Waste disposal offers opportunity to South Australia

15 February 2016

The storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel from abroad can "deliver substantial economic benefits" to South Australia, the Royal Commission investigating the state's potential participation in the nuclear fuel cycle has tentatively found.

The commission was established by the South Australian government in March 2015 to undertake an independent and comprehensive investigation into the potential for increasing South Australia's participation in four areas of nuclear fuel cycle 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. The commission's task is to identify, from credible and reliable sources, relevant facts as to this potential, and the associated risks and opportunities for the South Australian community, economy and environment.

The commission has today released its tentative findings. It noted that these "reflect the commission's current thinking on the issues it considers to be important and the most cogent evidence relevant to them". It added, "They do not contain recommendations."

South Australia can safely increase its participation in nuclear activities and, by doing so, significantly improve the economic welfare of the South Australian community, the commission said. It said that community consent would be essential to the successful development of any nuclear fuel cycle activities. "The management of the social, environmental, safety and financial risks of participation in these activities is not beyond South Australians," the commission said. However, it noted that long-term political decision-making, with bipartisan support at both state and federal levels, would be "a prerequisite to achieving progress".

Fuel cycle activities

With regards to expanding uranium mining, the commission concluded that although this could be beneficial, it is not the most significant opportunity. "Even if production could be increased to meet very optimistic demand forecasts under strong climate action policies, the value of production in South Australia by 2030 and associated royalties, while significant in themselves, are small in terms of the state's total revenues," it said.

The commission sees no opportunity for South Australia to commercially develop further uranium processing capabilities in the next decade. The market, it says, is already oversupplied and uncertain. However, it sees fuel leasing as more likely to be commercially attractive.

It also concludes that it would not be commercially viable to introduce nuclear power in South Australia in the foreseeable future. However, the commission notes that nuclear power "is presently, and will remain in the foreseeable future, a low-carbon energy generation technology." It suggests nuclear power should not be excluded for consideration as part of a future energy generation portfolio. "There is value in having nuclear as an option that can be readily implemented", it said.

Waste disposal opportunities

The commission found that the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel in South Australia "would meet a global need and is likely to deliver substantial economic benefits to the community". An integrated storage and disposal facility would be commercially viable and the storage component could be operational in the late 2020s, it said.

"For the management of used fuel and intermediate-level wastes, South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel," according to the commission. It noted that two countries - Finland and Sweden - have successfully developed long-term domestic used fuel disposal solutions.

"Financial assessments suggest such integrated facilities with the capacity to store and dispose of 138,000 tonnes heavy metal of used fuel and 390,000 cubic meters of intermediate-level waste operating over about 100 years would be highly profitable in a range of scenarios," the commission said. "Those volumes represent about 13% of the projected global fuel inventory, based on a very conservative waste assumption that restricts the number of operational reactors to the current number planned to be in operation in 2030, with no additions."

Such a storage and disposal facility could generate total revenue of more than AUD257 billion (USD184 billion), with total costs of AUD145 billion (USD104 billion) over 120 years. The commission suggests special arrangements - such as a state wealth fund - should be established to "accumulate and equitably share the profits" from the storage and disposal of waste.

Announcing the tentative findings, commissioner Kevin Scarce said: "We have taken the somewhat unusual step of releasing our tentative findings to share with the community the evidence gathered into nuclear fuel cycle activities because we want South Australians to be involved in further refining, informing and improving the commission's report."

A five-week consultation period has now begun, starting with a week of public presentations to be held across the state. The closing date for responses is 18 March. The commission will deliver its final report on 6 May.

Findings welcomed

State premier Jay Weatherill said, "I established the Royal Commission so that the government and the community could be presented with a comprehensive set of facts in order to inform their position on the state's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle." He added, "While cabinet has discussed the Royal Commission's tentative findings, it is yet to form a position - either for or against - the tentative findings in the report."

The Minerals Council of Australia welcomed the commission's report saying it has "given a strong base on which to make meaningful recommendations for reform". It claims that Australia's participation in the global nuclear industry "is strangled by regulatory prohibitions and restrictions from a bygone age".

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News