waste exist, however there is one deep underground repository for long lived intermediate-level nuclear waste − the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico.

On 5 February 2014, a truck hauling salt caught fire at WIPP. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated. A March 2014 report by the US Department of Energy identified the root cause of the fire as the “failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground.” In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board, reported that WIPP “does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations.”[22]

In a separate incident, on 14 February 2014, an explosion (resulting from a heat-generating chemical reaction) ruptured one of the barrels stored underground at WIPP. This was followed by a failure of the filtration system meant to ensure that radiation did not reach the outside environment. Twenty-two workers were exposed to low-level radiation. WIPP was closed for three years. Direct and indirect costs associated with the accident are estimated at over US$2 billion (A$3.0 billion).[23]

A US government report blamed the barrel rupture and radiation release on the operator and regulator of WIPP, noting their “failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard … compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture.”[24]

A safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted that one radiation release accident might occur every 200,000 years.[25] On the basis of real-world experience, i.e. empirical evidence, that estimate needs to be revised upwards to 10,000 radiation-release accidents over a 200,000-year period.

A troubling aspect of the WIPP problems is that complacency and cost-cutting set in just 10−15 years after the repository opened. Earl Potter, a lawyer who represented Westinghouse, WIPP’s first operating contractor, said: “At the beginning, there was an almost fanatical attention to safety. I’m afraid the emphasis shifted to looking at how quickly and how inexpensively they could dispose of this waste.”[26] Likewise, Rick Fuentes, president of the Carlsbad chapter of the United Steelworkers union, said: “In the early days, we had to prove to the stakeholders that we could operate this place safely for both people and the environment. After time, complacency set in. Money didn’t get invested into the equipment and the things it should have.”[27]

For more information on the WIPP accidents, see:

  • Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, ‘One deep underground dump, one dud’,
  • The Ecologist, 27 Nov 2014, ‘New Mexico nuclear waste accident a ‘horrific comedy of errors’ that exposes deeper problems’,

5.5 Nuclear waste generated by small modular reactors and Generation IV reactors

Small modular reactors

Claims that small modular reactors (SMRs) based on conventional light-water reactor technology are advantageous with respect to nuclear waste have no logical or evidentiary basis.

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission said in its Final Report that “SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor.”[28]

Likewise, a 2017 article by Princeton University researchers concludes: “Of the different major SMR designs under development, it seems none meets simultaneously the key challenges of costs, safety, waste, and proliferation facing nuclear power today and constraining its future growth. In most, if not all designs, it is likely that addressing one or more of these four problems will involve choices that make one or more of the other problems worse.”[29]

One of the authors of the above-mentioned article, M.V. Ramana, notes in a different article that “a smaller reactor, at least the water-cooled reactors that are most likely to be built earliest, will produce more, not less, nuclear waste per unit of electricity they generate because of lower efficiencies.”[30]

A 2016 European Commission document states:[31]

“At the current stage of development it cannot be assessed whether the decommissioning and waste management costs of SMRs will significantly differ from those of larger reactors. Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher).”

Generation IV concepts and nuclear waste

Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane have written an important article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists debunking claims that certain Generation IV reactor concepts promise major advantages with respect to nuclear waste management.[32] Krall is a post-doctoral fellow at the George Washington University. Macfarlane is a professor at the same university, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from July 2012 to December 2014, and a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future from 2010 to 2012.

Krall and Macfarlane focus on molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors, and draw on the experiences of the US Experimental Breeder Reactor II and the US Molten Salt Reactor Experiment.

The article abstract notes that Generation IV developers and advocates “are receiving substantial funding on the pretense that extraordinary waste management benefits can be reaped through adoption of these technologies” yet “molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors – due to the unusual chemical compositions of their fuels – will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues.”

Krall and Macfarlane further state:

“The core propositions of non-traditional reactor proponents – improved economics, proliferation resistance, safety margins, and waste management – should be re-evaluated. The metrics used to support the waste management claims – i.e. reduced actinide mass and total radiotoxicity beyond 300 years – are insufficient to critically assess the short- and long-term safety, economics, and proliferation resistance of the proposed fuel cycles.

“Furthermore, the promised (albeit irrelevant) actinide reductions are only attainable given exceptional technological requirements, including commercial-scale spent fuel treatment, reprocessing, and conditioning facilities. These will create low- and intermediate-level waste streams destined for geologic disposal, in addition to the intrinsic high-level fission product waste that will also require conditioning and disposal.

“Before construction of non-traditional reactors begins, the economic implications of the back end of these non-traditional fuel cycles must be analyzed in detail; disposal costs may be unpalatable. The reprocessing/treatment and conditioning of the spent fuel will entail costs, as will storage and transportation of the chemically reactive fuels. These are in addition to the cost of managing high-activity operational wastes, e.g. those originating from molten salt reactor filter systems. Finally, decommissioning the reactors and processing their chemically reactive coolants represents a substantial undertaking and another source of non-traditional waste. …

“Finally, treatment of spent fuels from non-traditional reactors, which by Energy Department precedent is only feasible through their respective (re)processing technologies, raises concerns over proliferation and fissile material diversion. Pyroprocessing and fluoride volatility-reductive extraction systems optimized for spent fuel treatment can – through minor changes to the chemical conditions – also extract plutonium (or uranium 233 bred from thorium). Separation from lethal fission products would eliminate the radiological barriers protecting the fuel from intruders seeking to obtain and purify fissile material. Accordingly, cost and risk assessments of predisposal spent fuel treatments must also account for proliferation safeguards.

“Radioactive waste cannot be “burned”; fission of actinides, the source of nuclear heat, inevitably generates fission products. Since some of these will be radiotoxic for thousands of years, these high-level wastes should be disposed of in stable waste forms and geologic repositories. But the waste estimates propagated by nuclear advocates account only for the bare mass of fission products, rather than that of the conditioned waste form and associated repository requirements.

“These estimates further assume that the efficiency of actinide fission will surge, but this actually relies on several rounds of recycling using immature reprocessing technologies. The low- and intermediate-level wastes that will be generated by these activities will also be destined for geologic disposal but have been neglected in the waste estimates. More important, reprocessing remains a security liability of dubious economic benefit, so the apparent need to adopt these technologies simply to prepare non-traditional spent fuels for storage and disposal is a major disadvantage relative to light water reactors. Theoretical burnups for fast and molten salt reactors are too low to justify the inflated back-end costs and risks, the latter of which may include a commercial path to proliferation.

“Reductions in spent fuel volume, longevity, and total radiotoxicity may be realized by breeding and burning fissile material in non-traditional reactors. But those relatively small reductions are of little value in repository planning, so utilization of these metrics is misleading to policy-makers and the general public. We urge policy-makers to critically assess non-traditional fuel cycles, including the feasibility of managing their unusual waste streams, any loopholes that could commit the American public to financing quasi-reprocessing operations, and the motivation to rapidly deploy these technologies.”

Pyroprocessing: the integral fast reactor waste fiasco

In theory, integral fast reactors (IFRs) would consume nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity. In practice, the EBR-II (IFR) R&D program in Idaho has left a legacy of troublesome waste. This saga is detailed in a 2017 article[33] and a longer report[34] by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior scientist Dr. Edwin Lyman, drawing on documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation.

Lyman writes:[35]

“[P]yroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem. …

“The FOIA documents we obtained have revealed yet another DOE tale of vast sums of public money being wasted on an unproven technology that has fallen far short of the unrealistic projections that DOE used to sell the project …

“Everyone with an interest in pyroprocessing should reassess their views given the real-world problems experienced in implementing the technology over the last 20 years at INL. They should also note that the variant of the process being used to treat the EBR-II spent fuel is less complex than the process that would be needed to extract plutonium and other actinides to produce fresh fuel for fast reactors. In other words, the technology is a long way from being demonstrated as a practical approach for electricity production.”

5.6 Importing nuclear waste as a money-making venture and/or to fuel Generation IV reactors

The abandoned proposal for nuclear waste importation in SA

The 2015/16 SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission had a significant level of pro-nuclear bias[36] but nevertheless rejected most of the options it was asked to consider ‒ uranium conversion and enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication, conventional and Generation IV nuclear power reactors, and spent fuel reprocessing.

The Royal Commission did however recommend further consideration of a proposal to import vast amounts of nuclear waste (138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel) and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste) as a money-making venture. Following the Royal Commission, the government initiated a Citizens’ Jury which voted strongly in opposition to the proposal.[37] The SA Liberal Party (then in Opposition, now in Government) announced its intention to campaign against the proposal. The Nick Xenophon Team also announced its opposition while the SA Greens had opposed the proposal from the start. Premier Jay Weatherill later said that the plan is “dead”, there is “no foreseeable opportunity for this”, and it is “not something that will be progressed by the Labor Party in Government”.[38]

Thus the proposal has little or no political support in SA, and it never enjoyed public support. The statewide consultation process led by the government randomly surveyed over 6,000 South Australians and found 53% opposition to the proposal compared to 31% support.[39] A November 2016 poll commissioned by the Sunday Mail found 35% support for the nuclear dump plan among 1,298 respondents.

Opposition from Traditional Owners was overwhelming[40] and was a significant factor in the Citizen Jury’s rejection of the proposal. The Jury’s report said: “There is a lack of Aboriginal consent. We believe that the government should accept that the Elders have said NO and stop ignoring their opinions.”[41]

While in office, Premier Weatherill said Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over any proposal to build nuclear waste storage or disposal facilities on their land ‒ and he later wrote to then Prime Minister Turnbull suggesting that the same right of veto should apply to plans for a national radioactive waste facility in SA. The current federal plan is being contested in the courts and the Human Rights Commission by Traditional Owner representative groups for the two targeted regions.

In October 2017, a cross-party SA Parliament Joint Committee on the Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission released its report with just one recommendation: “That the South Australian Government should not commit any further public funds to pursuing the proposal to establish a repository for the storage of nuclear waste in South Australia.”[42]

Importing high-level nuclear waste for recycle in fast reactors

The Committee will likely receive submissions arguing that Australia should import high-level nuclear waste which could be converted into fuel for ‘integral fast reactors’ (IFRs ‒ discussed in Appendix 3 to the joint NGO submission to the federal nuclear inquiry[43]).

The SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission investigated such propositions and concluded:[44]

“[A]dvanced fast reactors and other innovative reactor designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future. The development of such a first-of-a-kind project in South Australia would have high commercial and technical risk. Although prototype and demonstration reactors are operating, there is no licensed, commercially proven design. Development to that point would require substantial capital investment. Moreover, electricity generated from such reactors has not been demonstrated to be cost competitive with current light water reactor designs.”

Little has changed since the Royal Commission reported ‒ except the collapse of a number of Generation IV R&D projects including Generation mPower, Transatomic Power, MidAmerican Energy’s SMR plans, and TerraPower’s plan for a demonstration fast reactor in China. Further, The UK government abandoned consideration of ‘integral fast reactors’ for plutonium disposition in March 2019 ‒ and the US government did the same in 2015.

Creative accounting

The engineering of a positive economic case to proceed with the nuclear waste import plan was discussed by ABC journalist Stephen Long: “Would you believe me if I told you the report that the commission has solely relied on was co-authored by the president and vice president of an advocacy group for the development of international nuclear waste facilities?”[45]

Worse still, there was no peer review of the report that was co-authored by the president and vice president of an advocacy group for the development of international nuclear waste facilities.

Prof. Barbara Pocock, an economist at the University of South Australia, said: “All the economists who have replied to the analysis in that report have been critical of the fact that it is a ‘one quote’ situation. We haven’t got a critical analysis, we haven’t got a peer review of the analysis”.[46]

The Royal Commission’s economic claims were eventually subject to a peer review. The SA Parliament’s Joint Committee commissioned a report by the Nuclear Economics Consulting Group which noted that the Royal Commission’s economic analysis failed to consider important issues which “have significant serious potential to adversely impact the project and its commercial outcomes”; that assumptions about price were “overly optimistic” in which case “project profitability is seriously at risk”; that the 25% cost contingency for delays and blowouts was likely to be a significant underestimate; and that the assumption the project would capture 50% of the available market had “little support or justification”.[47]

South Australian economist Prof. Richard Blandy from Adelaide University, said: “The forecast profitability of the proposed nuclear dump rests on highly optimistic assumptions. Such a dump could easily lose money instead of being a bonanza.”[48]

Likewise, a detailed report by the Australia Institute concluded that the business case for a nuclear waste storage facility in South Australia was exaggerated, that the project would be risky, and that an economic loss was well within the range of possible outcomes.[49]

Further information on the abandoned proposal for nuclear waste importation to SA

Submission to the SA Parliament’s Joint Select Committee by Friends of the Earth, Conservation SA and Australian Conservation Foundation, July 2016,

5.7 Transportation of nuclear waste

Transport incidents and accidents are commonplace

A UK government database − RAdioactive Material Transport Event Database (RAMTED) − contains information on 1018 events from 1958 to 2011 (an average of 19 incidents each year) involving all forms of radioactive and nuclear materials, including waste.[50] Of the 38 incidents in the UK in 2011 alone, 11 involved irradiated nuclear fuel flasks (up from eight in 2010). One of those 11 events involved a low-impact collision.[51] 

In a report on 806 recorded radioactive transport incidents in the UK from 1958−2004, Hughes et al. found that 111 involved ‘residues inc. discharged INF flasks’, 101 involved irradiated fuel, and 63 involved (other) radioactive wastes:[52]


Source: Hughes et al, 2006

NUMBER OF EVENTS (806) FROM 1958−2004


Medical & industrial isotopes



Residues inc. discharged INF flasks



Irradiated fuel



Radiography sources



Radioactive wastes



Uranium ore concentrate






There were 187 incidents during the shipment of irradiated nuclear fuel flasks from 1958−2004[53] − 23% of the total number of 806 recorded incidents. There is no evidence of safety improvements in the UK:

  • In 2008, 18% of recorded incidents (7/39) involved irradiated nuclear fuel flasks.[54]
  • In 2009, 24% of recorded incidents (8/33) involved irradiated nuclear fuel flasks.[55]
  • In 2010, 27% of recorded incidents (8/30) involved irradiated nuclear fuel flasks.[56]
  • In 2011, 29% of recorded incidents (11/38) involved irradiated nuclear fuel flasks.[57]

Transport incidents are also commonplace in France and presumably a comparable percentage involve nuclear wastes. In 2008, the French nuclear safety agency IRSN produced a report summarising radioactive transport accidents and incidents from 1999−2007.[58] The IRSN manages a database listing reported deviations, anomalies, incidents and accidents (known generically as “events”) relating to transport. The database lists 901 events from 1999−2007 − on average 100 events annually or about two each week.

In the US, in the eight years from 2005 to 2012, 72 incidents involving trucks carrying radioactive material on highways caused US$2.4 million in damage and one death, according to the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.[59]

Costs of accidents 

Nuclear transport accidents involving spent nuclear fuel / high-level nuclear waste have the potential to be extraordinarily expensive. Dr. Marvin Resnikoff and Matt Lamb from Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York City calculated 355−431 latent cancer fatalities attributable to a “maximum” hypothetical rail cask accident, compared to the US Department of Energy’s estimate of 31 fatalities. Using the Department of Energy’s model, they calculated that a severe truck cask accident could result in US$20 billion to US$36 billion in cleanup costs for an accident in an urban area, and a severe rail accident in an urban area could result in costs from US$145 billion to US$270 billion.[60]

An example of a million-dollar accident occurred in Roane County, Tennessee in 2004. A Bechtel-Jacobs truck spilled strontium-90 across nearly two miles of Highway 95. More than five hours after the spill occurred, authorities finally closed the road. Highway 95 remained closed for two days, after sections of the road were cleaned and re-paved. The Department of Energy said the clean-up bill would exceed US$1 million.[61]

Direct and indirect costs associated with the Feb. 2014 chemical explosion underground at the Waste Isolation Plant in New Mexico are estimated at over US$2 billion (A$3.0 billion).[62]

European nuclear waste transport scandal

In the late 1990s, a whistleblower supplied WISE-Paris, an environmental and energy NGO, with information which sparked a major controversy over frequent excessive radioactive contamination of waste containers, rail cars, and trucks.[63] Nuclear waste shipments from German nuclear reactor sites to reprocessing plants in the UK and France were banned, and transport within France was suspended, in the aftermath of the controversy.

WISE-Paris summarised the controversy in mid-1998:[64]

“There are two scandals, both unprecedented. The first lies in the fact that for 15 years the nuclear industry ‒ power plants, transport companies, plutonium factories and nuclear safety institutes in France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK at least ‒ have managed to hide the fact that the international transport regulations for spent fuel shipments have been constantly violated, up to levels exceeding several thousand times the limit. This is all the more stunning as the original recommendation stems from the industry friendly, heavily pro-nuclear International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

“The second scandal derives from the fact that the French nuclear safety authority DSIN has been aware of the problem since autumn 1997, agreed with the French nuclear industry representatives over the wording of a mere “cleanliness problem”, and kept silent until a journalistic investigation brought the story to light. The safety authority neither informed its ministers nor its foreign counterparts and, of course, nor did it inform the public. Worse, when the story broke, the authority played the role of the tough transparent State control agency finally cleaning up … without actually taking any kind of regulatory or disciplinary consequences, while downplaying health consequences and the persistent outrageous violation of regulations.

“The risk seems rather high that people have been exposed to significant levels of radiation over the period the contaminated transports have crossed countries. Worse, hot particles have been spread into the environment along rail tracks and roads. People might actually continue to get contaminated presently and for a long time to come.”

French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet said:[65]

“Beyond the level of contamination, I’m shocked by the fact that as soon as one asks some simple questions to the operators, one realises that this has been going on for years, that the three companies questioned (EDF, Transnucléaire, COGEMA) were perfectly aware of it and that they have not said anything.”

Some examples of accidents and incidents

Some examples of accidents and incidents involving the transport of radioactive waste are noted here:

In early 1998, it was revealed that “airtight” spent fuel storage canisters at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights site had been infiltrated by water − 90 litres in one case − and corrosion had resulted. When canisters were retrieved for closer inspection, three accidents took place (2/3/98, 13/8/98, 1/2/99), all of them involving the dropping of canisters containing spent fuel while trying to transport them from the ‘dry storage’ site to another part of the Lucas Heights site. The public may never have learnt about those accidents if not for the fact that an ANSTO whistleblower told the local press. One of those accidents (1/2/99) subjected four ANSTO staff members to small radiation doses (up to 0.5 mSv).[66]

ANSTO has acknowledged that there are 1−2 accidents or ‘incidents’ every year involving the transportation of radioactive materials to and from the Lucas Heights reactor plant.[67] ANSTO provides no further detail but presumably some of the accidents and incidents involve waste materials.

In October 2014, a ship carrying radioactive waste which was set adrift in the North Sea after it caught fire led to the evacuation of the nearby Beatrice oil platform, part-owned by Ithaca Energy. The MV Parida was transporting six 500-litre drums of cemented radioactive waste from Scrabster in northern Scotland to Antwerp, Belgium, when the fire broke out in one of its funnels. The blaze was put out by the ship’s crew. Meanwhile 52 workers were airlifted off the oil platform as a precaution in case the drifting MV Parida struck it. The ship was subsequently towed to a secure pier at the Port of Cromarty Firth by a commercial operator, despite the Aberdeen coastguard sending two emergency tugs to assist. The cargo was reportedly undamaged. The waste was from the Dounreay experimental nuclear power plant.[68] Angus Campbell, the leader of the Western Isles Council, said the Parida incident highlighted the need for a second coastguard tug in the Minch. “A ship in similar circumstances on the west coast would be reliant on the Northern Isles-based ETV [emergency towing vessel] which would take a considerable amount of time to get to an incident in these waters.”[69]

On 5 February 2014, a truck hauling salt caught fire at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated. A March 2014 report by the US Department of Energy identified the root cause of the fire as the “failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground.” In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board, reported that WIPP “does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations.”[70]

16 January 2014: A driver abandoned his stricken car at a level crossing moments before it was dragged 300 metres down a railway track by an empty nuclear waste train in the UK. The train is used to take spent nuclear fuel to Sellafield but, as it was returning to Cheshire, was empty.[71]

23 December 2013: A rail freight wagon carrying nuclear waste was derailed at a depot in Drancy, 3 km northeast of Paris. The wagon carried spent fuel from the Nogent nuclear power plant destined for AREVA’s reprocessing plant at La Hague in Normandy. Although no leakage of radiation was measured at the accident location, the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) reported that subsequent testing by AREVA revealed a hotspot on the rail car that delivered a dose of 56 microsieverts.[72]

September 2002: A truck carrying nuclear waste from Idaho to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, USA, ran off Interstate 80 in Wyoming. The driver said he felt ill and attempted to pull over, but he blacked out before he made it to the roadside. The truck crossed the median, headed across the westbound lane and left the road. The accident was the second in less than two weeks. On Aug. 25, a truck bound for the WIPP plant near Carlsbad was hit by an alleged drunk driver. Nobody was injured and no contaminants were released in either accident, WIPP officials said.[73]

A serious incident occurred in the UK in 2002.[74] AEA Technology was fined £250,000 for the incident during a 130-mile truck journey. A highly radioactive beam was emitted from a protective flask as it was driven across northern England and it was “pure good fortune” that no-one was dangerously contaminated, Leeds Crown Court was told. The problem arose when a plug was left off a specially-built 2.5-tonne container carrying radioactive material on a lorry. Staff used the wrong packaging equipment and failed to carry out essential safety checks before the radioactive cobalt-60 (decommissioned cancer treatment equipment) was transported from West Yorkshire to Cumbria. The court heard the 8mm-wide beam of radiation escaped through the bottom of the flask, pointing directly into the ground, throughout the three-hour road journey. Had the beam travelled horizontally, anyone within 280 metres would have been at risk of contamination from a beam of gamma rays up to 1000 times more powerful than a “very high dose rate”. Radiation experts from the Health and Safety Executive said that anyone exposed to the beam could have exceeded the legal dose within seconds and suffered burns within minutes. One scientist estimated that someone standing a metre from the source and in the direct path of the rays would have been dead in two hours. The judge, Norman Jones, QC, said staff at the firm had acted in a “cavalier and somewhat indifferent” manner with a “degree of arrogance” towards their duties. He said the risk from the leak had been “considerable”. In addition to the fine, he ordered the company to pay more than £150,000 in costs to the UK Health and Safety Executive.

3 February 1997 − High-level nuclear waste transport derails. A train carrying three casks with about 180 tons of high-level radioactive waste derailed near Apach (France). The waste was on its way from the nuclear power plant in Lingen (Germany) to Sellafield, UK, where it was to be reprocessed. The train was going at about 30 kilometers per hour, and the casks did not turn over. The incident was not a unique event. On 15 January 1997 a nuclear fuel cask derailed in front of the German nuclear power plant at Krümmel during a track change, and on 3 February 1997 the engine driver of a nuclear waste transport from Krümmel suffered from a faint.[75]

1976, Kentucky, USA: Six drums containing radioactive waste burst open after they rolled off tractor-trailer trucks in Ashfield, Kentucky, USA. Two drivers were slightly injured. When the highway was cleaned, checks indicated radioactivity.[76]

More information on transport incidents and accidents

Section 8.5 in this submission: ‘Nuclear transport security issues’.

Section 3.8 in the August 2015 joint submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission by Friends of the Earth Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Conservation SA.[77]

‘Responsibility overboard: the shocking record of the company shipping nuclear waste to Australia’, Natalie Wasley, 14 Aug 2018, Online Opinion,

[1] Alan Parkinson, 2002, ‘Double standards with radioactive waste’, Australasian Science,

[2] Switkowski Review, 2006, Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review,

[3] Ziggy Switkowski, 3 Dec 2009, ‘Australia must add a dash of nuclear ambition to its energy agenda’,

[4] Based primarily on figures in the UMPNER report. For information on the calculations for uranium tailings waste, see: ‘There’s No Nuclear Power Without Waste’, 3 Dec 2010,

[5] See section 1.11 (p.74) in the joint submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission,

[6] See section 3.2 (p.11) in the joint submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Numerous articles on the flawed ‘clean up’ are posted at


[11] See the information posted at

[12] Brad Crouch, 21 May 2006, ‘No nuke plant in 100 years’, The Advertiser.

[13] Matthew Killoran, 21 June 2019, ‘What a waste: Minister’s question for nuclear inquiry’, The Courier-Mail,

[14] Miles Goldstick, 29 Jan 2018, ‘Swedish nuclear industry loses battle over repository but battle rages on’,

[15] Nuclear Information & Resource Service,

[16] Robert Alvarez, Hideyuki Ban, Charles Laponche, Miles Goldstick, Pete Roche and Bertrand Thuillier, Jan 2019, ‘Report – The Global Crisis of Nuclear Waste’,

[17] Ibid.

[18] World Nuclear Association,

[19] Jonathan Leake, 9 Dec 2012, ‘Nuclear cleanup to take 120 years and cost £100bn’,

[20] World Nuclear Association, 6 Aug 2008, ‘Yucca Mountain cost estimate rises to $96 billion’,

[21] Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report, May 2016,

[22] 6 June 2014, ‘Fire and leaks at the world’s only deep geological waste repository’, Nuclear Monitor #787,


[24] US Dept of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, April 2014, ‘Accident Investigation Report: Phase 1: Radiological Release Event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on February 14, 2014’,

[25] Matthew Wald, 29 Oct 2014, ‘In U.S. Cleanup Efforts, Accident at Nuclear Site Points to Cost of Lapses’,

[26] Patrick Malone, 14 Feb 2015, ‘Repository’s future uncertain, but New Mexico town still believes’,

[27] ibid.


[29] M.V. Ramana and Zia Mian, Jan 2017, ‘Small Modular Reactors and the Challenges of Nuclear Power’,

[30] M.V. Ramana, 23 June 2018, ‘The future of nuclear power in the US is bleak’,

[31] European Commission, 4 April 2016, ‘Commission Staff Working Document, Accompanying the document: Communication from the Commission, Nuclear Illustrative Programme presented under Article 40 of the Euratom Treaty for, the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee’,

[32] Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane, 2018, ‘Burning waste or playing with fire? Waste management considerations for non-traditional reactors’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:5, pp.326-334,

[33] Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, ‘The Pyroprocessing Files’,

[34] Edwin Lyman, 2017, ‘External Assessment of the U.S. Sodium-Bonded Spent Fuel Treatment Program’,

[35] Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, ‘The Pyroprocessing Files’,

[36] ‘A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’, Dec 2015,

‘Bias of SA Nuclear Royal Commission finally exposed’, 4 Nov 2016,

‘SA Nuclear Royal Commission Is A Snow Job’, 29 April 2016,

[37] Citizens’ Jury report:












See also Prof. Blandy’s submission to the Royal Commission:

See also

[49] or direct download:

[50] Some recent annual reviews of transport incidents in the UK are posted at

Some earlier annual reviews are posted at:

See also M.P. Harvey and A.L Jones, Aug 2012, ‘HPA-CRCE-037 – Radiological Consequences Resulting from Accidents and Incidents Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK – 2011 Review’,

[51] M.P Harvey and A.L Jones (UK Health Protection Agency), August 2012, ‘Radiological Consequences Resulting from Accidents and Incidents Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK − 2011 Review’, commissioned by UK Office for Nuclear Regulation,

[52] J.S. Hughes, D. Roberts, and S.J. Watson, July 2006, ‘Review of Events Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK, from 1958−2004, and their Radiological Consequences’,

[53] J.S. Hughes, D. Roberts, and S.J. Watson, July 2006, ‘Review of Events Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK, from 1958−2004, and their Radiological Consequences’,

[54] M. P. Harvey, Aug 2010, ‘HPA-CRCE-003 – Radiological Consequences Resulting from Accidents and Incidents Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK – 2009 Review’,

[55] ibid.

[56] M. P. Harvey and A. L. Jones, 2011, ‘HPA-CRCE-024: Radiological Consequences Resulting from Accidents and Incidents Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK – 2010 Review’,

[57] M.P. Harvey and A.L Jones, Aug 2012, ‘HPA-CRCE-037 – Radiological Consequences Resulting from Accidents and Incidents Involving the Transport of Radioactive Materials in the UK – 2011 Review’,

[58] IRSN (France), 21 Oct 2008, ‘Information report: Incidents in transport of radioactive materials for civil use: IRSN draws lessons from events reported between 1999 and 2007’,

[59] Anna M. Tinsley, 15 April 2012, ‘Radioactive waste may soon travel on DFW highways’,

[60] 7 July 2000,



[63] WISE-Paris, Plutonium Investigation, No.6, May-June 1998,





[66] Sutherland Shire Environment Centre:

[67] ANSTO, 2003, Submission to NSW Parliament’s ‘Joint Select Committee into the Transportation and Storage of Nuclear Waste’

[68] Andrew Snelling, 9 Oct 2014, ‘Oil rig evacuated after radioactive fire’,

NFLA / KIMO, 8 Oct 2014, ‘NFLA and KIMO call for urgent inquiry into Parida nuclear waste transport fire off the Moray Firth’,
West Highland Free Press 26 July 2014,

16 Oct 2014, ‘Call for safety review following ship fire’,

World Nuclear News, 8 Oct 2014,

[69] Herald, 30 July 2014

[70] 6 June 2014, ‘Fire and leaks at the world’s only deep geological waste repository’, Nuclear Monitor #787,

[71] CORE Briefing, 15 Jan 2014,

Morning Star, 16 Jan 2014, Guardian, 16 Jan 2014,

[72] International Panel on Fissile Materials, 21 Jan 2014,

[73] AP, 9 Sept 2002, ‘WIPP truck runs off highway in Wyoming’,

[74] UK Health and Safety Executive, 2006, ‘Transport case prompts HSE reminder on the importance of radiation protection controls’,

See also: ‘Firm fined £250,000 over radioactive leak’, The Scotsman, 21 February 2006,

See also: ‘Toxic truck leak a radiation near-miss’, 22 February 2006,,5744,18231965%5E2703,00.html

[75] WISE News Communique #467, February 28, 1997

Die Tageszeitung (FRG) February 5, 1997

Greenpeace press release February 4, 1997

[76] Legislative Research Service Paper, Parliamentary Library, Canberra