This article first appeared on Online opinion
On June 29 Kevin Scarce, chief of South Australia’s Nuclear Royal Commission, was interviewed by Ian Henschke on ABC Radio 891 Adelaide. Scarce had just returned from a Royal Commission whirlwind tour of Taiwan, Japan, Europe and the UK. The interview can be heard at http://blogs.abc.net.au/sa/2015/06/nuclear-energy-.html?site=adelaide&program=adelaide_mornings.
I was pretty amazed, not only at the speed at which the Commission examined the nuclear industry, at so many places, from 26 May 12 June 2015, and at the complicated facilities that they examined, but also at how much information was left out of Scarce’s report, and at the apparent inadequacy of their grasp of current developments in the nuclear industry.
First and most obvious were two questions, both which Kevin Scarce had emphasised at his pre-tour community forums in South Australia. Scarce had stressed that the Commission would be consulting people on both sides of the nuclear debate – those for the nuclear industry, and those against it. In the whole interview, in all the places and organisations that Scarce described – not one word about meeting anyone remotely anti nuclear.
Secondly, at the pre-tour meetings, Scarce had repeatedly said that the Commission would be studying renewable energy as well as nuclear. In his talk with Ian Henschke, it was clear that the Commission had not visited any renewable energy organisations or facilities. Indeed, when the interviewer brought up the subject of renewable energy, Scarce glossed over it very quickly – pointing out that Germany was “a way away’ from their renewables goal, and saying “We are certainly looking at renewables”.
Their first visit was to Taiwan, as Scarce said “to talk to the Taiwanese about their spent reactor fuel and about how they were going to manage it.” Well, it’s not surprising that Scarce did not go on to explain how the Taiwanese are going to manage their spent nuclear fuel, because the Taiwanese themselves do not know what to do with it. They are probably retiring one reactor early, due to its accumulating wastes, and are also trying to work out a plan to export their nuclear wastes, but facing opposition in their legislature to this plan.
Then on to Japan. Scarce reported that seeing the abandoned cities around Fukushima was “amazing”, but quickly went on to talk about “what they were doing to fix it”. Later in the interview, Scarce went on at length to explain how inadequate was the Japanese system in setting up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, and their unwise complacency about safety regulation.
He then moved in to what I have found to be a standard pro nuclear argument – that other countries have much better safety and security regulation – implying that the Fukushima nuclear disaster somehow proved the safety of the modern nuclear industry in other countries.
The interviewer did not question this, though it is widely known that USA has 23 nuclear reactors of the same design, and with the same danger, should the cooling system fail, and the hazard of spent fuel pools. Not surprisingly, Scarce did not go into the continuing problem that Japan has with the radioactive water leaking, and their inability to find the molten cores of the damaged Fukushima reactors. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCP7PFT9coU&feature=youtu.be
Scarce went on “We then had a look at some of the new technology – sodium cooled fast reactors, helium gas cooled reactors”. That’s all we heard about that, and no surprise, as Japan’s Monju sodium cooled fast reactor has been out of operation consistently since 1995, due to accidents and safety flaws. As for the helium gas cooled reactor – well, it’s not yet in existence – it’s one of those much vaunted generation IV nuclear reactors that exist in blueprint form.
“Next stop was Olkiluoto, Finland. That’s where AREVA’s astronomically expensive nuclear power station is running into all sorts of trouble.
It’s way behind schedule, and they’ve had to cancel the 4th planned reactor. Kevin Scarce did not talk about that, but did describe Finland’s deep waste repository. This half-a-kilometre deep waste repository will not be taking wastes from other countries, and indeed, is inadequate even for Finland’s nuclear wastes.””
Reporting on France, Scarce was fairly reticent, considering that they spent so much time talking to AREVA, the State owned nuclear company. But that’s understandable. The South Australian Nuclear Royal Commission arrived at AREVA on 4th June. On 3rd June, the French government announced the break-up of AREVA, due to its disastrous financial record, to prevent it from bankruptcy.
Interviewer Ian Henschke then mentioned an opinion poll conducted by the South Australian newspaper The Advertiser, a poll which found that two thirds of respondents favoured the whole nuclear fuel chain being developed in South Australia. Well – there are polls and polls. He didn’t mention the poll, reported by The Advertiser on March 13th 2015, which found this result: “Almost 70 per cent opposed furthering SA’s role in the nuclear industry, including a power station, waste dump or enrichment facility”
Questioned about new Generation IV nuclear reactors, Scarce emphasised their safety features, and, to be fair to him, he did point out the “enormous uncertainty” about when they would be commercially available – “not much before 2040”. He was asked about thorium reactors, and again, admitted to not knowing much about them, and that “2040 might be optimistic for thorium reactors”. Scarce said that with these reactors, thorium, not uranium , is the source of power. That’s not actually correct, as uranium 233 is the power source in thorium reactors. They need plutonium or enriched uranium to trigger the transformation of the inert thorium, to the fissile uranium.
To give credit to Kevin Scarce, he did mention the fact that this process is not so clean, meaning that plutonium or enriched uranium are a radioactive problem issue. He said ” so some of your benefit in terms of a clean fuel source isn’t there”.
Also, to be fair to Kevin Scarce, he did point out that thorium reactors have been tried in the past, in America, and closed down, and that he was doubtful about their future.
Henschke asked Scarce if he saw “state of the art” nuclear reactors. Yes, the Commission had been to both Olkiluoto and to Flamanville in France, and had seen the pressurised water reactors – the very ones that are now described as a financial and safety fiasco. No wonder that Scarce did not elaborate on these visits.
The Royal Commission next goes to USA and Canada for 8 days, from July 9th. They’re particularly interested in the Small Modular Reactor idea. I hope that they’re aware that Westinghouse abandoned their Small Modular Reactor project, and that Babcock and Wilcox pulled back from this – unable to get any contracts or investors.
What I’m worried about, is that the Commission will end up recommending the plan explained recently by Oscar Archer, on ABC Radio National – that South Australia make an “ironclad commitment [my emphasis] to develop a fleet of integral fast reactors to demonstrate the recycling of the used nuclear fuel”
As for the Commission visiting Canada, Kevin Scarce enthused about the similarity between Canada and Australia. Really? What about the difference in climate, in the amount of sunshine, that surely makes Australia ideal for solar power?
Worst of all, as Scarce enthused about Canada’s “very productive nuclear industry” I wondered if the Commission is aware that the World Bank has Canada at the very top of its Corrupt Companies Blacklist, and that this dubious honour is due entirely to its nuclear industry. In particular SNC Lavalin is the culprit – the very company that is trying to sell thorium reactors overseas.
I would like to think that South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Chain Commission is both well informed and impartial. I really would. But, listening to Kevin Scarce, I am not reassured. Nor is it reassuring to read the background nuclear industry links of Scarce and his research team. Kevin Scarce is a shareholder in Rio Tinto Group – the owner and operator of Ranger and Rossing uranium mines in Australia and Namibia . His prominent team leader is Greg Ward – Ward is also the director of two companies:Prism Defence (for which he is also CEO) and Protegic. The latter is a project management service provider with clients including the Rio Tinto Group, BHP Billiton and Endeavour Energy. Four of the five members of the research team named on the NFCRC website have known prior or current associations with nuclear industrial entities.