Where will Australia dump its waste from the AUKUS nuclear submarines?

Australia’s newly secured nuclear-powered submarines capability, part of the AUKUS deal with the UK and US, will put the country in a very exclusive club of only seven nations.

Key points:

  • Australia must manage all radioactive waste generated by the submarines on Australian soil
  • Spent fuel described as “small amounts of low-level radioactive waste” will be stored at Defence sites
  • The defence minister says Australia has been working very closely with the International Atomic energy Agency

Defence personnel have been quick to promote the advantages nuclear-powered submarines offer over their diesel-powered counterparts, which Australia currently owns.

Sealed nuclear reactors like the ones Australian submarines will operate do not need to be refuelled as they typically last for 30 years.

The submarines can also dive for months at a time without the need to resurface, since their engines does not require air.

However, they also come with their own complications.

Nuclear warning sign

Defence minister Richard Marles says Australia has no intention of operating nuclear weapons from home soil. (Flickr: Warning/Charles/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Nuclear waste

Nuclear waste is hazardous to human health and can last decades before it decays completely. This is why it needs to be carefully stored and managed.

There are two types of nuclear waste from a submarine. The first is operational waste, which is continuously produced throughout the life cycle of a vessel.

The government describes this kind of spent fuel as “small amounts of low-level radioactive waste”.

This type of waste will be stored at “defence sites” in Australia.

Part of the AUKUS deal is that Australia must manage all radioactive waste generated by the submarines on Australian soil.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said it was a pre-condition for the whole program.

“We are making a commitment that we will dispose of the nuclear reactor,” he said.

“That is a significant commitment to make.”

Developing Australia’s workforce and know-how to manage radioactive waste from nuclear-powered submarines is an important part of the plan.

The Defence Department believes the rotation of the UK and US nuclear-powered submarines at the HMAS Stirling base in Western Australia will provide learning opportunities for the Australian Navy on low-level radioactive waste management.

Disposing of the second type of nuclear waste is the “most complex aspect of the submarine’s life cycle”, according to the government.

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Australia is an “incredibly stable environment” to store nuclear waste, Peter Dutton says.

The second form of nuclear waste

When a submarine reaches the end of its life and needs to be retired, in addition to the spent fuel, all radioactive reactor compartments need to be disposed of.

It requires bespoke facilities, significant support infrastructure and an experienced workforce.

Mr Marles said this would not need to happen for another three decades.

“The first of the naval reactors that we will dispose of will not happen until the 2050s, but within the year we will announce a process by which this facility will be identified,” he said.

The Department of Defence is working with the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency to conduct a review to identify potential nuclear waste disposal sites.

“This is going to require a facility to be built in order to do that disposal, obviously that facility will be remote from populations, and today we are announcing that that facility will be on Defence land, current or future,” Mr Marles said.

While the sole responsibility of the submarine nuclear waste disposal lies with Australia, the White House has promised the US and UK will help.

“The United Kingdom and the United States will assist Australia in developing this capability, leveraging Australia’s decades of safely and securely managing radioactive waste domestically,” a representative said.

Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak stand at lecturns at a US naval base in San Diego

Australia will build UK-designed boats that feature US combat technology.(Reuters: Leah Millis)

Non-proliferation obligations

Australia is a signatory to two important international treaties that restrict the use of nuclear weapons, materials and technologies.

Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Australia is not allowed to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.

Australia is also a signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga.

This treaty obliges Australia and other members to not manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess, or have control over any nuclear explosive device.

This was made clear by Mr Marles again on Tuesday.

“Australia has no intention of operating nuclear weapons from our soil,” he said.

“We have been working very closely with the International Atomic energy Agency in respect to this.”

However, Australia will be exercising its right to Article 14 of the treaty, which is a mechanism by which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could allow a non-nuclear weapon state (Australia) to acquire naval nuclear propulsion technology.

This will mean Australia must comply with certain verification and inspection measures to ensure nuclear materials and facilities are safeguarded.

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Why is the AUKUS submarine pact such a big deal?

According to the Defence Department, Australia will enter Article 14 negotiations with the IAEA as part of the program.

“Australia is committed to setting the strongest precedent for other states seeking to use Article 14, including by ensuring the Article 14 arrangement includes a robust package of verification measures to be applied while nuclear material is subject to the Article 14 arrangement,” it said.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong added that Australia’s AUKUS plans would not constitute a breach of any international treaties.

“We will observe to the highest standards our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, under the Treaty of Rarotonga,” she said.

“And we will ensure that we have at home, and part of the work we have been doing has been on this, the highest standards when it comes to the safety of construction of this capability.”

The AUKUS deal also stipulates certain conditions regulating Australia’s use of nuclear materials.

The conditions include Australia cannot enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel and cannot produce its own nuclear fuel for its SSN-AUKUS-class submarines.

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Nabil Al Nashar