Faced with a clear but controversial recommendation from its Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, the South Australian government has sought to reach out to its citizens with information and consultation to test the waters on how to proceed. The objective of the Royal Commission's recommendation is purely commercial, boldly to seize an opportunity to rescue the state from economic impoverishment. But the means is not intrinsically appealing to all, writes Ian Hore-Lacy.
In South Australia, to widespread surprise, a left-of-centre state premier in March 2015 set up a major inquiry into the nuclear fuel cycle, and in particular whether the impoverished state might make some worthwhile money by importing and disposing of high-level nuclear wastes (HLW), notably used fuel. But it wasn't just an inquiry, it was a Royal Commission, with power to rigorously test the evidence submitted. It was headed by a former state governor and Rear Admiral, Kevin Scarce.
The Commission determined that its process would be:
- evidence-based - meaning that it was concerned with facts and identifying the basis for claims made;
- open and transparent - enabling interested parties to provide evidence, watch evidence being given, consider and comment on the Commission's tentative findings, and scrutinise the basis for its findings; and
- independent - forming its views independent of government, industry and lobby groups.
The Commission collected evidence from four sources: written submissions, oral evidence in public sessions, its own research including overseas site visits, and commissioned studies. The World Nuclear Association made submissions on Electricity Generated from Nuclear Fuels, and on Management, Storage and Disposal of Nuclear Wastes.
In May this year the Royal Commission reported, recommending that the state government "pursue the opportunity to establish used nuclear fuel and intermediate-level waste storage and disposal facilities in South Australia consistent with the process and principles outlined in chapter 10 of this report."
The government then initiated a consultation and engagement strategy in three stages:
1. A citizens' jury of 50 met, deliberated and produced a report on what parts of the Royal Commission report does "everyone needs to discuss?"
2. Over 200 public information and engagement sessions across the state.
3. A second citizens' jury with over 350 people state-wide 'randomly' selected, but in fact weighted with those opting in to answer the question: "Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?"
The idea is to advise the government on whether to proceed with the Royal Commission recommendation to import, store and dispose of HLW commercially. This jury has so far met on two weekends and will finish with a third this month.
After being involved as a speaker to small groups of the jury by 'speed dialogue' on the first weekend, on 29 October, I was an "expert witness" for the second one. This was an invited role, with travel and expenses paid by the SA government. I was on one of five panels which ran for three 90-minute sessions. The 350 or so jury members were free to work out which three panels they attended.
My panel was on safety (of transport, storage and disposal), with eight speakers (five minutes each, with PowerPoint presentations) and then questions. Four speakers were SA academics and four from further afield. Most of us complemented one another well, and were all positive. We addressed about 200-220 in the three sessions.
YouTube of our first panel session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmPNygfdC5Y&list=PLKN0ZDSHvb-LYeyW0r7ZkOwHQxrdtPd77&index=2. From Facebook comments it seemed that this was the only panel that observers against nuclear weren't interested in.
There was another more general panel on safety, with three speakers who would have been credible. Then there was one on Trust, one on Economics well loaded with sceptics and one on Consent, which were the main interests for those not supporting nuclear it seems (from Facebook). The panel sessions were preceded by plenary with a speaker giving a helpful overview of the proposal (taking ten-year-old fuel, payment upfront, etc), and followed by a plenary with several Aboriginal women having their say.
This whole process was careful and ambitious, and seemed likely to provide the government with a reasonable indication of public opinion where that is based to a reasonable extent on knowledge and consideration of both facts and prejudices. Certainly, many of the speakers at the first weekend were from activist groups opposing the project, but it was evident that most jurors were getting a bit tired of being harangued by earnest but ill-informed critics, and welcomed the chance to hear from those who were experienced and in touch with the industry. On the second weekend, there were fewer but higher-profile anti-nuclear representatives.
Early in November the jury by two-thirds majority rejected the Royal Commission proposal, on the grounds that the economic case was not convincing and there was no clear aboriginal consent. A strong minority report pointed to fundamental flaws in the process - in particular that, to announce the question before requesting volunteers allowed an over-representation of opponents.
Community polling in a random selection of 4016 people revealed 42.2% supporting further investigation and 36.8% against. Also, the witness selection process allowed jurors to decide who they wished to hear from. Selection bias resulted in a bias in the witnesses presented, notably in economics. It remains to be seen what the government will do with the reports.
The Royal Commission report was not very positive about prospects for nuclear generation in South Australia, since its peak load is only a little over 3 GWe and its connections to the (eastern) national grid total only about 800 MWe. The government also has policies encouraging investment in wind capacity, and about 40% of the state's power comes from this source, intermittently. The wholesale power prices are extremely variable, and on average, very high. Most base-load plant has been closed down. However, since the Commission delivered its report, the state has had a total state-wide blackout, due to about 445 MWe of wind suddenly tripping out due to voltage problems and overloading the main interconnector from Victoria, supplying reliable base-load power from brown coal, which also tripped out.
So, the citizens' jury deliberations were being undertaken with raw awareness that the grand claims made for the promise of renewables needed to be treated with some scepticism, since they were not only intermittent but also vulnerable in respect to voltage and frequency control. In fact, grid 'ancillary services' is now a term used by the media. One of the plants hard hit by the blackout, and deprived of power for almost two weeks, was the Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine. Another was a steel plant in the hands of receivers, and now the likely buyer, Posco from South Korea, says it will build 220 MWe of base-load capacity to ensure the plant can operate reliably, with half being used by the plant and half fed back into the grid "to help maintain network stability".
As well as resolving the question before the citizens' jury, the state needs to sort out its electricity supply to be affordable and reliable.
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Ian Hore-Lacy is a Senior Research Analyst with the World Nuclear Association. One of the Association's longest serving staffers, Ian is the author of the organisation's Information Library.