Nuclear Royal Commission delivers first report

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

NEWS BRIEFING and EXPERT REACTION: Monday February 15 at 11.30 AEDT ONLINE - The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission delivered its tentative findings at a press conference at the Science Exchange in Adelaide on Monday. The Australian Science Media Centre made the conference available online for interstate journalists and has rounded up comment from independent experts.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre, The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

Media Briefing

From: Australian Science Media Centre

NEWS BRIEFING: Monday February 15 at 11.30 AEDT ONLINE
Press conference to be held in Adelaide at 11.00 ACDT

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission delivered its tentative findings at a press conference at the Science Exchange in Adelaide on Monday. The Australian Science Media Centre made the conference available online for interstate journalists. For details of the press conference and to download a copy of the report go to www.nuclearrc.sa.gov.au. Independent experts respond to the report below.

The Commission was set up by the South Australian Government in March 2015 to investigate the potential for South Australia to participate in:

  • further exploration and extraction of uranium
  • enrichment of uranium
  • nuclear power generation
  • storage and disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste

The commission has been investigating the feasibility and viability as well as the risks and opportunities associated with those activities. The press conference will be followed by a week-long public information program in regional centres of South Australia. The final report is scheduled for release on 6 May 2016.

SPEAKERS:

  • Commissioner Kevin Scarce AC

Date: Monday 15 February 2016
Start Time: 11:30am AEDT
Duration: 40 min
Venue: Online (in conjunction with press conference to be held at the Science Exchange, Adelaide)
Recording - available via link below

Attachments:

  • Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission
    Web page
    Report will be available at this link on Monday at 11.30am AEDT
  • Web page
    Link to a Webex recording of the media briefing

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Jim Falk is a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Wollongong.

This report should not provide much cause for optimism amongst thoughtful members of Australia’s pro-nuclear lobby.  As with the previous Switowski report a decade ago, this report makes clear that nuclear energy generation and further fuel processing including enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing will be uneconomic in Australia without major changes in the Australian and world market.

Oddly, the report settles on high-level nuclear waste storage as the opportunity for South Australia.  This is odd given the decades long process (from as early as 1984) for the Commonwealth in trying to find an acceptable location to store Australia’s existing low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste. This couples with the Commission’s insistence that any extension of nuclear activities should have both bipartisan political support and the consent of the community.

Prior experience, especially in Australia, and also in many other parts of the world including the USA, reflects long standing and widespread concerns about  the safety of storing nuclear wastes completely isolated from the environment for the many centuries required.  Given this, it would be fair to characterise any government which sought to open the way to waste storage and disposal  in Australia as at best “courageous” and perhaps less politely, as "very politically foolish.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 8:18pm
Associate Professor Nigel Marks is a Research Fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Curtin University. His research interests include radioactive damage and radioactive waste.

Stunningly good advice today from the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. On all four findings they are spot-on. The main conclusion is that significant economic opportunities exist for the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel, aka, radioactive waste. For years Australia has been at the forefront of nuclear storage technology through it’s world-renowned Synroc program at the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation, ANSTO. Australia offers a technically literate workforce familiar with the demands of the task, tremendous experience in mining and some of the most suitable geological conditions in the world. Together, they make a powerful combination which offers rich rewards to the first state or territory willing to pick up the challenge. Kudos to the Weatherill government for facing down the fear-mongers and looking to the future for South Australia.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 5:48pm
Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate and is a PhD candidate, examining the potential role of advanced nuclear energy systems for the decarbonisation of electricity and energy in Australia.

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has gone long on the potential benefits of a multinational facility for the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel and uncovered benefits exceeding expectations and previous investigations. Revenues totalling $267 billion are just the beginning. Conservatively invested, the total value of a state wealth fund is estimated to reach $467 billion; nearly half-a-trillion dollars over the next few generations. While other questions will remain, one has been decisively answered: a transformative economic opportunity is indeed there for the making.
 
The prospect for stand-alone nuclear electricity generation in Australia in the near term are subdued. This is a fair and accurate reflection of Australia’s current generating requirements and resources and a reasonable though conservative reading of the current state of technology. Importantly, the findings stress that the nuclear generation option may be either beneficial or demanded in future to achieve deep decarbonisation of our economy. Nuclear electricity should not be precluded, and planning should be undertaken to this end. Should any of a range of conditions change, we would then be placed to move and derive benefit.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 5:13pm
Ian Lowe is Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, Qld and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The crucial finding of the Royal Commission is that community consent would be essential to the successful development of any nuclear fuel cycle activities. It says “Long-term political decision-making, with bipartisan support at both state and federal government levels, would be a prerequisite”. It is difficult to see how bipartisan support at both levels would be achieved for South Australia being more deeply involved in the nuclear industry.
 
It notes that uranium mining currently contributes relatively little to South Australia. Despite Roxby Downs being one of the largest uranium producers in the world, its royalties are about $4 a year for each South Australian. The Commission sees little prospect of local processing of uranium and correctly observes that nuclear power is not economically feasible. The Switkowski report in 2007 found that significant public subsidies would be needed to make nuclear power economic in Australia.
 
The most serious proposal in the Commission’s tentative findings is that SA should consider setting up shop as a destination for radioactive waste from countries like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The Commission believes that this could be a profitable operation, but that belief is based on generous assumptions about the willingness of those countries to pay for the removal of their waste. Independent analysis by The Australia Institute questions those assumptions and concludes the operation would probably not be profitable. The Commission also notes “there are no operating models for the commercial transfer of used fuel for disposal. Any proposal to store and dispose of used fuel in South Australia would require agreements between customer countries and both the federal and state governments”. That is a big hurdle, as is the acknowledgement that “any development would require sophisticated planning and consent-based decision-making, acknowledging the particular interests and experiences of regional, remote and Aboriginal communities. 

So the report gives a red light for nuclear power, a tentative amber light for expanding uranium mining, a red light for further processing of uranium for export, then a very tentative and heavily qualified amber light for the SA State government’s concept of setting up as the destination for east Asia’s radioactive waste.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 4:50pm
Tony Irwin is a visiting lecturer at the Australian National University. He is also Chairman of the Engineers Australia Sydney Division Nuclear Engineering Panel.

The South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission had a wide scope, the whole of the nuclear fuel cycle was examined including mining, enrichment, power generation, and waste. The Royal Commission received 243 submissions, visited nuclear facilities overseas and held 4 months of public hearings with 128 expert witnesses from Australia and overseas.
 
The findings show that South Australia can safely increase its participation in nuclear activities and by doing so significantly improve the economic welfare of the South Australian community.
 
Nuclear power has greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to other low emissions technologies like wind and solar and it would be wise to plan now to ensure its availability.

Although not commercially viable at present, due mainly to the characteristics of the current National Electricity market (NEM), there is value in having nuclear as an option that can be readily be implemented. Small Modular reactors (SMRs) would be attractive for small grids like South Australia.

There is a highly profitable opportunity to establish a storage facility for global used fuel coupled with a longer term disposal facility. Australia would derive a reputational and financial benefit by assisting other countries in providing a solution for used fuel.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 4:23pm
Dr Mark Diesendorf is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW Australia.

The Royal Commission’s report acknowledges that nuclear electricity is not commercially viable in South Australia. However, it expresses great enthusiasm for the management and disposal of overseas-produced high-level and intermediate level nuclear wastes in South Australia. It supports a combination of above-ground interim storage of dry casks together with underground ‘permanent’ storage. The rationale for this economically risky scheme is slender, being based on the quantities of wastes held in temporary storage by countries with nuclear power stations. The report is not troubled by the fact that no country, not even the USA, has so far succeeded in building and operating an underground waste dump.
 
It fails to address the points raised by the Australia Institute, questioning, for example, why nuclear countries would pay to export their wastes when it may be cheaper to manage them at home. The economic analysis justifying this scheme is a single 2016 study, most of whose assumptions are not stated in the Commission’s report. The Commission discusses the alleged benefits of this scheme, while failing to acknowledge the economic risks of Australia managing high-level wastes for hundreds of thousands of years by means of unproven technologies and social institutions.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 4:14pm
Associate Professor Reza Hashemi-Nezhad is is a nuclear physicist from the University of Sydney. He is Australia’s only expert in the field of Accelerator Driven Nuclear Reactors which uses thorium as fuel.

I do not agree with the statement that “There is international consensus that geological disposal is the best technical solution for the disposal of used fuel” (section 74, page 16 of the report). If it is so, why after about 70 years is there still continuous debate about the viability and safety of geological disposal.
 
Handling and storage of the international spent nuclear fuel is going to produce major environmental and security challenges. I do not believe that South Australians or Australians as a whole can be convinced to accept converting a part of Australia into a nuclear waste dump for other nations.
 
However as we have clearly stated in our submission to “The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission”, the only logical way forward is establishment of a nuclear incineration facility based on THORIUM FUELED ACCELERATOR DRIVEN Systems (TFADS). Such facilities will eliminate highly toxic and long-lived nuclear waste materials and, at the same time, will produce massive amount of energy (electricity). A TFADS will be a subcritical system, free of nuclear criticality accidents such as that in Chernobyl. TFADS can be used safely for incineration of national and/or international nuclear waste (used fuel), in an environmentally friendly manner while producing massive amounts of wealth for South Australia.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 3:55pm
Professor John Fletcher, Energy Systems Research Group, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, University of New South Wales

The findings clearly articulate both the immediate part Australia could play in the global nuclear fuel cycle, as well as future opportunities for South Australia, particularly the use of small modular reactors in the local electrical energy network. 
 
An essential ingredient in meeting these opportunities is the education and training of Australian nuclear engineers who can tackle the unique challenges associated with engineering in a nuclear environment. Such a workforce will be necessary if Australia is to manage storage of waste as well as planning and supporting a potential fleet of nuclear reactors for energy generation.
 
I applaud the Commission in tackling what is a set of complex, multi-dimensional issues, for example, when considering whether the current NEM is fit for integration of either nuclear energy or higher penetrations of renewables.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 3:50pm

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