What does the nuclear lobby want, for South Australia?

This article first appeared on Online opinion

In South Australia, a government appointed panel is considering the Terms of Reference  for a Royal Commission into expanding South Australia’s nuclear industry. So far, the membership of this panel has not been made public, with the exception of the Head of the Commission, Kevin Scarce, former Governor of South Australia. Mr Scarce has already expressed support for nuclear industry expansion.

In the meantime, there have been numerous articles published, promoting the cause of nuclear expansion. Most of this publicity has appeared in South Australian media. The nuclear promotion in South Australia comes mainly, but not entirely, from South Australians. Nuclear technology marketers  in Canada, USA, and UK take a keen interest in Australia . At the end of this article, I will note some of the most recent prominent promoters.It is difficult to work out exactly what is planned in nuclear industry expansion for South Australia. The plans involve some or all of these industries: uranium enrichment, nuclear power, importation and storage of nuclear wastes, 4th Generation nuclear reactors, and expansion of uranium mining.

However, we can be grateful to ABC Radio’s “Ockham’s Razor” programme, as it provided the nuclear lobby with a platform for setting out succinctly their intentions.  Oscar Archer, a well -known voice for the nuclear industry, explains.

Archer begins with a simplistic story telling us how much carbon is emitted from our household appliances He moves on to suggest, with an analogy about cars – that we should recycle energy. –  a “new, clean, economical form of power”.

That alerted me to the expectation that he would be recommending nuclear reprocessing,and sure enough, this followed, immediately afterwards. Australia should get a fleet of PRISM small nuclear reprocessing reactors – Archer’s plan is for these – ” IFS+IFR: Intermediate Fuel Storage and Integral Fast Reactor, namely the commercially offered PRISM breeder reactor from General Electric Hitachi.”  
What he means here is the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module

Archer then sets out the sequence of events that would lead to the establishment of this fleet.  In Archer’s  words  “it goes like this. Australia establishes the world’s first multinational repository for used fuel – what’s often called nuclear waste”

However, he notes that   “This is established on the ironclad commitment [my emphasis] to develop a fleet of integral fast reactors to demonstrate the recycling of the used nuclear fuel”

Funding for this fleet would be no problem, because “our international partners” would pay for the fleet and the waste repository.

Radioactive wastes from the new nuclear reactors would be no problem, because their half-lives would be only 30 years, (according to Archer) . All this, in solving the wastes problem, would enable a surge in development of conventional nuclear reactors world- wide, which, in turn, would boost our uranium industry.

Archer goes on to explain the safety features of the PRISM nuclear reactors, using the safer sodium coolant, preventing risk of meltdown. These Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) would have to be mass produced. The radioactive wastes would last for only 300 years.

Archer dismisses radiation risks as unimportant, and dismisses proponents of renewable energy as a “vocal minority”.

Finally, Archer reveals the most important step to be taken –  “ for Australia to have a shot at this revolution, the first step must be to amend the ARPANSA and EPBC acts. We must remove the restriction on establishment of nuclear installations and set effective regulations under the expanded auspices of our internationally recognised regulatory body, ARPANSA.”

What he means is that Australia must change a federal law, because nuclear power is a  protected issue as a ‘A Matter of National Environmental Significance’ under the National Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 .  We must change the regulations of  Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) . presumably to weaken the restrictions about radiation safety.

All will be achieved as popular support is developed “through outreach and education”

Where to start in examining Oscar Archer’s argument?

Well – the sting in the tale of his plan is really exactly what he calls the first step – the overturning or weakening of Federal and State laws.  The Federal Act protects against nuclear reprocessing and expanded nuclear industries.  ARPANSA sets safety standards for exposure to ionising radiation. South Australian State Law would have to be overturned, too – under the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000

These laws are not frivolous products of tree huggers – and are there for sound health and environmental reasons.The central premise of Oscar Archer’s promotion of this nuclear chain of events is that Australia should go out on a limb – be the first country in the world to import nuclear wastes and to order a mass purchase of PRISM reactors.

Many will comment on the idea of Australia as the world’s nuclear waste dump.

Fewer will grasp the significance of Australia making a mass purchase of PRISM nuclear reactors.  Now who is going to take that financial risk?  He must mean the Australian government, – because for sure no private investor is going to take that on. The USA manufacturers realised that, which is why Westinghouse and Babcock pulled out of making SMRs

The PRISM  reactor exists only on paper and its development is decades away from completion.  David Biello, in Scientific American comments  “Ultimately, however, the core problem may be that such new reactors don’t eliminate the nuclear waste that has piled up so much as transmute it. Even with a fleet of such fast reactors, nations would nonetheless require an ultimate home for radioactive waste, one reason that a 2010 M.I.T. report on spent nuclear fuel dismissed such fast reactors.” 

The PRISM can’t melt down in the way that conventional nuclear reactors can. However, its essential use of plutonium entails hazardous transport – vulnerability to terrorism and use as a “dirty” bomb. And – finally the PRISM reactor itself becomes radioactive waste requiring security and burial.

There is another, underlying premise here that needs to be examined. This is the premise that it is OK for Australia and the world to continue to consume energy endlessly.The scenario painted here, of Australia’s squillion dollar industry of importing radioactive wastes, and exporting uranium and processed nuclear fuel, assumes that the world will rapidly develop conventional nuclear reactors.  But the rationale for the Small Modular Reactors, and all their reprocessing relatives Integral Fast Reactors Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, is that they are safer than the large “conventional” reactors.

So the whole plan still promotes those less safe reactors!

The plan purports to reduce greenhouse emissions by means of thousands of little reactors, (and big ones)   – but their development is so many decades away that it would be too late for climate change action.

We are left with a plan that looks suspiciously as if the troubled nuclear industries of USA, Canada and UK have selected Australia as the guinea pig for a plan to reverse their industries’ present decline.

It is a worry that the South Australian Government is looking to Canada to take part in the Royal Commission. If ever there were a troubled nuclear industry, it is in Canada. The World Bank’s Corrupt Companies Blacklist is Dominated By Canada, because of one company, SNC Lavalin, – exporter of small nuclear reactors.

The most recent case  for the nuclear industry in Australia is also promoted by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, Professor Ian Plimer , by Dr Ziggy Switkowski , and others.An imported pronuclear publicist is Dr Tim Stone, from Britain. He works for The Office for Nuclear Development (OND), which‘focuses on removing potential barriers to investment, and signals clearly to the industry the serious intent of the Government to push forward nuclear new build’

Dr Stone will be speaking at various events, along with well-known Australian nuclear industry  promoters, Ben Heard, Ian Hore-Lacey, Dr Nigel Long.

The nuclear publicity blitz has been pretty much confined to South Australia. But it really is  a national issue.

Well, good on the ABC for giving it a national airing, and good on Oscar Archer for spelling out that sequence – providing much food for thought indeed.

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