Should Australia invest funds and resources in developing Generation IV nuclear reactors?

This article first appeared on Online opinion

Without any fanfare, with no media coverage, Australia’s Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) is presently considering Australia signing up to the International Framework for  Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems (GIF), which will commit this nation to take part in developing new nuclear reactors.

Dr Adi Paterson, CEO of the Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, signed up to this GIF Framework last year. However, that does require confirmation by the Australian government. Hence there was the  need for the JSCOT Committee to at least take a look at it, before the government completes the membership. Apparently there is no need for public discussion, or probably even Parliamentary discussion.

This Committee very quietly invited submissions, and very few were in the know about this. Now the received submissions have been published – at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Treaties/NuclearEnergy/Submissions.

Anyway, it looks as if ANSTO is the driving force behind this process, and judging by the submissions received, the nuclear lobby was in the know, even if the public was not. Fourteen submissions were received. Of these, eleven were strongly pro- nuclear, and three were opposed. The opposing submissions came from Friends of the Earth (FOE), (jointly with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF ), Medical Association For The Prevention of War (MAPW), and myself, (I came upon the Parliamentary website just by chance).

In assessing these submissions, of course, I have to admit to bias on my part.  Still, I think that any reader would find that there is one submission that stands out for clarity, and a detailed, factual discussion of the GIF plan. That is the one written by Jim Green and Dave Sweeney, for FOE and ACF.

Green and Sweeney respond to assertions made in ANSTO’s National Interest Analysis.They question claims that the new reactors reduce weapons proliferation risks, are economic, efficient, and solve waste problems. They rebuke the claim of ANSTO that “a significant expansion in nuclear power production is underway “, listing the overall decline in nuclear power growth, with the exception of China. They discuss at length the very long time frame expected even by nuclear industry experts, before any Generation IV reactors could be commercially viable.

They go on to discuss each of the six proposed new nuclear reactors, giving a detailed history of the attempts to develop each, and factual information that refutes those claims made by ANSTO.   For all of their statements, Green and Sweeney provide evidence and references.

The Medical Association for Prevention of War  (MAPW)’s submission questions the government’s high subsidising of ANSTO, and points out the poor prospects for private investment in new nuclear power. It refutes the argument that Gen IV reactors would solve the nuclear waste problem, quoting analysis by the US National Academy of Sciences  They discuss the history of attempts to develop Gen IV nuclear reactors,- ” a track record of repeated failure and massive cost”. They discuss the direct and indirect costs, and ANSTO’s secrecy about nuclear costs. Safety and reliability issues, and proliferation risks, are examined. They also point out that the recent Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (NFCRC) was not supportive of new nuclear technology.  The Commission proposed:

“monitoring and reporting” of new designs, not participation in research and active subsidization. The Royal Commission also places emphasis on economic value for nuclear power generation, which is clearly entirely absent from fast reactor operations.”

My own submission also discusses non-proliferation, nuclear waste, and claims about climate change, but it focuses on the lack of public information and discussion. In view of Australia’s laws prohibiting the development of nuclear power in Australia, I find it disturbing that the government is about to put money and resources into developing new nuclear reactors.

Now – to the eleven pro nuclear submissions. In general these faithfully repeat the claims made by ANSTO, stressing the value of Australia participating in an international forum. (e.g: submission from Australian Nuclear Association)

  • Most submissions praise ANSTO and universities ANU and UNSW for their expertise.
  • Then there’s the claim that nuclear power will decarbonise the economy. (submission by The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE)). (and from Barrie Murphy)
  • Joining GIF willincrease the visibility of Australia’s cutting-edge research (from Nuclear Engineering Research Group, School of Electrical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, UNSW Sydney)
  • Would increase Australia’s ability to influence international policy – will increase the international status of ANSTO and Australia’s universities. (from Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering)

None of these submissions discussed the proposed reactors or provided any evidence for those claims.

Oscar Archer’s submission did provide some information on reactor types, and even a favourable nod to renewable energy. He concluded, in rather a leap of logic, that

“only these deployable nuclear technologies can enable decarbonisation beyond electricity, by displacing conventional industrial heat sources”

And he recommends the GIF Framework agreement, because:

“it  will serve to build expertise that should be vital when the time comes for Australia to take its next big step with regard to nuclear technology”.

It was a kind of a relief to come upon Ben Heard’s submission. At least he provided some passion and real enthusiasm for the nuclear cause. He expressed his concern that nuclear power is being left out of discussions on sustainable energy.

However, Heard’s enthusiasm is not backed up by evidence. He anticipates:

“near term commercialization and deployment of a range of advanced nuclear technologies. We have estimated such integrated projects may deliver net benefits in the tens of billions of dollars to Australia while advancing international peace and stability and accelerating the deployment of important technologies.”

“The potential improvements in back-end waste management of advanced nuclear technologies are inarguable”

“With the mounting threat of climate change and the immediate and serious problems of poverty and energy-related pollution, a direct substitute for new coal needs the greatest level of support. Modern nuclear energy is that direct substitute.”

I do realise that in this summary of the submissions, I could well be accused of bias. The only way for readers to examine this question is to go to the JSCOT website, and to read the submissions for themselves.

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A radical change in pro nuclear spin

This article first appeared on Michael West’s site as Reactorvated: new nuke push ramps up

We don’t hear much about this, yet. It’s an international nuclear industry plan to develop new nuclear reactors, ones that are still only in the design phase. The Australian Parliament’s  Treaties Committee is holding an Inquiry into the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems. Australia already signed up for this in June 2016, without any public discussion.. Now the plan is to extend Australia’s involvement, and the Committee calls, (rather quietly)  for submissions by 28 April 2017.

Anyone would think that the idea of expanding the nuclear industry in Australia was dead and gone, following last year’s debacle of the South Australian government’s attempt to get a nuclear waste import business set up in Australia. However, the latest plan is different.
The South Australian plan was unsuccessfully touted as a bonanza for that state. It was also promoted to the global nuclear corporations as the answer to their problem of where to put radioactive wastes. It would have been a plus for AREVA, Westinghouse, Toshiba, G.E. Hitachi, enabling them to market nuclear reactors to South East Asia, with the promise of having the waste disposal issue solved.

The failed plan was set out in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Final Report .  The idea of Australia developing new generation nuclear reactors got the barest mention, in Chapter 10. However, this idea was always quietly a part of the nuclear lobby’s plan for the future.

When it comes to pro nuclear propaganda, what is radically different now, is that Generation IV nuclear energy systems are no longer touted as a helpful solution for those “conventional ” nuclear corporations, (that I will call “Big Nuclear”). In the current climate of financial crisis for AREVA, Westingouse, Toshiba etc, the “new nuclear” companies, Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic, NuScale etc now pitch their products as not a help, but a radically different alternative to the conventional reactors.

This new nuclear propaganda is certainly out there, but is not yet prevalent in Australia. The nuclear lobby’s first step now is to get government commitment in principle, getting Australia in step with USA and the other nations in the campaign. While the government is certainly well aware of the rejuvenated pro nuclear campaign, the soft sell to the Australian public is barely underway, yet

In 2017, the change in both content and style has come about both because of recent developments in the nuclear industry, and also because of the changing media environment. Today’s persuasion campaign is promoting a different product, targeting different audiences, using different media outlets, and above all, has adopted a revitalised style.

The product ? The favoured product is the Small Modular Reactor, (SMR) which does not yet actually exist, except as a design. Some are said to be under construction in China. It’s not at present possible to build them commercially in America or UK: licensing and safety regulations would have to be changed first.

The target audiences? There are several. First, governments have to be won over, particularly because of need to change nuclear regulations, and also because of costs. With the availability of cheap gas and renewable energy, nuclear projects do not currently attract private investment. Even the Bill Gates’ billionaires’ SMR project, Breakthrough Energy Coalition  is seeking tax-payer funding, via the governmental Mission Innovation programme. In Britain, Weinberg Next Nuclear not only informs the government, but has achieved the status of a registered charity.

Secondly, mainstream journals are targeted. Not a week passes without ecstatic articles on SMRs popping up in mainstream media. Almost certainly, these derive from carefully worded handouts from the SMR firms, or better, from journalists like James Conca, who specialises in writing for the SMR lobby.

However, the most important target is the public, and particularly, youth.

Media outlets? You have to hand it to the new nukes lobby. They are way ahead of other industries, and especially of Big Nuclear, in their use of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, SoundCloud and also of TV, film, radio and podcasts

Style? I think this is what counts, in winning hearts and minds. The media manipulators for the SMR lobby display publicity skills, with a versatility worthy of Joseph Goebbels. Lavishly produced TV series, such as Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail and the film Pandora’s Promise, carry a very subtle soft sell for new nuclear. A new pro nuclear spin film, The New Fire, is in production.

In fact, quite a small number of individuals produce both wordy technical presentations for government, industry, and mainstream journals, and bright, snappy, easily accessible messages for the young, and for non-technical environmentalists. The best example is Michael Shellenberger who writes extensively, and runs numerous nuclear front groups – Environmental Progress Ecomodernists, etc, – of great appeal to enthusiastic environmentalists.

In Australia, this propaganda genius is shown by Ben Heard, who sends sophisticated submissions to government , tweets incessantly, and also runs a touchy feely nature-loving nuclear front group “Bright New World” 

Especially in the USA, these very appealing groups pop up quickly, to meet changing circumstances. The latest is Generation Atomic, formed in April 2017, specifically to organise a clear pro nuclear presence in the March for Science, an American and international event on 22 April.

Reading back through this, I realise that it shows that, as Marshall McLuhan said,The Medium is the Massage.  What the message IS might matter less than its attractive style.

However, the nuclear propaganda message is always there, though it has evolved over decades.

The decades of nuclear spin from the late 1940s to the 1990s could be called the era of Defensive Spin.  Apart from one ambitiously positive 1950s campaign about Cheap Electricity “too cheap to meter”, pro-nuclear propaganda became mired in the fear, and the support for weapons, that characterised the Cold War period. The defensive themes of the 1970s -80s followed news of nuclear accidents, and could be summarised as Downplaying Radiation Effects, and Assurances of Safety. 

I have skimmed through that Defensive Spin era because the later Positive one is much more interesting, and relevant to today.

1990 The first burst of positive nuclear spin came  at around the time of the first IPCC Climate Report. Already, nuclear corporations like AREVA were talking about Fossil Fuel Depletion and Energy Security: nuclear power was the answerThe industry was reluctant to yet push the low-carbon argument, as many in these corporations did not believe in global warming. However, they could still push the line about nuclear power being Clean and Pollution Free (Nuclear Energy Institute)

2003, The Breakthrough Institute  was the first big foray of a new nuclear front group. They pushed the clean energy line, but courageously in 2004 touted the benefits of nuclear power to combat global warming. While some nuclear lobbyists are still pushing that line, it has also somewhat lost favour, because research is showing that this line has resulted in promotion of renewable energy, rather than nuclear

Over the 2000s, nuclear front groups have sprung up. For a long time they promoted “new nuclear” – Generation IV reactors as Supporting Big Nuclear.    The big selling point was the promise that Generation IV reactors would eat the wastes of conventional reactors. They still push that promise to the world, but are now not keen to be seen as associated with the troubled Big Nuclear   companies.

The message is always a positive and optimistic one.  Even the Fukushima disaster becomes twisted as some sort of evidence for the benefits of new nuclear.

With the more youthful and digitally aware target audience in mind, the Ecomodernism  movemen brought in a new spin angle – Humanitarian and nature loving. It has the feel of an alternative to big corporations, although billionaires are behind it.

The overall message is saving the planet. This encompasses: endless cheap and pollution-free energy for all of humanity, recycling nuclear wastes and thus solving that problem, combatting climate change, and promoting the beneficial uses of ionising radiation, freeing people from irrational fears, and from anti-science.

I am not here interested in scrutinising the claims made by today’s pro nuclear spin. I am in awe of their chutzpah. The Generation IV- SMR lobby has been successful, in gaining the attention of government and media for technologies which do not yet even exist.  In today’s world of “alternative facts”, I guess that this success is not surprising. It remains to be seen if “new nuclear” can win the public approval that it needs.

Submission to: Inquiry: The Generation IV Nuclear Energy – Accession

 24 April 2017   First of all, I find it very strange that this agreement has been signed up to in advance, not by any elected representative of the Australian Parliament, but by Dr Adi Patterson CEO of the Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, apparently pre-empting the results of this Inquiry!

I find it disturbing that this Inquiry is being held without any public information or discussion. Are we to assume that the decision to join this “Charter” is being taken without prior public knowledge?

It is a pretty momentous decision. According to the World Nuclear Association the 2005 Framework agreement “formally commits them (signatories) to participate in the development of one or more Generation IV systems selected by GIF for further R&D.”

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 currently prohibits the development of nuclear power in Australia. Nuclear power cannot be approved under either the EPBC Act or the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998.  These prohibitions are, as I understand it,  supported by all major parties in Australia?

This would be an extraordinary step for Australia to take, especially in the light of the recent South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (NFCRC) pro-nuclear Royal Commission, which, while recommending South Australia for an international nuclear waste dump, nevertheless stated that

The recent conclusion of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), which issued updated projections for fast reactor and innovative systems in January 2014, suggests the most advanced system will start a demonstration phase (which involves completing the detailed design of a prototype system and undertaking its licensing, construction and operation) in about 2021. The demonstration phase is expected to last at least 10 years and each system demonstrated will require funding of several billion US dollars. As a result, the earliest possible date for the commercial operation of fast reactor and other innovative reactor designs is 2031. This timeframe is subject to significant project, technical and funding risk. It extends by six years a similar assessment undertaken by GIF in 2002. This means that such designs could not realistically be ready for commercial deployment in South Australia or elsewhere before the late 2030s, and possibly later.”

This was hardly a ringing endorsement of Generation IV nuclear reactors.

The South Australian Citizens Jury, Community Consultations, numerous economists, and the S.A. Liberal Party all rejected that nuclear waste plan, as not economically viable.  A huge amount of preparation was done by the NFCRC in investigating the phases of the nuclear Fuel Cycle (more accurately Chain) to arrive at their rather negative view of Generation IV nuclear reactors.

That makes it all the more extraordinary that the Australian government would be willing to sign up so quickly to ANSTO’s request that Australia put resources into these untested, and so far, non-existent nuclear technologies.

I hope that the Committee is aware of the present financial troubles of the giant nuclear corporations, such as AREVA, Toshiba, and Westinghouse Electric. Nuclear power is turning out to be a financial liability wherever it is not funded by the tax-payer, (as in China and Russia). (1)

The World Nuclear Association describes the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) as countries for whom nuclear energy is significant now or seen as vital in the future. Australia’s situation in no way fits these criteria.

Nuclear energy is not significant now in Australia, and even the NRCRC nuclear proponents do not see it as vital for Australia’s future. It is almost laughable, that right now, renewable energy systems are taking off in Australia – both as large solar and wind farms, and as a huge increase in small decentralised systems such as home and business solar panel installations.

That’s where Australia should be putting its resources of human energy, talent, and funding.

The claims made by the nuclear lobby, ANSTO and some politicians, notably Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop, about Generation Iv nuclear reactors, do not stand up to scrutiny:

Non proliferation “-   Furthering Australia’s non-proliferation and nuclear safety objectives.” The well-known claim that a “conventional” nuclear bomb cannot be made from these new types of reactor, might be true, to a certain extent. However, IFRs and other plutonium-based nuclear power concepts fail the WMD proliferation test, i.e. they can too easily be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The use of thorium as a nuclear fuel doesn’t solve the WMD proliferation problem. Irradiation of thorium (indirectly) produces uranium-233, a fissile material which can be used in nuclear weapons.  These materials can be used to make a “dirty bomb” – irradiating a city or other target.  They would require the same expensive security measures that apply with conventional nuclear reactors.

If the purpose in joining the GIF is to strengthen non-proliferation and safety – why is ANSTO the implementing agent not the Australia Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office?

Solving nuclear waste problem? Claims that these new nuclear reactors will solve the problem of nuclear wastes are turning out to be spurious. For example, Nuclear energy startup Transatomic Power has backed away from bold claims for its advanced reactor technology after an informal review by MIT professors highlighted serious errors in the company’s calculations. (2) Even at the best of times, the “new nuclear” lobby admits that their Gen IV reactors will produce highly toxic radioactive wastes, requiring security for up to 300 years.
The Integral Fast Reactor is called “integral” because it would process used reactor fuel on-site, separating plutonium (a weapons explosive) and other long-lived radioactive isotopes from the used fuel, to be fed back into the reactor. It essentially converts long-lived waste into shorter lived waste. This waste would still remain dangerous for a minimum of 200 years (provided it is not contaminated with high level waste products), so we are still left with a waste problem that spans generations. (3)

Climate change. The claim that new nuclear power will solve climate change is spurious. This ignores life-cycle CO2 emissions

Nuclear energy is not zero carbon.

Emissions from nuclear will increase significantly over the next few decades as high grade ore is depleted, and increasing amounts of fossil fuels are required to access, mine and mill low-grade ore.

To stay below the 2 degrees of global warming that climate scientists widely agree is necessary to avert catastrophic consequences for humans and physical systems, we need to significantly reduce our emissions by 2050, and to do this we need to start this decade. Nuclear is a slow technology:

The “Generation IV” demonstration plants projected for 2030-2040 will be too late, and there is no guarantee the pilots will be successful.

Nuclear Economics. For “a time when significant expansion in nuclear power production is underway” – this is a laughable falsehood. In reality, nuclear power economics are in a state of crisis, most notably in America, but it is a world-wide slowdown. (4)

The vagueness of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) agreement is a worry. Australia is to formally commit to participate in the development of one or more Generation IV systems selected by GIF for further R&D.  Surely Australia is not going to sign up to this, without any detail on what kind of research, what kind of reactor, what amount of funding we would be committing to the GIF.

And all this without any public discussion!

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/apr/11/toshiba-losses-uk-moorside-nuclear-plant-westinghouse
  2.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603731/nuclear-energy- startup-transatomic-backtracks-on-key-promises/
  3. https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4555
  4.  http://reneweconomy.com.au/nuclear-industry-crisis-29735/

Australia joins international forum to develop new Gen IV nuclear reactors

This first appeared on Independent Australia

Yes, I bet that you’ve never heard of the GIF, either. I hadn’t, until just this week, when by chance, I heard of The Australian Parliament’s Treaties Committee’s Inquiry into the “Charter” or  Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems. The Committee consists of 9 Liberal MPs, 6 Labor, and one Green.

That inquiry is being held now, and the Committee calls, or more correctly, whispers, for submissions by 28 April 2017.

It is all about the GIF – The Generation IV International Forum     The Australian Government signed up to this, In 2016, without any public discussion

What is The Generation IV International Forum (GIF)?

An international collection of 14 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, the UK and the USA ( original charter members 2005) Switzerland, Euratom, China, Russia and Australia (signed later)  . The World Nuclear Association describes the collection as countries for whom nuclear energy is significant now or seen as vital in the future.

 What is the 2005 Framework Agreement aka ‘the Charter’?

According to the World Nuclear Association the 2005 Framework agreement “formally commits them (signatories) to participate in the development of one or more Generation IV systems selected by GIF for further R and D.” Australia signed the ‘Charter’ on 22 nd June 2016 – by Dr Adi Patterson COE of the Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. (pending this JSCOT review). ANSTO is to be the implementing agent.

When the Australian government quietly signed up to the GIF, it made no commitment to any particular action towards developing new nuclear reactors.  Other countries, including Japan, Canada, France, South Korea, have committed to working on particular types ofGeneration IV reactors Australia might be expected to not only fully sign up as a member of the Charter, but perhaps also to provide funding and resources to develop one or more types.

Australia’s signing of the GIF

Media reports indicate Australia made a bid or approach to join GIF. The active seeking out of such an agreement that is at odds with public opinion, at odds with the current Governments policy position on nuclear power and is inconsistent with Australian laws which prohibit the use of this technology is astounding.

What the Gov’t said in 2016 in relation to joining GIF: Christopher Pyne, said:

Australia’s invitation to join this important global project marks an exciting opportunity to be at the forefront of global innovation in the nuclear industry.” He added, “Inclusion in the GIF further strengthens Australia’s position as a nation that has the research muscle to deliver innovations on the global stage. It reinforces the governments 1 $billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, encouraging our best and brightest researchers to collaborate with international experts.

Julie Bishop said in relation to joining GIF:

 Australia has firm non-proliferation goals and nuclear safety objectives, and   contributing to the global conversation on this level is an opportunity to assist in the research that is making nuclear technologies safer around the world in the long term.

What are Gen IV (Generation 4 reactors)

Generation IV reactors describe 6 models/concepts of reactors that claim to solve many of the problems with nuclear power – waste, proliferation risks, safety. There are six reactor technologies described as Gen IV. A 2014 industry update on the road map for development of these 6 technologies can be seen at seen at Technology Roadmap Update for Generation IV Nuclear EnergySystems

In short all 6 technologies are in the ‘viability’ (conceptual) or ‘performance’ (engineering) phase. The earliest prediction for the development of a prototype would be 2022, but it’s expected it will take much longer.

ANSTO makes a number of questionable assumptions about Australia joining in developing new nuclear reactors. For example ANSTO claims that it would “Further Australia’s non-proliferation and nuclear safety objectives” , and “Further strengthen our claim as the most advanced nuclear country in SEAP”, and will position Australia to develop Generation IV reactors.

There are so many questions about this – one hardly knows where to start:

  • Why was there no public discussion about this and yet it is a departure from existing energy policy in Australia – for a technology that is currently prohibited – a prohibition which is supported by all major parties in Australia?
  • What conversations between ANSTO and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Science were had about the signing of the 2005 Framework?
  • What exactly was the intention behind signing the ‘Charter’ what does Australia hope to gain from being involved?
  • What capacity or resources are being allocated for involvement in GIF?
  •  if the objective on joining the GIF is to strengthen non-proliferation and safety – why is ANSTO the implementing agent not the Australia Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office?
  • Given that Australia has clearly and repeatedly made the assessment that nuclear energyis not an option for Australia, why is our active participation – using Australian taxpayers resources for the development of nuclear power technology, in our interest?
  • National Interest Analysis states that Australia had “to demonstrate that it could contribute to the research and development goals of the GIF in a unique and substantive way” – how did Australia do that – and what contributions is ANSTO advocating Australia make towards the research and development goals of the GIF?
  • What are the anticipated costs of such contributions?  Over what period of time?  For what guaranteed outcome?
  • What are the Government and ANSTO’s intentions  in relation to advancing or positioning Australia to develop nuclear energy (a technology which is currently prohibited under Australian laws)?

Nuclear Power has continually been dismissed as an energy option for Australia. Recent Reports from Pro nuclear or neutral orgs on nuclear – all excluding nuclear as an energy option for Australia.  Some examples :

Nuclear power cannot be approved under either The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 EPBC Act or the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998.

In 2017 the “conventional” nuclear industry, with the leading companies AREVA, Toshiba, Westinghouse, is beset by financial problems.  At the same time new renewable energy systems are flourishing, and coming down in price. It seems absurd that the Australian government should now want to venture into development of new nuclear reactors, that exist only in the design phase, that have problems in getting private investment or insurance.

 

Pro nuclear submissions to South Australian Parliament show the primary interest is in promoting “new nuclear”

This article first appeared on Independent Australia  [where links are included]

THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN government’s promotional campaign for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (NFCRC) continues to stress the economic gain to the State through importing nuclear wastes.

However, recent pro-nuclear submissions to the South Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission have instead focussed on the benefits of “new nuclear” technology, particularly “small modular reactors” (SMRs) — note how the word “nuclear” is left out since people distrust it.

The global nuclear lobby is keenly interested in the South Australian government’s plan to import nuclear waste, because it would solve the waste problem for nuclear companies wanting to sell reactors and particularly, new types of nuclear reactors, to Asian countries.

This idea was pioneered by Australians and spelt out early in 2015, just as the NFCRC was starting, in an ABC Radio National talk by Oscar Archer. Since then, we haven’t heard any more about this, as the whole emphasis in SA government propaganda, has been on the billions supposedly to be made by that state from importing nuclear wastes. The idea of developing new nuclear technology is mentioned in the NFCRC report (p56 and p63) but very much played down and not recommended for South Australia.

Still, for foreign nuclear companies, the underlying aim is to further, or more correctly, to save, the nuclear industry by setting up new nuclear reactors, in particular SMRs.

It is vital for the nuclear industry to have a nuclear waste disposal plan. The industry has pretty much given up on selling nuclear reactors to countries that already have nuclear power and they are struggling with the waste problem. The big hope is to sell to “new” countries.

They are clearly looking to South Asia, as shown at the conference, The Prospects for Nuclear Power in the Asia Pacific Region, held in August, in Manila. The deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mikhail Chudakov said that IAEA sees South Asia as a region where nuclear energy is “high on the agenda” and could be one of the drivers for global nuclear power deployment.

The thing is, no country is going to embark on the nuclear power path – for small or large reactors – unless they have a prior plan for the disposal of radioactive wastes. This is vital for the nuclear industry — which is where Australia comes in.
I was surprised that out of 55 submissions to the South Australian Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, only five were pro-nuclear.

However, despite the NFCRC’s distinct lack of enthusiasm for new nuclear technology, three of those five submissions were focussed, not on waste importing, but on new nuclear reactors.

Ben Heard’s whole argument is directed at new reactors:

Our research indicates that South Australia could make a significant contribution in this technology development beginning at a modest reinvestment of revenues from used fuel.

Many nations in this region already exploit nuclear technology however this use is constrained by lack of a back-end solution…… The availability of a multinational solution for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle could change these investment decisions profoundly.
Heard backs up his argument by playing the climate card of nuclear being “low carbon” and so on.

Dayne Eckermann writes:

‘The main motivation for myself and others to embrace and openly support this technology is its immense power output from a relative small facility.’
And the South Australia Chamber of Mines and Energy’s (SACOME’s) view:

Australia’s well-equipped political, legal and educational structures mean that a reactor program could – with the support of experienced international partners – be started swiftly

SACOME strongly believes that the advances in small modular reactors and advanced reactor designs will provide the necessary facilities to be able to service remote mine clusters and townships where economical to do so.

Of the remaining two submissions, one from Leighton Smith was short — a very few lines of general support for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission waste import plan. And the other submission from Graeme Weber, was confined to a recommendation of the Gawler Range Volcanics as a site for waste facility.

I understand that, for the Parliamentary Committee, all submissions were actually published. This is in contrast to the NFCRC process, in which submissions from interested parties such as foreign nuclear companies were kept confidential.

While Premier Weatherill’s propaganda campaign rolls on with a somewhat simplified story on the nuclear waste import plan, the serious players in the Australian nuclear lobby, are holding their fire for now, with only those three submissions to the Parliamentary Committee. Like Oscar Archer, at the beginning of the NFCRC saga, they are primarily keen for “new nuclear”, with the waste import as a necessary prelude. Still, all of them realise that the first steps are to change laws and associated regulations, such as:

State Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000.
Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 2000,
Customs Act 1901
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1999
Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987

 

Why Australia is important to the ‘Small Nuclear’ Lobby

Originally published on Independent Australia

Quietly, pretty much under the media radar, a dispute is going on in the global nuclear industry between the advocates of “Generation III ” – big nuclear reactors, and “Generation IV”- small nuclear reactors.

The best illustration of this is what’s going on in Britain right now. There are numerous articles in UK press on the growing unease about the costs and feasibility of Britain’s Hinkley C nuclear project. Some critics of this big nuclear power project are nuclear power enthusiasts, such as Mark Lynas, who just happen to promote small nuclear reactors.

In USA, too, the proponents of Small Nuclear Reactors are lobbying hard to compete with the conventional large nuclear reactors. There are billions of dollars at stake, depending on which side gets contracts for sale of nuclear technology.

However, The nuclear lobby’s spiel to Australia is something different, and very original. No dispute – because the argument is that small reactors would further the large reactor industry. First articulated by Oscar Archer on ABC Radio National, March 2015, the idea is that Australia, in setting up Small Nuclear Reactors, would enable the conventional nuclear industry, and uranium mining, to flourish. At maturity, Australia would be running on PRISM(Power Reactor Innovative Small Module) reactors fuelled by the used fuel we would be receiving, while the world would running on a much larger number of Generation III+ reactors, which we would supply with uranium under a fuel leasing model. The transition to PRISM worldwide would take place on the back of Australia’s pioneering embrace of the technology.

As Archer says, Australia would indeed be the pioneer for the new technology.

And that’s what the USA “new nuclear” lobby desperately needs. They need this, because they’re finding it impossible to go ahead in America. Why? Well it’s those pesky safety regulations imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

What the “Small Nuclear” lobby needs is a “nuclear friendly” country, one with less stringent safety regulations, to set up their nuclear reactors on a test site, . Hence the enthusiasm of those lobbyists for the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission, as shown, for example, in a recent Royal Commission Hearing speech by Thomas Marcille of Holtec nuclear company.

Companies like Transatomic Power, TerraPower, Moltex Energy, Tri-Alpha Energy, and Terrestrial Energy would prefer to start the process in America. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has proved to be a real nuisance, since it tightened regulations for the licensing process, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The new nuclear marketers have had to go overseas, first to China, then perhaps to Australia?

Former chairman of the NRC (2011 -2015) Allison MacFarlane, is no help. The long time lines, safety concerns, and high capital cost of building nuclear plants all require a regulatory process that is thorough, painstaking, and costly. “Nuclear is a different beast,” Macfarlane said at the recent pro nuclear Solve Conference. “The problem is not the NRC,” she said at the conference. “It’s the economics” of nuclear power.

The Small Nukes” lobby looks to Australia to take a more sympathetic attitude.

Strange timing to suggest a LEGO nuclear future for Australia

By 2022, could Australia have many “Lego-like” small nuclear reactors in operation, dotted about the nation?

This is being proposed now, not just by the long-term fervent believers in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), but in formal submissions to the coming Energy White Paper. Last month, the Department of Industry’s submission to the Energy White Paper pitched Small Modular Reactors as an energy solution for isolated areas in Australia, where there is no access to the electricity grid. The Energy Policy Institute of Australia (EPI) agrees ‘suggesting small modular reactors (SMRs) as being particularly suitable for use in mines and towns in remote locations in many parts of Australia.’
The BHP-funded Grattan Institute’s submission envisages a string of these little nuclear reactors, connected to the grid, along Australia’s Eastern coast.
Keith Orchison reports on the Grattan Institute submission: “The Abbott government is being told that now is the time to flick the switch to “technology neutral,” opening the way for nuclear options”. Orchison described the advantages of SMRs as”Lego-like”

But their timing is strange, and the worst thing is to get ahead of the market

In 2014 it is becoming clear that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are not likely to become an operational reality for many decades, and perhaps never.
America was the pioneer of small reactor design in the 1970s. Again recently, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox have been the leaders in designing and developing SMRs. But in 2014 the bottom has fallen out of these projects.

Danny Roderick, President and CEO of Westinghouse, announcing the closure of the SMR plan, said that “it was not the deployment of the technology that posed the biggest problem – it was that there were no customers”. “The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market,” he added.

Babcock and Wilcox ‘s CEO Jim Ferland warned (31/3/14) that B & W are cutting back on their expenditure on SMRs, despite the fact that they received up to $225 million in loan grants from the USA government, for the SMR development in Charlotte. Taxpayer associations are concerned, as are the U.S. House and Senate committees. The Charlotte Business Journal reports that:
” B&W has been unable to find an investor or investor group to take on a 70 percent to 80 percent share of its joint venture to develop a 180-megawatt reactor to produce electricity… The eventual market for the reactor… appears weaker than initially projected”.

So – in USA the outlook for small nuclear reactors is poor.

But then there is China, isn’t there?
The proponents of small thorium nuclear reactors have had a field day, with numerous media articles, such as Chinese going for broke on thorium nuclear power, China to accelerate thorium reactor development. All of these news reports seem to have been derived from an initial article by Stephen Chen in the South China Morning Post – Chinese scientists urged to develop new thorium nuclear reactors by 2024. It should be noted that nowhere in this article does Chen mention “small” reactors. However, Australian proponents of “small” reactors welcomed this article, as the Thorium Small Nuclear Reactor is the top favourite type proposed for Australia, from all 15 possible small designs

So – we’re being told that China is racing ahead in the scramble to get these wonderful SMRs. In fact, China has been very much encouraged and helped into this by USA’s Department of Energy. Understandable – seeing that for China it is a government project, with no required expectation of it being commercially viable.
In their enthusiasm for China’s thorium nuclear project, writers neglected to mention the sobering points that Stephen Chen made in his South China Morning Post article. I think that a few of these points deserve repeating:
“Researchers working on the project said they were under unprecedented ‘war-like’ pressure to succeed and some of the technical challenges they faced were difficult, if not impossible to solve ”
“opposition from sections of the Chinese public ”
“technical difficulties – the molten salt produces highly corrosive chemicals that could damage the reactor”.”The power plant would also have to operate at extremely high temperatures, raising concerns about safety. In addition, researchers have limited knowledge of how to use thorium.”
“engineering difficulties…The thorium reactors would need years, if not decades, to overcome the corrosion issue” “These projects are beautiful to scientists, but nightmarish to engineers,”
Who else is trying to design and develop small nuclear reactors?

In the UK there has been a determined push for Thorium fuelled reactors, and for the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM). Secret talks are going on between GE-Hitachi and the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, about using PRISMS to deal with plutonium wastes
However the UK government and science authorities still conclude that deep burial, not reprocessing, is the best eventual solution for nuclear wastes.

Other small nuclear reactor plans in India and South Africa have foundered.

Then there are Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson. They have the advantage of plenty of money with which to try out a commercial experiment. Gates has signed loan guarantees to Toshiba of $8 billion to work with Terra Power,on Gates’ thorium-fuelled Travelling Wave Reactor

The zeal of Gates and Branson could be misplaced. Australia’s SMR enthusiasts discount the known problems of SMRs. Some brief reminders from the September 2013 report, from USA’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research:
Economics:” $90 billion manufacturing order book could be required for mass production of SMRs …the industry’s forecast of relatively inexpensive individual SMRs is predicated on major orders and assembly line production.”
“SMRs will lose the economies of scale of large reactors.”
“SMRs could reduce some safety risks but also create new ones”.
“It breaks, you bought it: no thought is evident on how to handle SMR recalls”.
Not a Proliferation Solution. “The use of enriched uranium or plutonium in thorium fuel has proliferation implications“.
Not a waste Solution “The fission of thorium creates long-lived fission products like technetium-99 (half-life over 200,000 years).”
Ongoing Technical Problems.
All this has been overlooked by the promoters of SMRs to Australia. Perhaps they’re banking on Australia to be the saviour that brings that desperately needed $90 billion manufacturing order.

Keith Orchison is upbeat about “the advent of small modular reactors.”

“These units, the argument goes, are very well suited to Australian conditions. Strategically located, SMRs of 25 to 300 megawatts can enhance supply security and improve the overall resilience of the grid….The case for SMRs also rests on their use being a much lower investment risk because of their lower capital costs, the relative speed with which they can be installed and the fact that their capacity can be readily increased, Lego-like, on an established site…SMRs could be in operation by around 2022,”

So – the SMRs could (?eventually) line up along the East Coast, connected to the grid. Or they could go to remote inland sites. Then there is that other agenda – a foot in the door for the bigger nuclear power industry. Ben Heard‘s pro nuclear site Decarbonise SA sets out the steps from an SMR start to uranium enrichment and the full nuclear cycle. More secretively, Dr John White works on the long range plan ranging from thorium fuelled reactors, to Australia as importer of radioactive wastes

There are ructions in the global nuclear industry. Westinghouse is getting out of uneconomic Small Modular Reactors, and getting in to a lucrative new area – decommissioning nuclear reactors. Big Nuclear has its own problems – uneconomic in USA, super-expensive in UK, Japan in a sort of nuclear paralysis, Finland with its long-delayed, over-budget Olkiluoto nuclear reactor. There’s a bewildering array of nuclear technology companies, from USA, Japan, Russia, France, China, South Korea – all jostling for markets. They have spent up big in development, promotion and lobbying, over many years. They, and Australia’s uranium industry, are not going to give up now, and hand over the market to the Small Modular Reactor, the undeveloped, untested, new kid on the block.

Still, Big Nuclear might like it, if a scientifically illiterate government such as Australia’s, might be persuaded to let that expensive new kid in. It could be a foot in the door for the whole nuclear fuel cycle, and another foot in the door for the USA nuclear weapons system. Even Westinghouse might be pleased, if Australia did buy into SMRs – it might facilitate their plans for empire in that quaintly termed industry “nuclear decommissioning” (so much nicer a phrase than “radioactive trash dumping”).