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ANSTO to Lend Nuclear Science and Tech Capabilities to Support AUKUS

Image Credits: ANSTO, Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Article

A new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS) is a historically significant development for nuclear science and technology in Australia. The announcement of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines to be built in Adelaide has been welcomed by the manufacturing and university sectors as a positive development. As the centre of Australia’s nuclear research and technology capabilities, ANSTO will support the Australian government in delivering the capability.

ANSTO has ensured the safe management of Australia’s nuclear facilities at its Lucas Heights campus in Sydney which enable leading research, the advanced manufacturing of nuclear medicines and irradiation of silicon ingots for the industry globally. Through ANSTO, Australia is highly regarded within international networks including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and has already well-established research partnerships with the UK and USA.

Over the next 18 months, ANSTO will work with the Submarine Task Force project to determine the optimal pathway for the delivery of a nuclear-powered submarine capability for Australia.

This will involve working with the United Kingdom and the United States to intensively examine the requirements that underpin nuclear stewardship, with a specific focus on safety, training, operation, maintenance, disposal, and environmental protection.

The United Kingdom and the United States have set and maintained exemplary safety records in the operation of naval nuclear reactors for decades. Australia will leverage this experience, in safely operating nuclear research reactors at Lucas Heights for more than 60 years, to further build on that safety record.

Nuclear fuel cycle

ANSTO is the home of Australia’s nuclear expertise. As the operator of Australia’s only nuclear reactor, they address key scientific questions in the nuclear fuel cycle for both the current generation of nuclear reactors and future systems.

The nuclear fuel cycle encompasses all activities associated with the use of uranium for operating research reactors and nuclear power generation.

The nuclear fuel cycle starts with the mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of nuclear waste. There is also the option of reprocessing used fuel to separate the waste from the unused uranium which can be refabricated into MOX fuel for reuse in reactors.

To prepare uranium for use in a nuclear reactor, it undergoes the steps of mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. These steps make up the ‘front end’ of the nuclear fuel cycle.

After uranium has completed its lifecycle in a reactor the used fuel may undergo a further series of steps including temporary storage, reprocessing, and recycling before wastes are disposed of temporarily or permanently. Together these steps are known as the ‘back end‘ of the fuel cycle.

Nuclear fuel cycle research extends to all aspects of the cycle from the mining of uranium through to the disposal of nuclear waste. ANSTO’s key areas of focus include:

  • the development of improved fuels for advanced reactor designs
  • investigation of materials for use in nuclear systems, structures and components, and the effects of irradiation, corrosion and high temperature on their structural properties
  • advancing the understanding of the management of spent fuel and associated waste forms

This research takes advantage of ANSTO’s unique capabilities including specific expertise in waste forms, the capacity to undertake theoretical predictions of fuel properties, and expertise in modelling advanced materials properties under extreme conditions, used in the nuclear industry.

The current focus on the properties of accident-tolerant fuels and advanced fuels has strengthened scientific collaborations with industry and other research groups and created the potential for commercial linkages.

OPAL multi-purpose reactor

Australia’s Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor is a state-of-the-art 20-megawatt multi-purpose reactor that uses low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel to achieve a range of activities to benefit human health, enable research to support a more sustainable environment and provide innovative solutions for industry.

OPAL is one of several similar production facilities around the world, including the Safari-1 reactor in South Africa and the HFR reactor at Petten in the Netherlands.

These reactors play a vital role in society by functioning as ‘neutron factories’, producing radioisotopes for cancer detection and treatment, and neutron beams for fundamental materials research.

OPAL’s operation staff cooperate with their international colleagues in sharing information and knowledge both directly through formal collaboration agreements and via various international organisations and forums.

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