South Australian premier Jay Weatherill on Sunday announced a formal inquiry into the future role of the state in the nuclear fuel cycle, which will be tasked with considering options across the full gamut of mining, enrichment, energy and storage.
Currently, mining is its only involvement.
We have long supported calls for Australia to engage in transparent discussion around expanding participation in the nuclear industry.
Others have asked how this might possibly happen. Weatherill has given an answer in announcing a Royal Commission to investigate these issues. These independent, trusted processes and the findings are treated with respect. They are tasked with the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives.
The premier’s decision to turn the powers and non-partisan process of a Royal Commission to a question of our shared future may prove to be inspired.
Discussion of nuclear energy in Australia has matured in recent years with greater focus on factual arguments, the relativity of risks and the need for robust scientific sourcing of claims.
Yet it has also remained open to distortions, fabrications and fearmongering. Fortunately, such tactics will not withstand the scrutiny of a Royal Commission. As scientists, academics and evidence-based activists, concerned with facts and objective judgement, we welcome this process.
The stakes are high. Several of Australia’s regional trading partners such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China are bound to nuclear energy, with good reason. Their only pragmatic alternative lies with fossils fuels, at great economic and environmental cost.
This international need for nuclear energy is unlikely to diminish, and will likely grow as concerns about tackling climate change rise. It is for us, as Australians, to now decide whether and how we benefit from this, and whether we do or do not take responsibility to make our region and world safer, cleaner and more secure by trading on our competitive advantages.
South Australia’s potential to merge prosperity, clean energy and good global citizenship can barely be overstated. We have no wish to pre-empt the findings of this process. However we invite South Australians to consider these possibilities.
Globally, there are around 240,000 metric tons heavy metal (MtHM ) in spent nuclear fuel, much of which was dug from South Australian ores. By 2040 this will be around 700,000 MtHM.
Our preliminary work indicates that when existing, unspent national budgets allocated to managing this material are added up, we quickly reach a sum in excess of A$100 billion.
In a soon-to-be-published paper, we find simple, robust dry-cask storage is now a demonstrated, reliable and recognised solution for holding this material. It can be quickly, readily implemented by South Australia. Importantly, such a facility would mean the material is retrievable, to enable the extraction of further value through recycling.
A modest storage facility of, say, 40,000 MtHM, would be quickly subscribed by our trading partners for near-term revenues in the tens of billions of dollars for Australia. That’s just the beginning. Continue reading