How safe is uranium mining?
Australian and Canadian radiation safety regulations today are among the most comprehensive and stringent in the world.
Radiation doses at Australian and Canadian uranium mines are well within regulatory limits.
Uranium mining companies have generally taken active steps to reduce radiation doses wherever and whenever they can, and voluntarily adopted the most recent international recommendations on dose limits long before they became part of the regulations.
In Australia, mining operations are undertaken under the country's Code of Practice and Safety Guide for Radiation Protection and Radioactive Waste Management in Mining and Mineral Processing, administered by state governments (and applying also to mineral sands operations).
Can Australian uranium be used for nuclear weapons?
No. Since 1977, Australia’s uranium export policy has been ‘to establish a framework of control within which the benefits which many countries see in the peaceful use of nuclear energy can be safely realised.’
In addition to the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, Australia imposes requirements through a network of bilateral safeguards agreements.
The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) annual reports affirm that no Australian uranium has been diverted from peaceful purposes.
Contrary to fears that the civilian nuclear power industry would be a pathway to further nuclear weapons production, the past two decades have seen the blending-down of Russian warheads into nuclear fuel for consumption in nuclear power plants in the US.
The ‘Megatons to Megawatts’ program saw 500 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium recycled into more than 14,000 metric tons of uranium fuel. This equates to the elimination of 20,000 nuclear warheads.
Can radioactive waste be safely stored and managed?
Radioactive waste encompasses a range of materials. The most significant high-level waste from a nuclear power reactor is the spent nuclear fuel, which makes up the smallest proportion of the total volume of waste but generates most of the radioactive content.
Low-level waste is made up of lightly-contaminated items like tools and work clothing from power plant operation, medical waste and diodes from watches and makes up the bulk of radioactive wastes.
Intermediate-level wastes include wastes arising from the reprocessing of research reactor fuel, used filters, steel components from within the reactor, effluents from reprocessing and components of decommissioned reactors.
Spent nuclear fuel can be handled and stored safely when cooled and shielded by a dense material such as concrete or steel. Water can provide both cooling and shielding, so a typical power reactor will remove the fuel underwater and transfer it to a storage pool. After about five years, spent fuel is typically transferred into dry ventilated concrete casks.