Home > Uranium and Nuclear Energy > Frequently Asked Questions
Radiation is energy travelling as waves or particles. People are exposed to radiation everyday from a variety of natural and man-made sources such as the sun, food, the air, their homes, and activities such as flying in planes or undergoing medical procedures including X-rays, CT scans and mammograms. Examples of radiation exposure in everyday life include:
Uranium oxide is classified as “Low Specific Activity” LSA-1 material by the IAEA because of its low level radiation per unit of mass. Uranium oxide concentrate – the product that is exported from Australia – remains stable under all conditions of storage, handling and transport. Uranium has been safely exported from Australia for over 30 years. Mining operations in Australia are required to comply with the Code of Practice and Safety Guide for Radiation Protection, and Radioactive Waste Management in Mining and Minerals Processing which are regulated by the state and territory governments. All mines are also required to comply with the relevant state and federal government laws and regulations for mining and minerals processing. Further information on uranium mining can be found at the Minerals Council of Australia and ARPANSA websites.
Australia has strict legislation and procedures to ensure uranium originating in Australia is used only for peaceful purposes. This includes tracking the uranium right through the nuclear fuel manufacturing process to ensure the beginning and end-product amounts match and there is no loss of product through the process. A network of bilateral safeguard agreements and international agreements also provide protection as well as physical security requirements for both exporters and importers of uranium. The international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has established safeguards and monitors the movement of nuclear material globally and the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) regulates compliance with Australia’s international obligations to the IAEA. ASNO also monitors compliance with its own bilateral safeguards agreements including overseas nuclear regulatory authorities which have obligations to track all Australian-sourced material back to ASNO. Further details of the international regulation of nuclear material including Australian uranium are available at both the IAEA and ASNO websites.
Radioactive waste includes a wide range of materials from multiple sources. Low level waste (LLW)comprises materials used in power plant operation, medical wastes, and other minor tools and work protective equipment and clothing. It makes up around 90 per cent of all waste materials. Intermediate level wastes arises from materials associated with nuclear reactors including used filters, steel, decommissioned components and reprocessed reactor fuels. There is very little intermediate level waste in Australia. High level waste is waste from nuclear power production and is mainly spent fuel. Spent fuel is reprocessed multiple times from a reactor before it is finally considered to no longer be a viable fuel source. The volume of high level waste that requires management and disposal globally is around 27,000 tonnes, or about 10 Olympic sized swimming pools which constitutes around 0.1% of all global hazardous waste. Deep geological disposal is the preferred method for high level waste and the methodology is well understood. Apart from in some parts of Scandinavia, disposal has not been fully implemented globally due mainly to political and community issues rather than technical barriers. Australia is currently exploring options for disposal of low level waste that has been generated in Australia – largely from medical and research applications. Further information about radioactive waste can be found at the WNA website.
In over 60 years of nuclear power production there have been just three major incidents – Three Mile Island in the USA (1979), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Even though there were no fatalities at Fukushima associated with the incident or subsequent radiation leaks, this earthquake and tsunami event re-ignited fears about the risk of nuclear power. Nuclear energy has the best safety record of all energy generating sources in terms of fatalities per unit of energy generated – largely as a result of the industry’s safety practices and the strong international regulation and monitoring and management of facilities. The role of the IAEA remains critical to this continued performance. Further information about Fukushima and the radiation outcomes can be found at the UNSCEAR website.
Nuclear energy’s low life-cycle CO2 emissions profile and reliable baseload capacity mean that it is able to provide clean, efficient and reliable energy to meet the world’s growing demand. With a greenhouse gas intensity of around 60-65 g CO2 e per kilowatt hour, it is comparable to solar and hydro power in terms of the lifetime emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment report recognises the role of nuclear power in limiting global warming, and the US Energy Information Administration highlights that the lifetime cost of nuclear power is competitive with other low emissions technologies. Combined with renewable power technologies, nuclear has a significant role to play in the commitments by major economies to meeting the growing global energy demand with clean, safe and affordable energy sources. Further information on the role of nuclear power in climate change is available from the IEA and MCA websites.