Mixed motives in South Australia’s nuclear waste import plan

This article first appeared on Online Opinion   [included links]

In South Australia the continued nuclear push focusses solely on a nuclear waste importing industry. Yet that might not be economically viable. Behind the scenes, another agenda is being pursued – that of developing new generation nuclear reactors.

First, let’s look at the message. The message from the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (NFCRC) is clearly a plan to make South Australia rich, by importing foreign nuclear wastes.

The earlier NFCRC report “Tentative Findings” stated that:

…the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel in South Australia is “likely to deliver substantial economic benefits to the South Australian community”, with a commercially viable storage facility operational in the late 2020s – $5 billion a year over 30 years and $2 billion a year for the following 40 years.

The NFCRC’s final recommendation is that :

…a state wealth fund that spreads the benefit to future generations of South Australians could reach about $445 billion overmore than 70 years.

South Australia has the attributes and capabilities to manage and dispose of international used nuclear fuel safely, and it would have significant intergenerational benefit to the community.

This theme has been repeated ad nauseam by the NFCRC’s publicity, by politicians, and the mainstream media.

At present, the South Australian government is running a state-wide process of over 100 forums – “community consultations”, where personnel, from the NFCRC and other nuclear experts are explaining the purportedly lucrative plan to local communities. At the same time, the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury process is being continued, with meetings planned for October and November.

Meanwhile, the South Australian Parliament is holding a Committee Inquiry into the NFCRC’s recommendations. This Committee asked witnesses about various aspects of the plan. However, an intense focus in questioning Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce, and Dr Tim Johnson from Jacob Engineering (financial reporter to the NFCRC) was directed at the economic question. It was clear that the politicians were concerned that there’s a possibility of the State spending a significant amount of money on the project, which might then not go ahead. And, indeed, Dr Johnson acknowledged that, financially,” there is a very significant risk”. Mr Parnell quoted Jacobs’ report:

…the total expenditure prior to the decision to proceed and sign contracts with client countries is likely to be from around AUD300 million to in excess of AUD600 million…

In other words, before we actually decide to go ahead, before we have signed any contracts,expenditure is up to and in excess of $600 million.

Whereas other countries are compelled to develop nuclear waste facilities, to deal with their waste production from civil and military reactors,that is not a necessity for Australia, (with the exception of relatively tiny amounts derived from the Lucas Heights research reactor).

So, the only reason for South Australia to develop a massive

nuclear waste management business is to make money. If it’s not profitable, then it shouldn’t be done.

Or so it would seem.

There is another, quieter, message. When you read the Royal Commission’s reports, you find that, while the major aim is for a nuclear waste business, in fact, the door is kept open for other parts of the nuclear fuel chain. It recommended:

Remove existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation
Monitor developments in new nuclear reactor designs for future consideration
Nuclear power may be necessary, along with other low-carbon generation technologies. It would be wise to plan now to ensure that nuclear power would be available should it be required ….This is likely to include consideration of small modular reactor (SMR) designs, but exclude for the foreseeable future fast reactors and other innovative designs because the generating capacities of SMRs would be attractive to integration in smaller markets, such as in South Australia and in off-grid applications.

Nowhere in the NFCRC report, do they make a link between establishing the waste repository and planning for nuclear reactors. It is as though the two projects are not related. But they are.

The clearest explanation of this came early in 2015, just as the NFCRC was starting, in an ABC Radio National talk by Oscar Archer. He outlined a plan:

Australia establishes the world’s first multinational repository for used fuel – what’s often called nuclear waste. This is established on the ironclad commitment to develop a fleet of integral fast reactors …The development of the intermediate repository and the first reactors is funded by our international partners……

By unblocking the back end of the nuclear fuel cycles for our international partners and customers, rapid development in conventional Generation III+ nuclear technology receives a strong boost …

Each PRISM “power block”, or set of twin reactors, adds 622 megawatts of saleable zero-carbon generation to Australia which further improves the revenue position. …….The transition to PRISM world-wide is under-way on the back of Australia’s pioneering embrace of this technology with support of key partners.

Archer’s plan is significant because it illustrates a very important point about South Australia’s nuclear waste plan – IT SOLVES A GLOBAL NUCLEAR INDUSTRY PROBLEM. Both in ‘already nuclear’ countries, especially America, and in the so far non nuclear counties, such as in South Asia, the nuclear industry is stalled because of its nuclear waste problem. In America, the “new small nuclear”, such as the PRISM, technologies (Power Reactor Innnovative Small Module) cannot even be tested, without a definite waste disposal solution. But, if South Australia provided not only the solution, but also the first setting up of new small reactors, that would give the industry the necessary boost.

The NFCRC is not recommending Oscar Archer’s plan.

However, the significance remains. Once Australia has set up a nuclear waste importing industry, the nuclear reactor salesmen of USA, Canada, South Korea, will have an excellent marketing pitch for South Asia, as the nuclear waste problem has been removed from their shores.. And South Asia is exactly the market that the NCRC has in its sights. The NFCRC eliminated most of the EU, Russia, China, North America as customers. This was explained by Dr Tim Jacobs, of Jacobs Engineering, (financial reporters to the NFCRC), at the recent hearing of the South Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission .

Globally, the ‘conventional’ nuclear reactor business is struggling, The ever escalating costs of USA’s nuclear reactors being built, of France’s Flamanville reactor, and most notable lately, Britain’s Hinkley C nuclear fiasco, have cast a gloom over ‘big nuclear reactors’

However, this is quite good news for the ‘small nuclear’ lobby. In the USA, the charge is led by Bill Gates, and a bunch of billionaires, who work to get governments, and taxpayer funding to support their novel nuclear reactor projects. In Britain, the nuclear charity (yes, it has charity status!) the Alvin Weinberg Foundation , and 33 new nuclear companies are practically ecstatic at the news that Teresa May’s government is having doubts about Big Nuclear.

Australia has its own cadre of small nuclear enthusiasts. These individuals have, in a short period of time, achieved world recognition as advocates for the various types of new small nuclear reactors. On the international scene, leading lobbyists are the Breakthrough Institute, with their Ecomodernist Manifesto. (They put in a submission to South Australia’s NFCRC), and Australian lobbyists Barry Brook and Ben Heard.

The themes of the Ecomodernists are rather touchy feely writings about the environment, so it is no surprise that they have many very caring and sincere environmentalists in their movement. The subtle message of the Manifesto is that renewable energy is not that great, and that brave new nuclear is needed to combat climate change. A similar, but more clearly spelled out theme is the message from the Australian lobbyists.

Australia’s present government is influenced by climate sceptics who dismiss the science, and also the economic concerns about climate change.

South Australia’s government is influenced by a strong nuclear lobby push and the Royal Commission advocacy for solving that State’s present financial problems by a futuristic nuclear waste repository bonanza scheme.

The global nuclear lobby surely does not care about whether or not the South Australian nuclear waste importing scheme is economically viable. Their fairly desperate need is to sell nuclear reactors to those countries that don’t already have them. In particular, the ‘small nuclear” lobby sees an urgency now, with ‘big nuclear’ failing, to get their industry happening.

A commitment by an Australian State to take in nuclear waste could do the trick for them – as Oscar Archer put it – by unblocking the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The NFCRC plan also promises the chance of a market in Australia for the mini nuclear reactors.

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One thought on “Mixed motives in South Australia’s nuclear waste import plan

  1. Noel, it was obvious that there’s been the push for expanding the nuclear power generation aspect “just in case” but I thank you for joining some of the dots. Cheers

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