South Australia's nuclear vision

23 March 2015

Quickly following the state government's announcement of a Royal Commission to look at nuclear energy prospects for South Australia, an opposition senator has launched his feisty vision for the future. If implemented, it would see the state make a technological leap to put it in front of the rest of the world in sustainability, write Ian Hore-Lacy and Ben Heard.

Senator Sean Edwards proposes "that SA stakes its claim in the global nuclear fuel recycling industry." It would mean utilising some of the world's used fuel from present reactors to fuel fast reactors, via an electrometallurgical reprocessing plant. The whole venture would be supported by relieving overseas governments of their used fuel. South Australia would be paid to take this, and would use it to fuel next-generation reactors for power production. Apart from such recycling, that used fuel is effectively high-level waste and its latent value is squandered.

Depending on the scope of South Australia's involvement, said Edwards, there is a real possibility for "the generation of revenues that could supplant the $4.4 billion in state taxes" paid to the state government every year. "Polling proves South Australians want this and they want it yesterday. By virtue of Labor's Royal Commission there is now for the first time a bipartisan sentiment attached to the nuclear issue, opening an unprecedented opportunity."

Edwards did not quote dollar figures, but $1 million per tonne of used fuel would be conservative, while around 12,000 tonnes arise each year from nuclear power generation around the world, only about one third of which is currently reprocessed. That amount recycled is significant, improving uranium utilization by over one quarter, but it represents only a small fraction of the potential of the fast reactor fuel cycle. Russia is the main country pursuing this enthuiastically, government research funds having dried up in the USA. France's Astrid project is now supported by Japan, and shows promise. But the project closest to the Senator's vision is GE-Hitachi's PRISM. This is an integral fast reactor based on 30 years of development and is under active consideration for deployment in the UK.

On the ABC Environment blog on 18 March, Edwards said, "In developing this proposal I have been in talks with potential foreign partners who have raised the possibility of meeting our capital costs if we meet their recycling needs. Read: no start-up costs. Those talks continue."

"The recycling of spent fuel is a substantial commercial opportunity... This is the economic game changer South Australia needs. Meanwhile, anti-nuclear campaigners are crowdsourcing funds to hire a full time campaigner to derail the prospect of a nuclear South Australia. But the science is against them, the economics are against them and polling says the people are against them too."

"The environmental, scientific, economic, philosophical and moral arguments stack up: it's time for South Australia to embrace nuclear power. Nowadays anti-nuclear activists are among the greatest obstacles to the planet's environmental healing. Try as they might, they can't meaningfully oppose nuclear power on environmental grounds."

Low-cost electricity as continuous, reliable supply would transform the state's economy following the demise of motor manufacturing there. After processing and use, very little and relatively short-lived waste (basically just fission products) would remain. Edwards quoted one tonne per year from a 1000 MWe fast reactor, compared with 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that comes from a brown coal plant as operated in the state of Victoria.

"The science is sound, the business case has been made and the public is behind us. The challenge is a political one," he said

This proposal, which has been put together and researched over the last year or more, will be put to the Royal Commission. Other proposals are likely to include straightforward deep geological disposal of overseas high-level radioactive wastes in the state's geologically stable, dry and relatively unpopulated north. This would be similar to such projects for direct disposal of used fuel in Finland and Sweden, and advanced proposals in the USA, and (for vitrified high-level wastes) in France. This possibility appears to be part of the Premier's thinking.

Also, no doubt, the building of conventional nuclear reactors large or small will be considered. The former or a number of the latter would require much increased grid capacity with neighbouring Victoria from today's interconnection capacity of 680 MWe.

The quasi-legal commission is to be headed by former governor of South Australia, Kevin Scarce, who said that he had an open mind on the issue. Media reports and editorials have been almost uniformly supportive.

Assuming that the Royal Commission's findings are positive, the main question is: to what extent will they be accepted nationally. Certainly before any nuclear capacity was built anywhere, federal laws would need to be changed. It is currently against federal law for the governor of any Australian state or territory to approve a nuclear facility of any kind, except for a uranium mine.

The question of nuclear power for Australia has been raised several times over the last 60 years, but usually on the conservative side of politics. Apart from anything else, there has not been a strong need for reasons of energy access or security - the country has abundant coal located close to main population centres. In using these for more than 80% of the electricity, Australia has enjoyed some of the world's lowest power prices, but climate change concerns have changed the outlook and South Australia has always been less well-off than the eastern states in electricity options. Half its 5.3 GWe capacity is gas-fired, and its average wholesale power prices are one third greater than in the eastern states. 

In contrast with most G20 countries, the main driver for nuclear power in Australia is reduction of carbon dioxide  emissions, or costs arising from them. Apart from that, Australia's huge coal resources and significant natural gas underwrite energy security and provide low-cost power in the eastern states. Hence, the investigation of other potentially profitable avenues of the nuclear fuel cycle such as fuel storage and recycling in fast neutron reactors are important as a possible gateway to boosting clean energy production that might compete with fossil fuels. The Royal Commission will highlight why South Australia should lead the field in utilizing nuclear energy and enjoying its benefits. South Australia is mostly very dry, so desalination of water will be certain to feature, as will the improvement to the state's income and economic prospects that would follow from an expanding nuclear sector.

The Royal Commission provides an important opportunity to get past the accretion of folklore and negative impressions from distant events to grapple with technical, social and economic realities of the nuclear sector.

Ian Hore-Lacy and Ben Heard

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Ian Hore-Lacy is a Senior Research Analyst with the World Nuclear Association. One of the WNA's longest serving staffers, Ian is the author of the organisation's Information Library.

Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate Consulting, a climate change and sustainability consulting firm in South Australia and a PhD candidate examining the potential role of advanced nuclear energy systems for the decarbonisation of electricity and energy in Australia.