On the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

NFCRCBack in February 2015, I posted on BNC about the announcement of a Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (henceforth NFCRC) in the uranium-mining state of South Australia (SA).

This was followed up by a post on The Conversation by Ben Heard and me, entitled “Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities“. In that article, we speculated on what the NFCRC might conclude. I was later appointed as a member of the Expert Advisory Committee.

After more than a year of compiling evidence, analysing facts and opinion, and testing ideas, the NFCRC handed down its 320 page final report, in May 2016. You can read it here. (Yes, it’s worth reading in full…but at least look at the summary!)

In caricature (at least by my abstracting), the NFCRC report says:

  1. Mining, milling and further processing of radioactive ores — activities that already occur in SA — will continue to be pursued and developed, but not expand greatly. There is limited scope here for substantially increased economic activity.
  2. Development of uranium enrichment capability and advanced manufacture of fuel elements (including international fuel leasing) in SA would require quite specific techno-economic circumstances to be worthwhile, and raises proliferation issues. It is not likely to happen in isolation of other developments.
  3. IFR vs LFTRElectricity generation from nuclear fuels would probably not, in the present circumstances, be economically competitive in SA. Advanced reactor designs such as the IFR or LFTR should not be built (first) in SA, but a watching brief ought to be kept on small modular light-water reactors.
  4. Hosting of an international nuclear used fuel repository in SA ought to be considered seriously. Very seriously. Although it  would face many logistical and policy obstacles, and would inevitably involve a long-term strategy, the ultimate and ongoing socio-economic benefits it could deliver to SA are stunning (hundreds of billions of $ income).

My interpretation…

First, let’s be clear that as a member of the EAC, I was asked to (among other tasks…) provide technical advice, apply critical comment to the drafts, and suggest investigation of additional material or experts to consult. I did not make any decisions on the content or conclusions of the final report. As it should be — a Royal Commission is almost the antithesis of any one person’s opinion! I was impressed with the systematic and ruthlessly evidence-based approach the RC team took to evaluating all issues.

What of the statements about the cost-(un)competitiveness of nuclear electricity generation? If you recall, I largely agree with them! Indeed, as Ben and I argued back in 2014, nuclear power isn’t currently economically feasible for Australia. But it doesn’t need to remain that way. The NFCRC have recognised this, arguing for some obvious steps to ‘levelise the playing field’. This starts with removing legislative prohibition on nuclear power plants, progresses by technical upskilling and international engagement, and ends with a long-term national strategy for clean energy production that is technology (choice) neutral. How prescient we were! It actually wasn’t hard… it’s really rather obvious.

FCRep

The Main Event was always going to be the used-fuel repository — the ‘waste dump!‘ in the vernacular. This is where the (perceived) international need is greatest (climate change be damned?), and it illuminates a glimmering pathway towards El Dorado… if implemented correctly. (Read Chapter 5 of the Report to find a considered review of the issues.) This also follows the dictum of ‘narrow focus to one target’. Simply put, for Australia, the hosting of an international used-fuel repository offers the most logical and economically attractive way to expand engagement with the global nuclear energy market. Beyond mining of ores. And until this goal is achieved (if it is agreed that this is the goal), then all other issues are but tapering details. Before you object, reflect carefully on the basic question: really, practically, politically, could it have been any other way?

The citizen’s jury that will now follow is politically prudent. The technical details of a repository are largely a matter of good science, engineering and lessons learned from past experience. But unless it rides on the crest of a social-zeitgeist wave, it will fail.

I have a grander vision for the potential synergy between a fuel repository and the demonstration & deployment of advanced nuclear reactors with full fuel recycling. It’s certainly not mine alone, and indeed is based on significant intellectual groundwork done by visionaries like Tom Blees and practical dreamers like Ben Heard [who moonlights as my Ph.D. student!]. (Ben and I have an academic paper on this, currently under review in the journal Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies… stay tuned.)200px-Opened_up_a_Pandora's_box

I said back in early 2015 that the NFCRC might open up a world of possibilities for nuclear energy — for Australia, and the world beyond. Pandora’s Box is now open. Out of the box will emerge challenges most daunting and creatures most vile. But always remember, at the bottom of the box, Pandora also found expectation… and hope.

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27 Comments

  1. Despite not being a huge fan of fuel enrichment I’m really don’t understand how anyone that has looked at the path of making a nuclear weapon, from mine to warhead thinks that the only thing holding the process back is lack of uranium enrichment facilities. Furthermore had Australia seen a need to arm herself with nuclear weapons, she has had the technical capability of doing so for several decades now, and does not because her governments have chosen not to, rather than not having weapons grade U-235 on hand. This is true of other uranium mining nations as well, and whenever I see this argument put forward, it raises doubts about just what sort of political thinking is at work as it has absolutely nothing to do with nuclear power generation at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. .I agree with the comment on not chasing advanced nuclear designs purely from a time perspective. But frankly I don’t think the economic justification of nuclear power is its main criteria and even if it were there could be factors that are not currently taken into account.

    As we are ‘hopefully’ dedicated to fight Climate Change we are limited to virtually eliminating fossil fuels with a diminishing Climate Budget. At the rate of global current emissions we are likely to have mopped up what is left of that within two decades or less. As yet there is no clear universal vision as to how this carbon budget cake is to be sliced up equitably among 200 or so sovereign nations. One consideration may be that the poorer countries should get the lion’s share and permitted to sell/auction their surplus to big polluters such as Australia, US and China (under international strict supervision of course). A purchasing power parity – gross domestic product per capita (PPP-GDP pc) basis perhaps would be a suitable guide. In such a case the likes of Australia would be buying the large proportion of its carbon certificates adding considerably to the standard levelised cost of electricity (LCOE).

    On other fronts, as the vast proportion of current primary energy used globally is from fossil fuels (85% or so) any replacement by renewables, storage and nuclear schemes brought into the mix will themselves need fossil fuel energy to procure and service. Hence life cycle analysis (LCA) of green house gases and energy return on investment (EROI) must also be taken into account in any benefit analysis exercise. Failure to meet a Carbon Budget during energy reform will simply be a waste of money, not to mention any catastrophic consequences.

    On the basis of LCA and EROI current light water reactors appear to have considerable advantage over the likes of PV and wind especially if they incorporate battery storage systems. Let the various antagonists to nuclear stations decommission them later, but please not until we are ‘out from under’.

    http://www.energychallenge.info for more on this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Did everybody see:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2016/06/boomerangs-versus-javelins-the-impact-of-polarization-on-climate-change-communication/

    It doesn’t look like anything is going to be done until after it is too late.
    Another strange bit of human psychology: People think that just because both bombs and reactors can be fueled by uranium, that bombs and reactors must be the same.

    A friend of mine once said: “SInce I gave up hope I feel much better.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Following from Barry Brook’s initial comments on the NFCRC, I would like to run an aspect of repositories past Barry and other contributors to this site to make sure that I am on the right track before I start spouting it in wider forums.
    The bulk of the anti-nuke rant on the MySay nuclear website revolve around the horrors of radioactivity rising out of a repository and destroying everything in sight, either now or in the distant future.
    The RC explained in some detail how these sites operate to contain radioactivity, but in my opinion did not go deeply enough into exactly what events would be necessary to cause a major radioactive release.
    Is it a reasonable comment to say that the only way that major releases could occur from a repository such as the one proposed in SA, would be for a volcanic lava flow to force the contents of the repository to the surface, melting it, and blasting it into the atmosphere as highly radioactive particles that could travel with winds to distant areas in sufficient concentrations to cause problems?
    This is not meant to be a fanciful comment. I just can’t think of any other way radioactivity could escape from the facility as proposed. If anyone has anything that would expand or contradict this idea,
    please put it up, because it is very useful to current debate.

    Like

  5. “Carbon Budget” be damned! Now that we know that emitting fossil carbon is destructive to the global environment, none of us should have any confected “right” to emit, and trading in such rights should be an international crime. Emitting nations owe an apology to the rest of the world, with a commitment to clean up our act as soon as technically possible. Mass production of non-carbon power stations (SMRs) is an almost compulsory first step.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robert Hinds — The repository type I find most suitable is a salt dome which has trapped no hydrocarbons. That way nobody is tempted to drill it. Go way down, 600 meters at least, and dig horizontal tunnels. Put the waste there. The salt will fill in the tunnels in a few years, completely sealing the waste from the rest of the environment.

    The salt domes are tens of millions of years old and will last for tens of millions of years more. There is no credible release possible other than a direct hit by a most smassive bolide. In which case there would be far more serious problems than radioactive releases.

    By the way, this properly belongs on the Open Thread. Kindly use that in the future, where it is much easier for me to comment using this mobile device.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it is unwise to opt out of IFR along with LFTR a new starter with advanced technology and rich uranium resources .

    Fast reactors are compact. With appropriate, fast reactor can be fueled ab initio. They could have higher thermal efficiency. Reprocessing could follow.

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  8. We have been down the fast breeder road sadly Jagdish and few if any are still operating. We have insufficient time to experiment with new reactor designs and their fuel cycles before we hit the 2 deg C barrier. . Light water or heavy water (Candu) have a proven track record, They work.

    Regards

    Mike

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  9. Hi Barry, This is a request to start a new thread on a subject that seems to be taboo in mainstream media or most serious blogs, yet is really starting to bother me now:

    Subject: What do ‘we’ do, now that it’s quite clear that neither of Australia’s major political parties are going to take appropriate and necessary action on climate change in an acceptable timeframe?

    And who is ‘we’ at this point in Australia’s history?

    Like

  10. Chris

    One aspect that came to mind as to why both major parties stay shy of the looming climate crisis is that as separate entities, whatever one party proposes the other will find temporary political kudos in shooting it down. The issue is just too big for one party or the other and we really should be on a war footing and a coalition of all parties to enable us focus on the truly BIG issue – Climate Change .
    Budget figures on the cost of simply de carbonising our electrical industry will be enormous in comparison to the NBN and 2016 dollar equivalent of Snowy Mountains costs. Without a substantial Carbon Tax (and it is hard to imagine the current government reintroducing that) it will be difficult to promote alternatives on the scale needed and the likes of Scott Morrison would have to tread softly on their budget balancing mantra.
    A large portion of the fossil power stations still have substantial amortisation periods to run and many are now outside public ownership. So again without a carbon disincentive scheme there will be considerable reluctance to shut them down.
    As I see it we in Australia will have something of an Achilles Heel regarding how we address whatever portion of the electrical RE mix we need as synchronous (dispatchable i.e. reliable) generation required to moderate the variable like solar and wind without including at least some nuclear. Our hydro is somewhat limited and our hot rock geothermal resources are remote and costly to secure, CSP with storage energy is so far been a farce.
    Then there are the other fossil juggernauts, industry mining and transport and as to how we replace petroleum without tying up substantial agricultural land, water and process energy required by biofuels.
    Also how do we justify exporting nearly six times as much coal as we consume domestically etc etc.
    No one party would likely challenge much of this, if any, in my views.

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  11. Well you are quite right in what you say and these are some of the many reasons often given showing why Australia can’t do what other countries are already doing, to reduce emissions.

    And that’s my point. That why neither of the main political parties are prepared to do what we have to do.

    And hearing all that repeated ad nauseam, probably around 50% of Australians have given up their anxiety to deal with climate, put it all into the too hard basket and simply get on with their lives.

    So how come other 195 other countries, who signed the agreement at COP21, don’t see it that way?

    I think Donald Horne had it right: “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”

    My take is that the current public dissatisfaction with our supposed political ‘leaders’ will continue to rise as more and more people begin to understand that democracy has been systematically undermined for the last 30 years by those in power, who wish to follow the neo-cons in the US.

    This has been compounded by News Corp spreading disinformation about climate that bears a striking resemblance to what fossil fuel industry people like the Koch brother, Exxon, et al have been generating since 2008.

    But the fundamental issue is that climate change is indeed a wicked problem that embraces so many other related problems that it seems unsolvable – at least to our ‘leaders’, who haven’t made the necessary and considerable effort to inform themselves properly and keep abreast of the developing scientific knowledge.

    I’ve been doing that over the last 10 years and I know it’s time consuming. But what other serious long term threat gets anywhere near the gravity of this one?

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  12. Maybe all out nuclear war would even be worse” – than climate change.

    What, worse than “all out poison gas warfare” or “all out microbiological warfare”, etc? The “all out” qualifier make the concept politically incorrect to contemplate. Any more realistic use of big weaponry would be brief, brutal and bloody, with a body count to be assessed in the months after everything is good again.

    Climate change, in contrast is relentless, ever uglier, all-pervasive, with an ongoing butcher’s bill that extends to all nations and all generations beyond. And it’s not going to get better, anytime.

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  13. Mike, I think you’re in a position to agree with Chris: climate change is way and above the most serious challenge of our times. Not even the most lunatic scenarios of nuclear war can match the environmental destruction of climate change.

    We need to be ready to say something like that when someone wants us to agree that wind-backed-by-gas is a sufficient alternative to nuclear electricity. We can add that the backup gas used to provide baseload in his scenario would do more damage to the environment than nuclear baseload ever would.

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  14. Roger I agree with your comment re gas vs nuclear. As we all know, especially since the Fukushima incident and the media attention it got, nuclear currently has a huge public image problem, especially here in Australia. Despite the hysteria unlike Chernobyl, no one has yet been diagnosed with a potential fatal illness due to radiation release according to the UN’s survey.
    It would be beneficial to examine some of the concepts of nuclear antagonists have as to what they believe actually happened in a bid to attempt at re-education e.g. are they confusing the chemical explosions with some nuclear detonation. The exaggerations of just how much radioactive fallout ensued as published in some media could also possibly be addressed. Any thoughts or references you could point me to?
    One scenario I can envisage is if the selected alternative energy mix is not fully trialed out in such as mini-grids up front, especially with the selected synchronous (dispatchable) portion, it could spell trouble. i.e. If the chosen de carbonising mix starts to show shortcomings, black outs, frequency excursions etc., then there will likely be enormous pressure form the FF establishment to reintroduce any closed FF plant with all that entails

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  15. @Mike. The likelihood and consequences of large radioactive releases in Australia would have been dealt with in the NSFCRC report, referred to above.

    We ought to test renewables in an isolated grid, you say. Penetration of wind and solar in an isolated grid has been thoroughly tested in Hawaii and elsewhere. (See(link)) The answer is, 20% max of production. That is predictable well in advance – Danish Australian governments were told that grid stability acquired intermittent capacity maximum of 40 to 50%, to a total intermittent production of less than 20%. Recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel told her Left that Germany’s renewable energy revolution is not going to exceed 45%. She didnt say that’s only capacity, as their production will inevitably be less than half that. Hawaii is a much smaller grid, had stability problems at less than 20% of production.

    You seem to say that we should seek out the truths behind anti-nuclear slogans. I would much rather expose their falsehoods. A four-second slogan chanted out in a gathering of friends should be met with four seconds of ridicule. Far from being a request for learning, the slogan was an invitation to deride a common enemy, while the ridicule dismisses the enmity.

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  16. Roger
    That is most interesting regarding max VRE in a mix thanks. Germany’s Energy Transition here claims they will have 60% renewable energy by 2050 (a tad late I suggest if they really phase out all nuclear by 2022).
    As far as Australia is concerned hot rock geothermal would appear the only synchronous RE candidate we could rely on. If Geodynamics. Habanero 1MWe unit is a guide link at US$20k/kW plus HVDC transmission, even with a substantial size reduction cost curve, the likes of Hinkley Point C nuclear would shoe it in.
    If a 8 second slogan would do the trick I say ‘Bring it on.’

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  17. http://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/10/f33/9-22-16_SEAB%20Nuclear%20Power%20TF%20Report%20and%20transmittal.pdf

    The above 71-page report is essential reading for people who are interested in the role, current and future,of USA’s NRC. See especially page 4 “At present, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews and licenses only LWRs for power production”.

    Thus, SMR, Gen IV and all other technologies and variants are not able to be proposed in USA, which thus could be considered to have abandoned any national advantage in nuclear power station design, construction, operation and regulation to other players.

    It is reasonable to expect that, absent a quick reversal of the current NRC’s approach to its role, that Russia, China, South Korea and possibly France and Great Britain will progressively fill this space.

    Like

  18. …And this provides a succinct real world example of the headwind that existing nuclear power plants face in USA under current market conditions, where carbon emissions are not costed, unreliables are supported through must-take markets and regulated tariffs and the prospects for future support for new nuclear will not flow through to existing units.

    http://www.oppd.com/news-resources/news-releases/2016/june/oppd-board-votes-to-decommission-fort-calhoun-station/

    This sounds the death knell of another perfectly good carbon-free power plant, before the end of its working life and through no fault of its design, its workers, its owners or its customers – it is entirely due to the way in which the market works against existing NPP’s.

    So much for any prospects of achieving less than 2 degrees C climate change.

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  19. Re Fort Calhoun’s imminent decommissioning seems somewhat short sighted despite the generating cost penalties etc. The USA is reasonably well placed to do so but like so many other countries with limited synchronous RE resources and suitable sites to meet their energy demand they are going to need nuclear in their low carbon generating mix if they get serious about climate change.
    It would seem prudent to me that they simply put the plant in mothballs rather than decommission. It would have been interesting to see what Germany does when it finally closes its brown coal plants in 2040-45 when they have already decommissioned all their nuclear capability (by 2022)

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  20. Well on the more positive side LWRs dominate the current global nuclear capacity tally. They are well proven and costs and lead times reasonably well known, It appears to me that whenever more exotic designs are introduced commercially they invariable blow their time/cost/safety budgets and frankly we do not have the benefit of time to experiment with the introduction of Gen IV re Climate Change. Most new plants take a decade or more to get up and running and at business as usual GHG emissions we will need all of that in adopting enough alternative energy to meet the challenge. So my take would be to introduce more LWR (and Candu type HWR) reactors (with safety improvements learnt from Fukushima) rather than gamble on ‘rank outsiders’.
    R&D money on GEN IV would be better spent on aneutronic fusion (p-B) to me in the hope we can one day dispense with the radioactive waste legacy of fission.

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  21. Mike, I agree that R&D must continue, but why only one of two? The case for GEN IV has been made, in detail, elsewhere on this site and others. Surely research, by which I include construction of prototypes and all other steps leading to FOAK construction, can proceed simultaneously for various options.

    Displaying my ignorance… What is aneutronic fusion? If it is so promising, why have I seen so little mention of it, actually zero, if truth be told, but that amounts to displaying my total ignorance.

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  22. Hi Singleton Engineer.
    Why not Gen IV?
    In a nutshell it’s about TIME. As you are probably well aware, regardless as to how well any prototype works there is seldom a trouble free Mark 1, 2 or maybe even 3, usually involving both budget and time blow outs. If we crunch the extrapolated numbers of current global emissions into IPCC AR5’s published figures as to how much more carbon we can dump in the atmosphere before we lock ourselves into a 2 deg. global increase, we may not have more than a decade or so up our sleeves. From start of licensing to commissioning nuclear plant construction seldom takes less than this time. In my humble opinion we need tried and trusted technology despite it may have efficiency problems and other shortcomings like misleading media hype on Fukushima.
    Why aneutronic fusion?
    Well it’s about the old nuclear radiation bogyman and the lack of understanding of this phenomenon among the general public. There will no doubt be considerable public resistance to the nuclear fission plants whatever type employed. If and when we ever get out from under with climate change it is not hard to visualise future generations demanding a consistent 24/365 energy system that will not be threatened by a scarcity of fuel supplies or eons of radiated waste storage. Plus one that will be compact and have inherent safety features. Seems like a pipedream I know but aneutronic fusion would have these attributes if ever developed. Right now nations are spending billions on fusion prototypes (ITER, NIF etc) with fuels that are easier to fuse but also produce neutrons which in turn irradiate the reactor structures and presumably their operating staff. They are also likely to be incredibly expensive due to the sheer footprint dimensions.
    Aneutronic fusion while demonstrated as doable, like is yet to provide a net energy much as its counterpart. Basically it is a p-B11 reaction forming just Helium. But apart from one group of developers which has private funding (Tri Alpha) the others seems strapped for any sort of government help. Aneutronic fusion will be much harder to achieve than other types due to the conditions required. It will also produce less energy per reaction but apart from the 0.2% or so reactions that do produce a neutron the product is inert, stable and also an invaluable resource.
    If you have read this far and still interested you can download our free eBook on http://www.energychallenge.info and go straight to page 153. We welcome comment/corrections etc.

    Regards

    Like

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