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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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.

 

Nuclear waste debated at two events in Adelaide on 29 October 2016

This article first appeared on antinuclear.net

Will Australia become the global nuclear toilet?  It’s not obvious to the rest of the nation, but this question is about to be advocated in two South Australian events, that will have repercussions for the whole of Australia. These are the second Nuclear Citizens’ Jury in Adelaide on October 29 and the South Australian Labor Party Conference, also on October 29.  The ALP conference is really the most important one, as Premier Weatherill will surely need the backing of his own party as he moves to the process of overturning South Australia’s law against nuclear waste importing.

Indeed, the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury is really irrelevant. Whatever decision it makes, is in no way binding on the government. And anyway, this so-called “Jury” of 350 persons cannot make a convincing decision. The brief given to them is worded, in terms that come straight from the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission South Australia’s (NFCRC)  report that advocated nuclear waste importing:

Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?

I understand that some jurors wanted a change from this question, but no change was allowed.

The previous Citizens’ Jury had some very dubious witness presentations, particularly on the health effects of ionising radiation. This was not entirely the fault of the organisers, DemocracyCo, as the 50 jury members themselves selected the witnesses to be invited.

One might expect this second Citizens’ jury to be better served by witnesses, but the new witness list is a curiously mixed bag.  Of the 31 names, including 5 facilitators, 16 are likely to be supporters of nuclear waste importing, 11 opposing it, and 4 appear to be neutral.

The most worrying section in this Citizens’ Jury is the session on SAFETY, dealing with general safety, siting and transport. For this session, there are 8 witnesses.  Of these, only one witness appears to be a neutral expert. This is Professor Sandy Steacy who knows all about earthquakes. The other witnesses are:

  1. Haydon Manning, a vocal promoter of the nuclear industry
  2.  Gerald Ouzounian  also a nuclear power enthusiast
  3. Professor David Giles, of Minerals & Resources Engineering Future Industries Institute has all too strong a background in the mining industry.
  4. Dr John Loy: his theme is all about medical waste(an almost negligible component of Australia’s own Lucas Heights nuclear waste), and over-confidence on the safety of nuclear waste facilities. He has a background in promoting nuclear power to United Arab Emirates.
  5. Frank Boulton, General Manager  WMC (Olympic Dam Marketing) Pty Ltd
  6. Dr AndrewHerczeg, formerly of the International Atomic Energy Agency 
  7. Ian Hore-Lacy formerly of the Uranium Institute in Australia-he now works for the World Nuclear Association. Mr Hore-Lacy is unusual: he sees support for nuclear power as a religious and moral duty (He is also very critical of Pope Francis’ ideas on environment)

These pro nuclear experts have had much to say on storage of nuclear wastes. But none seems to have taken much interest in the issues around transporting highly radioactive wastes over thousands of kilometres across oceans and land.  With the increasing volatility of weather events, as climate change progresses, and with the also growing concerns about terrorism, this omission is one of the greatest weaknesses of the case for importing nuclear wastes. The subject just glossed over in a few brief paragraphs in the NFCRC Report.

On the subject of SAFETY, focussing on the aspect of human health, the facilitator Tony Hooker is a bit of a worry. He worked with Professor Pamela Sykes on her mouse studies, at Flinders University?   Funded by America’s Department of Energy, Syke’s research purported to show that low dose radiation is actually good for you. 

Apart from the facilitator, the 4 witnesss for this section are evenly matched, with Dr Margaret Beavis and Dr Robert Hall opposing nuclear waste importing, and Dr Sami Hautakangas and Dr Stephan Bayer supporting it.

The vital section could well turn out to be ECONOMICS.  And here, there IS a surprise, with an apparent bias towards the negative camp. The facilitator, Adjunct Professor Richard Blandy is an opponent of nuclear waste importing. So this is not fair. Speakers Richard Dennis, Professor Barbara Pocock and Assoc. Professor Mark Diesendorf (via Skype) all have views opposing waste importation. The remaining speaker, Tim Johnson, from Jacobs, is supportive of the plan, but only cautiously so. 

If economics were the only consideration, the waste import plan might conceivably die a quiet death, following this Citizens’ Jury, and a possibly negative report from a Parliamentary Inquiry. However, there are other considerations, such as underlying connections with the defence industry.

The South Australian Labor government, led by Premier Jay Weatherill, is enthusiastically backing the nuclear lobby’s campaign for setting up South Australia as the first place in the world to invite in the world’s nuclear waste, as a profit-making enterprise.

In practical terms, you can forget this government’s extravagant public relations promotion of the nuclear industry, culminating in these “Citizens’ Juries”. They really matter very little, in comparison with the actual steps to be taken for the pro nuclear campaign to succeed.

Step One is to overturn a South Australian law – the NuclearWaste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000. It includes:

8           Prohibition against construction or operation of nuclear waste storage facility

9          Prohibition against importation or transportation of nuclear waste for delivery to nuclear waste storage facility   (The Act does have exemptions for the nuclear waste generated within Australia, e.g from Australia’s research reactor at Lucas Heights).

The government has already weakened this Act (In April 2016) by amending this provision:

13—No public money to be used to encourage or finance construction or operation of nuclear waste storage facility

(1)     Despite any other Act or law to the contrary, no public money may be appropriated, expended or advanced to any person for the purpose of encouraging or financing any activity associated with the construction or operation of a nuclear waste storage facility in this State.

They had to change it quickly – to allow for financing community consultation or debate on the desirability or otherwise of constructing or operating a nuclear waste storage facility in this State.  – seeing that they had already spent $7.2 million promoting nuclear waste storage, in the NFCRC

Anyway, prior to overturning this Act, Premier Weatherill is surely going to need to have the Labor Party onside. At last year’s ALP Conference, He and State Labor president Peter Malinauskas made a big push for South Australia going nuclear     As the national ALP policy remains clearly opposed to all nuclear industry further development, we can expect that Weatherill will meet with some opposition to his nuclear plan from Labor members at the conference.

Perhaps the nuclear lobby, their captive South Australian Premier, and subservient national media, will not be able to press on with their plan without an unpleasant fracas.