Let's see if we can get a bit of debate going...
What do you think about South Australia being the site for a nuclear waste dump?
Don't we have the perfect conditions for the site?
Don't we desperately need the cash that would flow into the state?
Further to this...shouldn't Australia change policy and develop a nuclear industry? We mine the uranium. Shouldn't we process it here? Wouldn't nuclear power be better for the environment than fossil fuels?
We are going to be hearing plenty about this in the years ahead...any views?
Atomic debate: South Australia considers pros and cons of managing nuclear waste
- CAMERON ENGLAND
- Sunday Mail (SA)
- March 07, 2015 8:19PM
There are many benefits in managing the nuclear fuel cycle.
AT SOME stage this year, a ship will depart France on its way to Australia, carrying a payload of nuclear waste.
It is our own reprocessed waste, which we need to find somewhere secure to store.
The waste – originally generated at Sydney’s Lucas Heights reactor in the course of the production of nuclear medicine materials and through research programs – is a modest amount, about a third of a shipping container. However, it signifies the forced progression of Australia into another stage of the nuclear fuel cycle.
In short, we need to find somewhere to store it, which we currently don’t have. Just this week, perhaps in a sign of desperation, the Federal Government called for voluntary nominations for a national waste dump site.
The battle over where to put a national nuclear waste repository indicates how politically delicate, and useful, nuclear politics are in Australia.
Former SA premier Mike Rann went all the way to the High Court to block a repository for low-level waste planned for SA. This move to protect us from the scourge of radiation ironically has forced about 100 sites around Australia, including hospitals in the Adelaide CBD, to continue to store their own low-level waste in our midst.
Another favoured site in the Northern Territory has been abandoned because of the concerns of traditional owners.
But current Premier Jay Weatherill, perhaps sensing public sentiment is changing, and faced with a bleak economic outlook, has set up a royal commission to look at whether SA should play a greater role in the nuclear fuel cycle.
The pay-off is talked about being in the billions, but what is the nuclear fuel cycle and is that economic boon a reality?
Currently Australia is only involved in the first stage of the nuclear fuel cycle – that is, we mine uranium and ship it overseas for others to use.
Like many other commodities, such as iron ore and wheat, we miss out on the lucrative “value adding” that is involved in making the raw commodity a useful product.
We also miss out on the development of a larger, highly skilled industry.
Once uranium is mined and processed into uranium oxide (U3O8), or what is commonly called yellowcake, it must then be converted into a gas, enriched to a usable concentration and then fashioned into fuel rods for use in nuclear reactors.
Spent fuel must be reprocessed so that usable amounts of uranium are removed. Then what’s left over is stored either in a glass form or as Synroc – a cement-like form, which was developed by Australian scientists.
There is also the need for a long-term international waste storage site, which currently doesn’t exist.
Nuclear physicist Dr Tom Quirk, in a paper commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, lays out the benefits quite simply.
Uranium oxide conversion adds about 10 per cent in value to the original uranium. Enrichment doubles it and fuel fabrication adds another quarter.
Reprocessing or long-term disposal is worth as much again as the original uranium. All up, involvement in the total nuclear fuel cycle – excluding nuclear power – boosts the value derived from uranium by about 250 per cent.
To give an indication of the size of the opportunity, Dr Quirk estimated in 2011: “Australia could ... provide valuable reprocessing and disposal services that have the potential to generate up to $US16 billion annually.
“There is a very substantial potential role for Australia to play in the safe disposal of used uranium fuel ... it could be the beginning of a major contribution to the Australian economy with $2 billion revenues annually by simply taking 2000 tonnes of spent fuel rods generated from our exports of uranium ore.
“This could rise substantially if the facility gained international acceptance. Australia would also be contributing to regional and global concerns about the use of nuclear power.
“If Australia were to take advantage of the opportunities available in the nuclear fuel cycle, the majority of the value-added steps could be undertaken as stand-alone business ventures.”
On top of the storage, a $US3 billion enrichment plant, processing 10,000 tonnes of uranium into 1500 tonnes of enriched uranium, would generate revenues of about $US1 billion per year.
While this all sounds great in dollar terms, any windfall would be well down the track.
Former Telstra boss and rocket scientist Dr Ziggy Switkowski, in a report prepared for the Howard Government in 2006, found that because our nuclear industry had basically evaporated, it would have to be built up from scratch.
“Nuclear engineering and nuclear physics skills have seriously declined and limited skills in radiochemistry now exist in this country,” Dr Switkowski found.
“If Australia is to extend its nuclear energy activities beyond uranium mining, there would need to be a substantial addition to the education and research skills base.
“All up, the period for planning, building and commissioning the first nuclear power plant, including establishing the associated regulatory process, is somewhere between 10 and 20 years.”
While any economic gain would be well down the track, there are good reasons for siting a global nuclear waste storage repository in Australia.
Back in the early 1980s, Olympic Dam owner Western Mining Corporation, now part of BHP Billiton, looked at the best geological sites in the world to put such a facility.
Former WMC executive Hugh Morgan told an Adelaide conference in 2007 it found the best was in the Australian Outback.
“A site (could be placed) in one of the three most secured geological sequences in the world,” Mr Morgan said.
“One of those sequences lies in South Australia and extends into Western Australia, one is in South Africa and one is in China.”
Geology aside, a site would likely be much more welcomed by the global community if it was sited in a politically stable liberal democracy such as Australia, rather than in China or South Africa.
A company called Pangea Resources – a joint venture of British Nuclear Fuels, Golder Associates and Swiss radioactive waste management entity Nagra – proposed such a facility in 1998.
South Australia responded with the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act of 2000, which does exactly what it says on the box.
While the billions of dollars that would flow from a nuclear industry appear attractive, South Australia Greens leader Mark Parnell, in his early-stage submission on the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, says there are plenty of risks that must be taken into account.
■ The risks to public and individual health from exposure to radiation.
■ The impact of an expanded nuclear industry on South Australia’s reputation as a clean and green food and wine producer.
■ The potential impact of an expanded nuclear industry on SA’s tourism market.
■ The cost and future liability of decommissioning nuclear power plants.
■ The impacts of alternative energy sources and changing energy consumption patterns on the economic viability of nuclear energy development.
Mr Parnell also casts doubt on the “zero carbon” claims of the nuclear industry, saying this does not take into account emissions from the whole of the nuclear cycle.
Mr Parnell told the Sunday Mail that the nuclear industry was on the decline, and none of the so-called next generation of small modular reactors actually existed.
“The Greens do not believe that involving South Australia deeper into the nuclear industry is in the best interests of our state, our planet or future generations,” he said.
“Unless the terms of reference are substantially revised, the Royal Commission will be seen as a partisan inquiry with the only questions being asked relating to expanding the nuclear industry.
“The Royal Commission won’t be considering whether SA should extract itself from the nuclear cycle or whether existing and historical nuclear issues have been properly resolved.
“Unless you understand your past and your present, you are in no position to look to the future.”
In the very near future, however, Australia will have an issue regarding where it stores its own waste.
Whether that will be in South Australia, and whether it heralds the start of a lucrative industry, remains to be seen.