Australian Royal Commission delivers final report

09 May 2016

South Australia's Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle has delivered its final report, recommending that the government should pursue the establishment of storage and disposal facilities for multi-national used nuclear fuel and intermediate-level waste. The announcement has been greeted as a fundamental change in the global nuclear waste discourse.

Kevin Scarce presents the commission's findings (Image: The Lead South Australia)

The 344-page report is the culmination of a process formally launched in March 2015 and costing a total AUD7.2 million ($5.3 million). The commission was tasked with undertaking an independent and comprehensive investigation into the potential for increasing the state's participation in the nuclear fuel cycle across four areas of activity: exploration and extraction of minerals; the further processing of minerals and manufacture of materials containing radioactive substances; the use of nuclear fuels for electricity generation; and the storage and disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste. It was presented to the South Australian government on 6 May by Kevin Scarce, who led the independent commission. It was made public by the South Australian government today.

The commission committed to conduct an independent, evidence-based process that was open and transparent. During its investigations, it produced issues papers inviting submissions on the risks and opportunities associated with each activity in the nuclear fuel cycle. Public sessions, which heard oral evidence from 132 expert witnesses, were streamed live over the internet. The commission also conducted its own research, and visited fuel cycle facilities in Asia, Canada, Europe, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the USA.

The commission's Tentative Findings were published in February 2016, followed by a further five weeks of public consultations.

The final report makes 12 key recommendations for the deepening of South Australia's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. It draws particular attention to the prospect of establishing a facility for the disposal of international used nuclear fuel and intermediate waste, finding that the state "has the necessary attributes and capabilities to develop a world-class waste disposal facility, and to do so safely". Based on a "cautious and conservative approach", from assessments of used fuel inventories and potential global interest the commission determined that such a facility could generate more than AUD100 billion in income in excess of expenditure (including a reserve fund of AUD32 billion for facility closure and ongoing monitoring) over the 120-year life of the project.

Recognising that social consent will be vital for any repository project to proceed, it also recommended that the South Australian government remove legislative constraints to ongoing discussion on such a facility. "The immediate next steps should be undertaken free from any debate about whether expenditure of public money in pursuing this opportunity is contrary to law," the report notes.

Nuclear power? Not yet

The commission found that it would not be commercially viable to develop a nuclear power plant in the state under current market rules, but noted that as "a low-carbon energy source comparable with other renewable technologies", nuclear may be required in the future. It therefore recommended that the South Australian government should "pursue removal at the federal level of existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation to allow it to contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required".

It also called for the removal at the federal level of prohibitions on the licensing of fuel cycle facilities, although it noted that in a currently oversupplied market the provision of such services would not be commercially viable in the next decade.

Expanded uranium exploration and mining would benefit the state, the commission noted, but found the existing regulatory approvals processes for new uranium mines to be "unnecessarily duplicative at the state and federal levels". The commission has recommended the government pursues a simplification of state and federal mining approval requirements for radioactive ores, to deliver a single assessment and approvals process. It also recommends steps to maximise the benefits to the state from expanded uranium exploration and mining, while ensuring that full decommissioning and remediation costs for uranium mining projects are secured in advance.

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill thanked Scarce and his team for their work in putting together the report, which he said marked the the start of a "very important conversation" about the state's future. "The Royal Commission has found that it is both safe and viable to pursue a used fuel waste storage facility, and this would have extraordinary economic benefits for South Australia. The Commissioner has also found that without broad social and specific community consent, such a proposal would not be achievable," he said.

A community engagement process on the report's findings will be unveiled "in the coming days", with its outcomes helping to inform the government's response to the report. That response will be delivered to the South Australian parliament by the end of the year.

Changing the discourse

The World Nuclear Association said that the report had "fundamentally changed the nature of the global nuclear waste discourse". The London-headquartered organisation's director general, Agneta Rising, said that if constructed, a multi-national waste facility based in South Australia would provide a welcome option for countries operating nuclear facilities today. "Far from it being the case that there is 'no solution' to nuclear waste, we are seeing lots of progress - with some countries developing national repositories and now the potential addition of this viable alternative," she said. Such a large multi-national waste storage facility would be a world-first and should offer advantages in terms of siting and economics when compared to smaller national approaches.

Rising added: "Other governments, both inside and outside of Australia, which are considering introducing nuclear energy could really benefit from the wealth of high quality information that has been collected through the rigorous South Australian Royal Commission process."

The Minerals Council of Australia also welcomed the report, saying that the commission had "comprehensively validated the global nuclear industry and its importance in providing affordable, low-emissions electricity to an energy-scarce and emissions-constrained world". It called on both state and federal governments to "heed the call by this Royal Commission for regulatory reform to enable an expanded uranium and potential nuclear industries to flourish".

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News