International practice

Australia is an active participant in many international organisations and their expert committees which provide advice on the safe use and management of nuclear and radioactive materials.

International practice for low level radioactive waste

Accepted international practice, as outlined in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines, is that solid low level and short-lived intermediate level radioactive waste is suitable for disposal in near-surface repositories.

This type of facility provides the required isolation for this type of waste to decay to acceptable levels of radioactivity within a period of time for which institutional control of the repository can reasonably be expected to continue. The content of long-lived radionuclides in near-surface disposal facility should not exceed the limits established by the relevant national regulatory authority.

The operation of near-surface disposal facilities should be consistent with the following IAEA Safety Standards:

  • Siting of near-surface disposal facilities (1994)
  • Safety assessment for near-surface disposal of radioactive waste (1999)
  • Near-surface disposal of radioactive waste: safety requirements (1999).

The IAEA standard, Near-surface disposal of radioactive waste: safety requirements sets out the basic requirements that international experience has shown to be necessary for ensuring the safety of near-surface radioactive waste repositories. It covers the requirements relating to protection of human health and the assessment procedures needed to ensure that safety is achieved, as well as a variety of technical requirements. These technical requirements cover such issues as the siting, design, construction, operation and closure of the repository, waste acceptance, and the post-closure phase.

This IAEA standard also provides guidelines for establishing a comprehensive quality assurance program which should be applied to all safety-related activities required for the repository's operation. The quality assurance program ensures that the relevant safety requirements and criteria are met.

The near-surface disposal of low level and short-lived intermediate level radioactive waste has been safely practised for many years in many countries. There are currently more than one hundred repositories for low level waste either operating or being established in more than thirty countries around the world. The UK and a number of other European countries have near-surface repositories.

Examples of near-surface disposal facilities include:

International practice for intermediate level radioactive waste

Storage in purpose-built facilities is an internationally-recognised method for managing intermediate level radioactive waste, prior to disposal.

Long-lived intermediate level waste is not suitable for near-surface disposal. Ultimately, it is considered appropriate to dispose of this waste in a geological repository, typically at depths of several hundred metres.
Geological disposal involves the underground emplacement of solid waste in excavations containing an engineered burial system tailored to the disposal site. Disposal in a mined cavity is currently the preferred technique, although deep vertical-bore disposal is being investigated. The basic requirement of any suitable geological formation is its ability to ensure the safety of humans and the environment while also facilitating the safe disposal of the radioactive waste.

International practice for high level radioactive waste

A number of countries outside Australia have high level radioactive waste. This waste is a result of the operation of nuclear power plants and reprocessing the associated fuel rods. Australia has no high level radioactive waste.

After initial storage to allow heat levels to reduce, high level waste can be safely disposed of at depth in stable geological formations. Many countries with high level waste are developing detailed design concepts for disposal facilities and have initiated site-specific repository assessment programs.

In Sweden and Finland, plans are well underway for high level waste disposal. The application for construction of a deep geological repository at Forsmark was submitted to the Swedish radiation safety authority in 2011. In both Canada and the United Kingdom, systematic site selection processes are now underway.

More information

For more information about radiation safety, see Radiation safety.

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