Back 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Electricity 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.
- 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).
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.
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.)
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.