South Australia could gain an enormous competitive advantage and billions of dollars in annual revenue if it has the political will to engage completely in the nuclear fuel cycle, according to nuclear commentator Ben Heard.
Heard, a PhD candidate at University of Adelaide, says no country has comprehensively addressed the growing nuclear waste issue but with technological advances and new reactor designs, there is a window open and “it is the perfect juncture” for the State to get involved.
Heard told InDaily there is a huge pent up demand for the management of spent nuclear fuel from existing nuclear power stations around the world which can be used to fuel the next generation of nuclear power plants.
“Essentially you get an integrated project where the power plants are more or less the recycling facilities for this old material and the electricity produced is effectively a side effect,” Heard said.
He says existing global nuclear waste is estimated to total around 240,000 tonnes to which current nuclear power production is adding a further 12,000 tonnes annually. With annual waste management costs in the order of $1 million per tonne, the cost of managing new waste is around $12 billion a year.
“Let’s assume SA accesses one quarter of that, for arguments sake, that’s $3 billion per year in revenue – it’s quite extraordinary,” Heard said.
With the spent nuclear fuel being very dense, Heard said that “a quite profitable facility might be the size of an IGA supermarket”.
Heard said the recent public support for a substantial South Australian role in the nuclear fuel cycle advocated by Senator Sean Edwards did not involve anything that was not proven science or established technology.
He suggested Edwards’ scenario “is credible and stacks up – they are the sort of top level numbers that you can work with”.
However, no country has yet had the political will to engage in the full nuclear cycle with waste being recycled and providing electricity at the same time.
“The first mover advantage in this is huge. I would argue that it’s a window (for SA) that is now at the perfect juncture,” Heard said.
“Modern nuclear plants produce one tonne of waste per year compared to an existing nuclear plant ejecting 25 tonnes per year and that 25 tonnes would have been refined down from about 200 tonnes of uranium that came out of the mine.
“The beauty of a modern plant is that what comes out are fission products with the most common ones having a half-life of about 30 years, compared with spent fuel rods and plutonium with a half-life of 12,000-20,000 years that require geological management for hundreds of thousands of years.
“We are now talking about fission products that have a half-life of 30 years. So within 300 years, that waste is no more radioactive than a rock you would pick up at Arkaroola.”
While acknowledging that the waste from the latest reactor designs is more radioactive than current spent fuel rods, Heard said the institutional management of the waste is much simpler. After some time spent cooling in water the waste could be vitrified into glass and placed in a dry cast facility containing steel and concrete vessels.
Heard said he would like to see the Royal Commission look forward to the potential of a nuclear industry in South Australia rather than backwards to the debates of the past.
“I would like to see the Royal Commission explore what the optimal mix between nuclear power and renewable energy might be – good policy should be able to find the optimum mix.”
In a submission to the State Government on the Royal Commission’s terms of reference, Business SA said that with nearly a quarter of the world’s recoverable uranium resources, “Business SA is keen to ensure South Australia maximises its uranium mining potential”.
“Accordingly, the Government needs to ensure the Royal Commission does not become a vehicle for interest groups opposed to uranium mining to hijack what is otherwise intended as a process to investigate expansion of South Australia’s nuclear related industry, not to restrict its already limited industry base,” the submission says.
“While the Royal Commission will and should investigate all options for South Australia’s participation in the nuclear fuel cycle, its terms of reference need to be appropriately structured to analyse where there may be synergies between different sectors of the supply chain and how best to realise those synergies.
“For example, if South Australia were to look at storing spent nuclear fuel, the technology to reprocess spent nuclear fuel is fast evolving and could significantly alter the potential to build a storage industry which is acceptable to the community.
“This State has also been at the forefront of renewable energy and there is no reason why our progressive environmental agenda cannot extend to the renewal of spent nuclear fuel for nuclear energy.
“Sure we need to consider the risks, but if the opportunity is not to just store, but also to become a world leader in recycling nuclear waste, this becomes a much more appealing option for South Australia.”
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