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Nuclear in Australia: Through a New Prism
- Jul 7, 2018 9:15 pm GMT
The entrenched Australian anti-nuclear narrative has crumbled: a federal senator proposes a bold plan for a next-generation nuclear industry in South Australia.
On March 12th Federal Senator for South Australia Sean Edwards (Liberal) announced that his submission to South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission1 – instituted last month by the state Labor government – would revolve around the establishment of a new nuclear fuel recycling industry.2 Australia does not generate power with nuclear reactors but its single research reactor, operated by ANSTO,3 is a world-class multi-purpose facility which this year is set to triple its production of medical isotopes. As Senator Edwards pointed out:
“Australia is already a nuclear nation. The Federal Government runs a reactor in suburban Sydney, 40km from the CBD.”
The proposal would be to establish a world-first service to accept and store spent nuclear fuel at a site in South Australia, at a price intended to be attractive to the many countries with substantial accumulated waste management funds but no finalised strategy. The new professional sector and income stream would be a boon for the state, but is intended as merely the first stage of the plan.
Based on information released from the Senator’s office and subsequent media,4 it is suggested that sufficient profits from the “spent fuel bank” would cover the capital required for Australia’s debut nuclear power facility. With the strong emphasis placed on complete recycling of spent fuel, this is likely to be a sodium-cooled fast reactor of the type exemplified by the PRISM Integral Fast Reactor from GE Hitachi. This technology was, of course, the focus of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promise5 and is a contender in the UK’s imminent decision on the Sellafield legacy plutonium stockpile.6 Briefly, PRISM is a pool-type sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor derived from the Argonne National Labs Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor project and the successful Experimental Breeder Reactor II prototype.
GE Hitachi PRISM. Source: Midwest Studios.7
The inherent and engineered safety systems of this design have been described by the Argonne engineers themselves in detail8 and in brief.9 It has enjoyed support from a core of pro-nuclear South Australians for some years, most notably the distinguished biologist Professor Barry Brook. In December he and co-author Professor Corey Bradshaw stressed its importance in a paper focussing on ecological sustainability. Seventy-four other distinguished conservation scientists were signatories in a supportive open letter to environmentalists.10 Combined with the purpose-built electrorefinery through which fuel material is “pyroprocessed”, recycled and fabricated into novel alloy fuel, this power plant is able to extract virtually all of the potential energy from natural uranium.
In addition, conventional spent nuclear fuel is equally suitable – which fulfils the second stage of the proposal. Following completion of PRISM in South Australia, foreign spent fuel would be literally withdrawn from the bank, processed and used to fuel the brand new reactors. In principle, this would displace over six hundred megawatts on Australia’s major national grid – overwhelmingly supplied by coal and gas at present. The economics of this endeavour are such that if storage and reactors are established as an integrated service solution for nations with spent fuel stockpiles this electricity would potentially be generated at no further cost. South Australia currently has high (and rising) electricity rates which threaten industry and economic sustainability, so the potential to slash the wholesale cost of most of its baseload supply is no small opportunity. The ongoing cost of poles-and-wires infrastructure would still be met by end users.
The domestic nuclear sector developed around this plan would provide direct and indirect employment for thousands, if other regions – such as Ontario, Canada – are any guide. If operated as a net nuclear breeder, excess fuel from the South Australian reactors can be prepared as exportable starter bundles for more of these reactors, if and when they are built elsewhere in Australia and abroad. The success of this plan will amount to no less than the unblocking of the back end of the global nuclear cycle. With the confidence of an assured destination for conventional spent nuclear fuel, nations may reinvigorate their own nuclear sectors, extending existing plant licenses and embarking on fresh builds using advanced and fully commercial Generation III+ light water reactors. Developing nations may be similarly emboldened to adopt nuclear rather than lock in to fossil fuels for their economic ambitions. Such results will help with the substantial global nuclear expansion required by the IPCC’s11 and IEA’s12 most optimistic climate scenarios. They will also enhance the market for South Australian uranium, which in time may overtake coal as Australia’s premier energy commodity.
“Almost 40 countries are considering introducing nuclear power. The majority of these are located in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.” Source: IEA.13
In a region of the globe that is increasingly seeing interest in nuclear on the part of many emerging Asian nations, the potential for renewed Australian leadership in the peaceful use of clean energy production was a key recent message from ANSTO,14 who have stressed that, aside from Iceland, New Zealand and Israel, “Australia is the only other OECD country that has policy settings that exclude nuclear power.”
It goes without saying that this proposal – indeed the Royal Commission itself – defies the decades-long national anti-nuclear narrative. It is notable that it is being discussed a mere four years after the worst accident to ever involve not one, but three, reactors of western design in a fully developed nation. “It’s getting easier over time,” observed one of the state’s outspoken pro-nuclear Labor parliamentarians recently,15 underscoring the politically bipartisan support gathering for consideration of nuclear. However, environmental groups and Greens leaders have yet to freshly examine the value of the narrative, and remain vocally opposed. The Royal Commission will ideally be the definitive medium for final analysis in the South Australian context.
“About a dozen people stood on the steps of Parliament House on Wednesday to urge the Government to ‘steer clear’ of any future nuclear industry.” Source: Adelaide Now.16
Depending on the conclusions of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, any action will be limited by current federal regulations which arbitrarily prohibit consideration of nuclear-related facilities.17 Assuming these restrictions are presently amended, with sufficient support and an effective, fresh regulatory environment, the Senator’s plan just might take South Australia from being a national leader in new generation renewable energy adoption, to a trailblazer in fully decarbonised, nuclear-based clean energy integration that could inspire the world.
a) http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/liberal-senator-sean-edwards-unveils-radical-plan-for-a-booming-nuclear-industry-in-south-australia/story-fni6uo1m-1227259221241, b) http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2015/03/18/4199992.htm
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