What happens when our nuclear subs retire?

Mar 16, 2023
Radioactive sign.

Among the breathless press announcements coming out of San Diego on 14 March was that the spent nuclear fuel reactor cells for our submarines would have to be stored in Australia. This on top of the unexplained escalating costs of the subs, estimated delivery not until 2042, and three hand-me-down stop-gap Virginias possibly available around 2033. ‘A dare to embrace greatness’, trumpeted Greg Sheridan. A dare to embrace poverty and long-term environmental pollution more likely.

One can only wonder whether in agreeing to storing spent fuel cells in Australia, Albanese and Marles knew of the problems such spent reactor storage has created in the US and UK. Almost certainly not. The problems in Britain were starkly described in 2015 by Dr Nick Ritchie of the University of York. His report was commissioned by the Federation of American Scientists.

Access to the reactor compartment in British submarines is gained by a mobile reactor access machine cutting holes in the submarine’s pressure hull directly above the reactor pressure vessel. The extremely toxic spent fuel modules and neutron sources are then raised and parked temporarily in shielded storage boxes within a shielded tank. These are then transported under heavy military guard once or twice a year by rail to Sellafield in Cumbria in England’s far north-west, close to Britain’s most radioactive polluted site where the Windscale nuclear disaster occurred in 1973. The reactors are then kept in a dedicated fuel storage pond called a Wet Inlet Facility. Ultimately, the spent fuel must either be re-processed to recover unused uranium 235 or sent somewhere for permanent disposal isolated from the biosphere for at least 24 thousand years, the half-life of the plutonium 239 contained therein. For Uranium 235, the half- life is many millions of years.

Spent naval reactor accumulation in Britain is a growing headache. By 2015, the UK had 51 irradiated submarine reactor cores containing HEU stored at Sellafield, a number that rose to around 90 cores by 2020. As of 2011, the UK had 10 de-fuelled submarines stored afloat at Devonport. Six laid-up, yet-to-be decommissioned submarines still had their spent fuel cells on board. It is an environmental problem for Britain, but a problem many times that magnitude in the United States, where hundreds of spent fuel reactors from nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines are lying in an open trench designated Trench 94 -200 in East Hanford, Washington State.

How much worse then, for Australia, which has not even settled on a single repository for thousands of low-level pharmaceutical and industrial nuclear waste products held haphazardly at source in hospitals and factories across the country. A disposal site has been identified for low-level waste at Napardee near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, although local indigenous communities continue to oppose the site. Meanwhile, many kilograms of high-level radioactive waste continues to be held in sandstone repositories on site at Lucas Heights in the southern suburbs of Sydney, the home of Australia’s only working nuclear reactor.

There is vague talk among proponents of Australian nuclear powered submarines that a high-level waste repository site will be found on land owned by the Department of Defence. But nothing has been decided. And in the excitement of the moment, the problem seems to have been swept well and truly under the carpet, which is hardly a safe storage place.

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