Radioactive waste safety frequently asked questions

A series of questions and answers about radioactive waste safety

What is radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste is material that has no foreseeable use and contains radioactive materials with activities or activity concentrations at levels high enough that regulatory oversight is needed to ensure safety.

Where does radioactive waste come from?

In Australia radioactive waste is generated in a variety of medical, industrial, research and agricultural practices. Examples of radioactive waste include industrial smoke detectors, contaminated soil and by-products from the production of nuclear medicine.

Mining and mineral ore processing (e.g. mineral sands and uranium mining) also generate significant quantities of radioactive waste. Typically this waste is retained for disposal on the mine sites under regulatory control.

How much radioactive waste is in Australia?

Australia has approximately 4250 cubic metres (m³) of radioactive waste that is suitable for near-surface disposal generated from civilian programs awaiting disposal. For many decades, Australia has generated radioactive waste from the use of radioactive material in research, industrial and medical activities.

A detailed inventory of radioactive waste in Australia can be found in the Australian National Report to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

How much radioactive waste does Australia produce each year?

Australia produces a very small quantity of low and intermediate level radioactive waste. Each year, approximately 40 cubic metres (m³) of low level waste and approximately 5 m³ of intermediate level radioactive waste are generated in Australia. This is the equivalent volume of a shipping container. High level radioactive (HLW) waste is not stored or disposed of in Australia.

How is radioactive waste being currently managed in Australia?

Currently, radioactive waste is being stored at multiple sites around Australia. Some jurisdictions have dedicated waste storage facilities to manage their waste. The two ways in which radioactive waste are generally managed are 'concentrate and contain' or 'dilute and disperse', the former for mainly solid waste and the latter for most liquid and gaseous waste.

Is disposing of radioactive waste safe for the public and the environment?

Yes. The operator must demonstrate that protection of people and the environment has been considered and that there will be minimal risk of any radiation exposure. This includes consideration of any impact on surrounding environment and activities now and into the future. Detailed environmental assessment will inform decisions on licensing and ongoing monitoring will be established to assess and verify performance.

How long will a radioactive waste disposal facility be in operation for?

A disposal facility needs to be in managed until the radioactivity of the waste disposed of at the site presents no significant risk to people and the environment.