Did You Know Sydney Already Has A Nuclear Reactor?

Did You Know Sydney Already Has A Nuclear Reactor?

Last week’s tech and science news was dominated by the Opposition and its extremely ambitious plan to roll out seven nuclear reactors in Australia. It was an announcement of questionable merit to say the least, fuzzy on timeframes and absent the costings. But, amid all the talk, several people have reached out to me with the same question: “Sydney already has a nuclear reactor?”

Yes, Sydney has a nuclear reactor, but not the sort you might be thinking of. I didn’t realise the reactor in Lucas Heights, Sydney wasn’t more widely known about! But if we’re going to be talking about nuclear power from now until the next federal election, we may as well explain what that existing reactor is actually used for.

So let’s chat about it.

Wait, Sydney has a nuclear reactor?

Australia’s only nuclear reactor is called OPAL, a truncation of Open Pool Australian Lightwater. It’s located in Lucas Heights, Sydney, in the city’s south-east. It sits on the same grounds as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), but it is not a nuclear power plant.

The site was originally opened in 1958, but OPAL in its current form wouldn’t get started until 2007. Today, there are only 70 reactors in the world quite like OPAL. It’s a 20MW reactor that’s designed to process low-enriched uranium.

It’s currently undergoing an upgrade as of March 18 this year.

What is the Sydney nuclear reactor actually used for?

The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor is used for a range of purposes, including the production of materials for nuclear medicine, research, and other industrial purposes. Again, it is not used for power generation.

The reactor’s primary purpose is to produce medical radioisotopes, which are essential for radiotherapy machines. But again, it’s a multipurpose reactor. Alongside providing necessary materials for cancer treatment, the reactor can also be used for neutron beam material research. ANSTO describes reactors like OPAL as ‘neutron factories’.

OPAL is also used to analyse minerals and samples and for irradiating materials for use in semiconductor devices. It’s intended to be run for 300 days in a year.

Where does the nuclear waste go?

ANSTO says that 92 percent of the waste from the Sydney nuclear reactor is considered ‘low-level waste’, which includes paper, plastic, gloves, filters, and cloths. This waste gets shredded and stuffed into 200-litre drums and stored on-site. Intermediate-level waste is also shredded and stored but processed much more finely.

High-level waste is not produced at ANSTO and is rather a byproduct of nuclear power plants. Because the Lucas Heights reactor is not a power plant, it does not produce high-level waste.

Does Lucas Heights make the argument for nuclear energy in Australia stronger?

Not really. It’s a similar technology, sure, but it’s used for a completely different purpose. In a 2019 report, NSW’s chief scientist and engineer Hugh Durrant-Whyte wrote that the Sydney nuclear reactor would make “little contribution” to any Australian nuclear power industry.

“It must be recognised that this is a ‘zero-power’ pool reactor where the complexities of high pressure, high power, high radiation environments do not exist,” Durrant-Whyte told The Guardian.

Image: ANSTO

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