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Scarce to meet pro-nuke chief scientist as conclusions emerge

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Nuclear royal commissioner Kevin Scarce has indicated that some of his inquiry’s terms of reference may not be viable, as the commission prepares to wrap up its major phase of evidence-gathering.

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Asked whether it was becoming clear that some of his areas of inquiry were unlikely to warrant escalation in South Australia, Scarce told InDaily: “Yes I think we’re at the stage now where we’re starting to draw some interim conclusions on the feasibility and viability of certain aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.”

He declined to elaborate on which aspects were unlikely to stack up as feasible options. The commission’s brief is to assess opportunities for local expansion in:

He said his “interim conclusions” would be fleshed out when he receives full financial analyses of each option later this month “and had time to sit down and draw together our research”.

…the fear is real, the risk is real

The inquiry has almost concluded its public hearings, having spoken to around 120 witnesses “all over the world”.

“We’ll wrap that up by the middle of December,” Scarce said.

The fruits of that consultation, together with the financial reports, will be collated in January, with the commission to publicly release “tentative findings” in mid-February.

“They will give the community an opportunity to test the evidence and broad conclusions (but) it’s not a plebiscite about whether we should be in the industry or not,” he said.

“We’ll say broadly what we’ve found, and show the evidence that supports what we’ve found…but our recommendations will come from those tentative findings.”

He said the community would be given “about 4 to 5 weeks to process what we’ve got”, before a final report would be handed down “by May 6”.

“I want to expose in the tentative findings what our broad thinking is and how we’ve come to that, so the community can decide the logical steps in between,” he said.

Scarce will next week meet Australia’s new chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel, a nuclear power advocate.

“He’s got considerable experience in the industry, (so) we’re going across to talk with him about nuclear issues from a national perspective,” Scarce said.

“I think it’s important that we’re starting to see a national debate of the issue … because there’s federal legislation that needs to be changed as well as state legislation, were we to proceed.”

Scarce maintains that any escalation of the nuclear fuel cycle would be a long-term proposition that would require political and public consensus.

“I think the thing that probably strikes us is this is a very difficult, complex, long-term industry,” he said.

“I’ve seen some speculation about what can be achieved in short-term time frames (but) there’s very little evidence to support a view that we might progress this industry quickly, if we decide to move forward.”

He said it would take “a decade or two to develop the knowledge and infrastructure to be involved in this process”, and engaging with the community would be critical.

“A long-term engagement process with the community is critical because our general understanding of the technology and of the issues hasn’t developed, even though the technology itself has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s,” he said.

“It’s improved but the basic principles haven’t changed.”

He said Australia had “perhaps” been “isolated from what’s been happening in Europe” and “there’s a certain fear factor with the nuclear industry, and when we have significant accidents like Fukushima it’s understandable”.

“I think (the fear) is probably a mixture of seeing the impact of accidents and perhaps not understanding the technology,” he said.

“Those who oppose it are very effective at developing arguments against the technology.”

Asked whether this statement implied that he disagreed with the opposition, Scarce said: “Certainly not…the fear is real (and) I think the risk is real.”

“We need to understand the risks and put those in context with what we’re considering,” he said.

“I’d never underestimate the challenge of bringing this technology safely into the community, and that’s why I’d emphasise the need to engage the community on the facts, on the evidence … this is not going to happen overnight.”

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