Australian senator shares nuclear vision

12 March 2015

State senator Sean Edwards is advocating for nuclear energy to become part of South Australia's energy mix, importing and recycling used nuclear fuel to generate energy and revenue for the state.

Edwards announced his plans to provide a submission to the recently announced Royal Commission on South Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle, calling for it to investigate the potential of leveraging the unused uranium and plutonium left in fuel that has already fuelled nuclear power plants elsewhere. A world-wide inventory of 240,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel could underpin a strategy giving the state a "transformative economic advantage", he said.

"South Australia has the opportunity to develop a nuclear energy industry, to take custody of spent nuclear fuel and to progressively recycle it," Edwards said, adding: "Not only would we be paid handsomely by international partners to do this, we'd have the opportunity generate plentiful, clean, baseload power for South Australian businesses and citizens."

South Australians pay the highest taxes in the country, but according to the senator, such a scheme could potentially earn enough revenue to replace the entire AUD 4.4 billion ($3.4 billion) per year state tax bill as well as generating enough power to supply the whole of the state. In an interview with ABC News Radio, Edwards said that his proposal could produce power for South Australians "at little or no cost".

Edwards said that South Australia's geological and political stability made it an ideal location for a new nuclear power plant, estimating the cost at AUD 5-7 billion ($4-5 billion), which he said would be funded through the involvement of overseas partners. "We could have a first-mover advantage here - it's a really terrific opportunity for us to get ahead of the curve in world terms," he said on air.

Australia has no nuclear power capacity, and Edwards' proposal is entirely separate from an ongoing federal initiative to site a national radioactive waste management facility to manage waste arising from Australian medical, research and industrial processes.

Instead, the proposal would most likely mean using the uranium and plutonium in fuel rods that have already been used in power reactors overseas to fuel a fast neutron reactor, which would also burn long-lived actinides too, leaving only relatively short-lived fission products.

According to Australian climate specialist and decarbonisation campaigner Ben Heard, the imported fuel would be stored in dry casks prior to reprocessing using a high-temperature electrometallurgical process, rather than the hydrometallurgical Purex method currently used in the handful of reprocessing plants around the world. Unlike Purex, the electrometallurgical process - often referred to as pyroprocessing - does not result in the isolation of plutonium and would therefore also be attractive from a non-proliferation point of view.

Several types of fast reactor that might be employed in such a scheme are in development, including GE-Hitachi's PRISM, under consideration for deployment in the UK, the France's Astrid reactor, and Russia's SVBR. GE-Hitachi envisages the development of recycling centres integrating electrometallurgical processing with Prism reactors with a feedstock of used fuel from light water reactors.

South Australian state premier Jay Weatherill announced the Royal Commission into the state's future role in the nuclear fuel cycle last month. The in-depth investigation is also public enquiry. South Australia itself is home to the Olympic Dam uranium, copper and gold mine, which produced 6% of world uranium output in 2013, and the South Australian public appear to be generally supportive of nuclear power.

Australia produces some 10% of the world's uranium but does not generate nuclear energy, and the question of whether nuclear should play a part of the coal-rich nation's energy mix is an ongoing one. In 2006 the UMPNER study (Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review) concluded that any long-term energy strategy for Australia should include nuclear power alongside coal, gas and renewable energy, and that commercial opportunities existed in uranium mining, processing and enrichment, and in developing storage solutions for long-lived radioactive waste.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News