Radioactive waste to be moved from uni to safe storage in Yallambie
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Radioactive waste to be moved from uni to safe storage in Yallambie

More than 200 drums of radioactive waste are to be transferred from Melbourne University and stored indefinitely in the city's leafy outer suburbs.

Documents released under freedom of information by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency show it is expanding its waste store in Lower Plenty Road, Yallambie.

Two hundred drums of nuclear waste are to be stored at the facility.

Two hundred drums of nuclear waste are to be stored at the facility.

Photo: Supplied

The expansion is being done to accommodate 210 drums of nuclear waste from Melbourne University’s former radium lab, established in 1929 and closed four decades ago.

The expansion works at Yallambie are to be completed next month.

The material to be stored in the drums is classified as “legacy, low-level radioactive waste”.

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The nuclear safety agency’s website describes low-level waste as “suitable for disposal in engineered near-surface facilities and [requiring] isolation and containment for periods of up to a few hundred years”.

The agency’s deputy chief execuive, Gillian Hirth, also the agency’s chief radiation health scientist, said the radioactive material to be transported from Melbourne University to Yallambie consisted of contaminated “sections of wood, brick, concrete, masonry and tiles”.

The material is from the former Commonwealth Radium Laboratory at Melbourne University.

The building the radioactive material was stored in has sat dormant since 1980.

Dr Hirth said the 210 drums of waste to be stored in Yallambie contained levels of radium that classified them as low-level radioactive waste.

An agency spokeswoman later reiterated that the material to be stored indefinitely at Yallambie was a tiny percentage of the radioactive waste held at the facility – 0.1 per cent – and that, while it took up a large amount of space, it was of a “very low hazard”.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency in Yallambie.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency in Yallambie.

Photo: Eddie Jim

The Age asked the nuclear safety agency how it would remediate the waste. The agency’s deputy chief executive said only that the material would be moved to Yallambie.

“The material will be stored at Yallambie until such point in time that the material can be disposed of in a manner that meets relevant safety criteria,” Dr Hirth said.

The land is controlled by the federal government and, as a result, the local Banyule Council was never notified of the plan.

The council’s director of city development, Scott Walker, said Banyule had not been consulted by the nuclear safety agency because local planning laws did not apply to the site.

“[The agency] has not consulted council to this date, nor are they required to,” Mr Walker said.

A Melbourne University spokesman said the removal and transfer of the material had been approved by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

“A significant proportion of materials have been removed from the site and this process is well underway,” he said.

“The university has undertaken on-site monitoring and can reassure students, staff and the public that there are no safety concerns from the building or works underway.”

It is understood the nuclear safety agency has agreed to make any payments to Melbourne University and transfer the radioactive waste to Yallambie for storage.

Neither the agency nor Melbourne University would answer questions about payments being made as part of the waste storage.

A nuclear safety agency spokeswoman said that the waste storage payments were "subject to a confidential memorandum of understanding", while the university described the financial agreement as "commercial-in-confidence".

Clay Lucas is city editor for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering state politics, urban affairs, transport, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.