Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities

This is an article by Ben Heard and me, published today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.


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.

Maturing debate

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.

Storage potential

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.

A nuclear state

In two published, open-access and peer-reviewed papers, one of us (Barry), along with our colleague Professor Corey Bradshaw and other international authors, highlight the potential for commercial demonstration of metal-fuelled, metal-cooled fast reactors in electricity production by 2020.

The reactors and the associated recycling facilities can re-use 99% of the spent nuclear fuel material as energy. The revenue from spent fuel imported into Australia by nuclear partners could bankroll these facilities. The electricity could, in principle, be a free commodity for South Australians to share—a virtual side effect from a process that is already vastly profitable.

How much energy could this represent? In preliminary work we find that the 40,000 MtHM of material would provide Australia with electricity for over two centuries via a mature fleet of fast reactors with fuel recycling. The subsequent flow of waste material would be minimal (perhaps 50 MtHM per year), with an easily manageable half-life of just 30 years.

South Australia to the world

A secure, multinational destination for spent fuel, located in a politically and geologically stable country such as Australia, would spur more rapid expansion of current generation reactors. This would displace coal as the fuel of choice in rapidly growing economies.

While boosting South Australia’s uranium industry, a bold initiative like this would also deliver urgently needed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, improvements in air-quality and sparing land for biodiviersity preservation and food security from coal mining, hydro dams and biofuels.

As the world then transitions to the next-generation fast reactors (and probably other advanced nuclear fission technologies), we will already be leaders in this new global standard in nuclear, ready to re-sell material that we have recycled into new metal fast-reactor fuel.

Our sleeper advantage is our clean slate.

If the nuclear states of USA, UK, France or Japan were commencing developments in the nuclear fuel cycle now, with no historical hindrance or inertia based on established policies, practices and technological path dependencies, and all benefits of knowledge, learning and experience over the past 60 years, what type of nuclear fuel cycle would they design and operate?

That is the envious position South Australia finds itself in in 2015, with a closing window to capitalise on the advantage.

This is a big decision, and one we need to make together. A Royal Commission will provide South Australians with the foundation we need to move forward to greater prosperity in confidence and collaboration, and with the potential to take a leadership role in displacing fossil fuels worldwide.

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30 Comments

  1. The announcement of a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle by the South Australian government should galvanise all readers of this BNC blog to consider how they can contribute to the process. This is a once in a lifetime chance to have an evidence based scientific enquiry into the opportunities that a mature nuclear industry would provide and as Barry and Ben point out, such a move – rare in any field in Australia might prove to be an inspired game changer.

    The many sophisticated postings and responses here indicate a large pool of expertise that hopefully can be brought together to provide both individual and group submissions to the commission.

    It is not just an opportunity for South Australia but for the whole country so why not convene state based groups to generate powerful arguments absolutely founded on the most up-to-date evidence and scientific knowledge.

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  2. Barry,

    A marvellous announcement by J.W. The Greens and Environmental Lobby should welcome it with open arms so they can demonstrate just how evil Nuclear Energy is and how expensive etc. etc. etc. it is.

    I made a submission to the Energy Green paper about Nucear Storage and have a different position to Bob Hawk view as somewhere in ‘Central Australia”. One very good place lies approximately 100 kilometres west of Port Augusta in the Gawler Range Volcanic Belt’ – very quartz rich intrusives, very stable craton.

    Deep water port at Whyalla – a brand new industry.

    By the way reprocessing and new Nuclear Developments may mean that all waste is retreated and used in the near future.

    Regards,

    Graeme Weber

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  3. Thanks Barry and Ben. It should help the punter to see the enormous benefit to Australia and especially South Australia once we’ve had the good sense to start developing the full nuclear fuel cycle [over 25 years], and starting with an international nuclear waste repository in the Officer Basin. I know it’ll take plenty of time, but you and the rest of us should do our best to hurry it all along. Start badgering your local politicians, state and federal.

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  4. My understanding of the current state of reprocessing actinides + wastes in a fast reactor is that a fair amount of the actinides end up in the waste stream; about 4% in each reprocessing step (pyroprocesssing). Summing over many reprocessing steps, about half the actidies end up in the waste stream. So without more refinement (difficult if PUREX) the resulting waste stream has long half life components and would require quite long time isolation from the environment.

    This still looks to be a suitable way to proceed, especially if a large salt dome is available for the lengthy isolation. But please do not claim that a mere 30 year half life waste stream is currently practicable.

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  5. Last August James Conca, a geologist specializing in nuclear waste issues, ran a brief column on the US NRC’s recent rule approving the safety of dry casks for long-term (100+ year) used nuclear fuel storage. Basically, dry cask storage is simple, safe, and cost-effective, particularly over the time frame prior to preparing the material for use in integral fast reactors or other Gen IV technologies. See http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/08/29/confidence-what-does-it-mean-for-nuclear-waste/

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  6. It seems almost unbelievable that a politician, in SA of all places, is prepared to open up the nuclear debate to the extent of a Royal Commission. Cynicism could leave some of us wondering about political motives, but let’s hope the government’s position is genuine.
    If you had a role in this Barry, Thankyou and congratulations. I hope the commission turns to people like you for the facts they need.
    For those of us who are aware of the facts, but have no expertise to offer, perhaps you can suggest some ways we could contribute.
    The coconuts are already falling out of the trees in large numbers, (eg Dave Sweeney radio interview) but that is to be expected. Hopefully they can’t derail a Royal Commission.
    Maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and let’s hope it is not powered by a wind turbine or solar panel. We need that light to be reliable.

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  7. i definitely do not believe that the future will be disastrous if we can give up chasing endless economic growth in a finite planet because there is a better way. it looks as though that is some distance in the future because have you ever noticed how politicians can hardly ever make a speech without mentioning the words ‘economic growth’ – it is like a religious mantra. So, as imagined by the SA Premier, with new technology we can just keep on growing and growing – more of ‘the Jevons Paradox’.

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  8. Let me play devil’s advocate, economics and scientific facts are unlikely to win the political argument. It is unlikely that the Royal Commission will find Nuclear is significantly cheaper than renewables in Australia and the cost of renewables particularly solar is falling.

    To convince residents in Port Augusta that they should support the storage of nuclear waste 100klms from them is a huge ask. Concerns real or imagined of terrorism, effect on property values, childrens health accidents in the port and transport and the world perception of a City with nuclear waste going through it.

    WIFM, “whats in it for me” is what the residents will be asking. Unless they see it as a significant advantage why would they support it?

    The case needed for nuclear is to convince the voters of the benefits to Australia of using nuclear. The politicians are not going to stick thier necks out if the voters won’t support it.

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  9. Whether economic growth is ultimately limited is immaterial- the world’s population is still growing, though it’s slowing, and median wealth is too, though not nearly as much as the fat cats’. Since those couple of billion people aren’t going to agree to quiet seppuku, it behoves us to figure out some way to feed and accommodate them without, if possible, wrecking the planet. Not accommodating them is a sure way to wreck the planet – a hungry man is an angry man, and war wrecks everything.

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  10. Nuclear power has various negatives.
    The first is simply; nuclear fission would not exist without fossil fuels. I mean the research, experimentation, testing, construction, maintenance, storage and decommissioning. It is an extension of the fossil fuel supply system.

    The danger of waste is the second reason. The thousands of years required to allow some of the waste to become non-toxic requires a stability in the world that history shows no evidence.

    Chernobyl and Fukushima speak for themselves as the third reason. They are the Black Swans (Nassim Nicholas Taleb) we can perhaps imagine, but not predict. One was direct human error; one was natural catastrophe with of course indirect human error. How many more? These are some of the unintended consequences of nuclear power.

    Each of the above are premium and primary reasons why I do not support nuclear power; however, there is a fourth that is truly my main reason. We humans, as a group and as most individuals, are not smart enough, wise enough, moral enough or mature enough to handle such power.
    More from: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2012/04/nuclear-power.html

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  11. My understanding of the current state of reprocessing actinides + wastes in a fast reactor is that a fair amount of the actinides end up in the waste stream; about 4% in each reprocessing step (pyroprocesssing).

    ANL appears to have demonstrated TRU/lanthanide recovery rates in excess of 99.9%.

    Plutonium as a waste product essentially disappears with such reprocessing.  A reduction of 3 orders of magnitude is equivalent to 10 half-lives, or roughly 250,000 years of decay.

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  12. I have faith in humanity. In human ingenuity, and progress. We can handle it, beause we have to handle it. Because not growing means spiralling down towards perishment.

    But what’s with the hesitation? When your leadership says they want to have a serious discussion on making progress, take them at their word. Push forward.

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  13. “nuclear fission would not exist without fossil fuels.” – Modern civilization and everything that goes with it, agriculture, medicine, information technology, all of the positive good, none of it would exist without fossil fuels. So what? Now that we realize that all that good comes with a price, a huge price if something doesn’t change, we only need to find alternate energy sources. That’s all. When you look at it that way, it’s not such a big deal. Nothing else really needs to change, we just keep improving. Like we do.

    Cheap, abundant energy– the promise of nuclear power– will allow environmentally friendly, sustainable practices to compete with the old ways. Using resources up and leaving behind a mess, that’s how humans have done things for thousands and thousands of years. But it’s time to grow up, there’s no other choice. A healthy Earth ecosystem provides enormous economic services to humanity.

    “the danger of the waste” – That’s been thoroughly discussed and it’s really not an issue. I used to feel the same way, until I learned that only a fraction of the potential energy is used. Now I’m starting to believe plutonium is some kind of gift from the universe. So-called nuclear waste takes up very little space, and can be stored safely until reprocessed into nuclear fuel. Over and over again. So generation III+ once-thru fuel cycle reactors are a good idea while we start to deploy fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle.

    Fukushima, Chernobyl, etc. Well, there are risks. And there are even bigger risks. I will always bet on progress.

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  14. Engineer-Poet — Thank you, but there are several in the nuclear industry who seriouslly doubt that such efficiencies are possible beyond the engineering scale. I only report what I find, since I fail to understand why the pyroprocessing will not scale up.

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  15. There may be claims that pyroprocessing won’t scale up, but they seem to be coming from people who insist that it never be tried.  We had the same thing happen in 1994:  the IFR project was killed just at the point when industrial-scale pyroprocessing was to be demonstrated.

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  16. @John Weber

    I interpreter your fist reason as being that nuclear can’t exist without fossil fuel support. If this is true you first reason contradicts your fourth reason.

    I find your fourth reason morally questionable. Who are you to decide something like that for all of humanity?

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  17. My letter to National and WA State leaders of the major political leaders supporting this initiative.

    NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE – ROYAL COMMISSION

    The announcement by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill of the Royal Commission into the future role of the nuclear fuel cycle, including mining, enrichment, energy and storage deserves serious consideration by both major political parties with view to a bipartisan agreement on this vital issue for the following reasons.

    Climate change caused by fossil carbon emissions is increasingly becoming the most important sustainability issue on the planet requiring forward planning for water, food and energy security plus long term planning for continuous sea level rise.
    Since industrialisation, total accumulative CO2 emissions total 2 trillion tonnes, with 1 trillion tonnes dumped into the atmosphere during the past 35 years. With emissions growth of 2.5% annually, another 2 trillion tonnes of CO2 will be dumped before 2050.
    To minimise the impact of climate change, IPCC advice is to reduce GHG emissions to near zero before the end of the century, a huge task. Recent emissions growth history shows that nuclear is likely to be the most effective technology that will achieve this.
    a. Between 1945 and 1975 fossil fuel GHG emissions growth was 5% per annum.
    b. During the nuclear rollout between 1975 and 1995 when over 400 nuclear reactors were constructed, GHG emissions were reduced by 2 billion tonnes per year reducing GHG emissions growth to 1.5% per annum.
    c. Since nuclear reactor construction stalled in 1995 and changed to mainly renewable energy construction, GHG emissions growth has increased to 2.5% per annum.

    You can download emissions data from

    http://www.pik-potsdam.de/~mmalte/rcps/

    Only one country, France has successfully replaced almost all fossil fuel electricity generation with non fossil carbon generation by constructing 60 nuclear reactors in just 20 years, now producing 80% of their electrical energy. French emissions per capita are by far the lowest of all large developed countries.
    No country yet has successfully replaced a single large fossil carbon fuel generation plant with intermittent renewable energy.
    No country has yet successfully captured and stored all the GHG emissions output from a large fossil fuel generation plant.
    Safety – there have been three major nuclear power accidents and UN studies show.
    Three Mile Island containment dome – no deaths from radiation.
    Chernobyl no containment dome – about 50 deaths after 25 years.
    Fukushima containment dome no deaths from radiation are expected.
    By comparison carbon fuel pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually.

    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/
    http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/index.html
    http://www-pub.iaea.org/mtcd/publications/pdf/pub1239_web.pdf
    http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/WHO%20Report%20on%20Chernobyl%20Health%20Effects%20July%2006.pdf

    Waste – Nuclear which generates 5% of the world’s energy, produces just 9000 tonnes of waste annually which is collected and safely stored where it can harm no one. By comparison fossil carbon fuels produce about 35 billion tonnes of CO2 waste annually which is freely dumped in the atmosphere where it will ultimately affect all life on earth. Yet safely collecting and storing nuclear waste is deemed socially unacceptable while perversely, freely dumping CO2 into the atmosphere is deemed socially acceptable.
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear-Wastes/Radioactive-Waste-Management/
    The current stockpile of nuclear waste if used in 4th generation fast breeder nuclear technology has the potential to provide global energy needs for about 100 years. Since 1951 fast breeder prototypes have accrued 400 reactor years of operation proving passively safe and fuel efficient, reducing the volume and radioactivity of nuclear waste by a factor of 20, only requiring storage life for about 300 years.
    http://gehitachiprism.com/faqs/
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-05/governments-urged-to-embrace-nuclear-power/5945072
    Proliferation – currently the more than 30 countries with nuclear reactors (including Australia) produce most of the world’s GHG emissions. If all these countries generated all their energy needs from nuclear energy global GHG emissions would be dramatically reduced with no increase in proliferation risk.

    Climate change adaptation and GHG emissions mitigation will increasingly consume much of our resources and Government budgets during the 21st century and prudent early planning and action based on scientific logic, not emotional political beliefs will help minimise this impact on our community.

    National bipartisan support by both political parties for this Royal Commission could be a positive first step towards an effective GHG mitigation plan for Australia and perhaps a successful demonstration model of a closed cycle, sustainable nuclear energy generation system for the world.

    For your consideration.

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  18. “Nuclear power has various negatives.
    The first is simply; nuclear fission would not exist without fossil fuels. I mean the research, experimentation, testing, construction, maintenance, storage and decommissioning. It is an extension of the fossil fuel supply system.”

    This has been well studied through life cycle analysis (LCA) per independently audited ISO. See:

    http://nuclearinfo.net/Nuclearpower/WebHomeEnergyLifecycleOfNuclear_Power

    Its almost nothing, around 1 gram of fossil fuels/kWh. Compare to coal around 1000 grams fossil/kWh.

    “The danger of waste is the second reason. The thousands of years required to allow some of the waste to become non-toxic requires a stability in the world that history shows no evidence.”

    This is a popular myth, sadly a fabricated lie that the anti nuclear movement produced. The truth is that a 500 year old spent fuel assembly is safe to stand next to. It is a ceramic material that people are not going to eat; if they do they will have other problems (eating rock ruins your teeth and then you’ll starve). We know how to make stainless steel containers that can last centuries and the zircalloy cladding itself will last centuries all on its own (it even resists salt water).

    The engineering truth is that storing high level radioactive material is trivial and can be done and has been demonstrated to be done, 100% safely and securely.

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  19. “Chernobyl and Fukushima speak for themselves as the third reason. They are the Black Swans (Nassim Nicholas Taleb) we can perhaps imagine, but not predict. One was direct human error; one was natural catastrophe with of course indirect human error. How many more? These are some of the unintended consequences of nuclear power.”

    Chernobyl was a design with positive void coefficient and no containment. Fukushima was dependent on power for cooling, offgas control, critical valve alignments.

    All preventable by design – in fact they have been prevented by the latest reactor offerings such as AP1000 and ESBWR.

    Still the effects of Fukushima are totally exaggerated. No one has been killed by the radiation, it is fear that has killed many, by doing an unnecessary evacuation and (even worse) not allowing people to return home even though their land is just fine. It is much safer to live anywhere in Fukushima, for example, than it is to live in Tokyo. Lots of traffic accidents and air pollution risk in Tokyo.

    As for Chernobyl as an argument against modern passive plants, that is such an archaic and obviously unsafe design it is a bit like saying we should ban the sales of Airbus A380s because the Hindenburg dirigible caught fire and killed everyone. In fact the new passive plants are a lot safer than aluminium tubes flying at 1000 km/h at 10000 meters height and filled with civilians. But people like you aren’t compaigning against air travel, for some reason.

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  20. We need to be careful when responding to a critic using the word “waste“. In traditional usage, waste is material that is to be converted into nonexistence. The process is either rot or burning. In both cases the material is converted into gases that vanish into thin air. In popular thinking, its nonexistence has been achieved, cleanly and virtuously.

    By contrast, it is feared that “nuclear waste” cannot be converted into nonexistence. Instead this allegedly evil material continues existing for hundreds of years, frightening all goodly citizens who are trying to continue living a 1950s lifestyle.

    A tactful way to respond to criticism that includes the word “waste”, would be to reply with a qualifier on the same word rather than allow it to imply something vague and vast. Thus, “fission product waste” amounts to one gram per person per year, and yes, it should be buried somewhere safe, and surely no one has a problem with that? You see, it is an appeal to reason, inviting the critic to think in terms of quantities rather than qualities.

    Less patiently, you might ridicule the “into thin air” assumption in the paradigm. Thus, “do you mean it is better to dump ten tonnes of waste gas into the greenhouse?”

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  21. I think that the economic gain argument will fall flat on its face. Certainly as a supplier of raw material, uranium, there is economic gain, but the storage argument is risky. If the nuclear fission power industry fails to engage with the energy for shipping problem then fission reactors are likely to be over shadowed by fusion reactors ( http://www.iter.org/ ) the future of which we will get better information fairly soon.

    For Australia to see the world’s nuclear waste as an asset carries huge risk. If fusion reactors become a reality then fission reactors will not be built and their waste will become a stranded “assett” without an income base, and therefore a very long term liability for Australia, a liability that even the US has failed to find a permanent solution for.

    Fuel processing and reprocessing is only viable if there is an industry to supply and a waste material storage facility.

    If the ITER Fusion Trial Reactor performs as expected then the countries that will certainly invest heavily will be Europe, the US, Japan and China. Such a shift will substantially dry up Fission power plant installation and development.

    As for the economic viability of Fission power for Australia the best test for that is to find an Aluminium smelter operator who is will to fully invest in a dedicated reactor to power their potline.

    Here was such an opportunity

    http://www.powermag.com/top-plantemirates-aluminum-smelter-complex-emal-al-taweelah-abu-dhabi-united-arab-emirates/

    here was one near arrangement at its demise

    http://sales.riotintoaluminium.com/document_get.aspx?id=581

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  22. I could be wrong about this but I believe that the Howard government decline the opportunity to invest into the 5 billion dollar ITER investment pool when the opportunity was offered. Does anyone know the details?

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  23. BilB has a vision of small nuclear reactors becoming the power plants for worldwide commercial shipping. You may get more of a discussion specifically on the subject, if you were to post it in the BNC Discussion Forum,
    http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/

    AFAIK, the current standard large power plant for shipping is diesel of 50,000 shaft hp, that is, 37 MW. And I believe that the majority of them are direct drive, rather than electric driven. However you may be able to argue that a dedicated nuclear design for shipping is feasible.

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  24. The current preferred container ship engine is the 15,000 hp diesel and the largest diesel in the world, which you are correct to point out is not 120 megawatt but 80 or thereabouts. Yes they are direct drive, not diesel electric, but they are design details. I’ve just watched a docco on the Maersk Emma which uses that exact same engine. Interestingly the engine required a conrod replacement and a cylinder lining replacement in one 14 day cruise.

    It is not my interest though I am pointing where I see Fission power has its opportunities. I don’t see Australian mainland as being one of those opportunities. I think that Australia can wait till the fusion reactors are ready and at that time our population will be heading towards 50 million and it will make sense. Fission power, where there is more than adequate alternative energy potential, has more long term costs than the short term benefits would justify. Shipping is a special case.

    My business partner who is a nuclear fan and a thorium reactor enthusiast put forward this link

    on the lifter reactor. From what I can see here this is a reactor with ship powering potential.

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  25. Anybody who sees a fusion powered future is not on my planet, where fusion is still a theory with a prayer attached.

    Within the time frame envisioned by the Royal Commission, fusion can’t contribute, at least on Planet Earth.

    In similar vein, “thorium reactor enthusiasts” might find it difficult to join the discussion.

    Comments along either line are tending off topic.

    Like

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