South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to consider Australia's, and specifically South Australia's, possible future role in nuclear energy.

He has invited comments on the terms of reference of the Commission, which are to be finalised in March. The intention is a wide-ranging review covering the potential for South Australia to benefit from all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle including production of reactor fuel, power generation and the management of radioactive waste.


Nuclear waste recycling at Argonne National Laboratory, US. (Flickr.)

Initiated by a Labor Government, the Commission's potential is enhanced by bipartisan support, and its credibility is strengthened by the appointment of former South Australian Governor Kevin Scarce to be its head. Although a state initiative, the Federal Government is reported to have promised to cooperate. This will be vital, given the federal legislative framework for nuclear activities and the needed final authority of Commonwealth regulators on any nuclear-related activity in Australia.

While the prime driver of the Commission is South Australia's need for innovative industry to replace lost or threatened manufacturing activity, the report will have national and international implications.

The Commission should be encouraged to draw on the experience of the international community, particularly the IAEA, which has considered how multinational and international fuel cycle services can boost proliferation protections, while enhancing confidence in the reliability of the supply of those services.

The Commission itself will also be evidence of Australia's continuing interest in and capacity to contribute to the discussion of global nuclear issues. This is important in maintaining Australia's position as a member of the IAEA's Board of Governors. The Commission could also consult key regional partners; it can reinforce our reputation as a country that is sensitive to the energy needs of the region and alert to the international security dimensions of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The Commission will no doubt build on the 2006 study of the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce (the 'Switkowski report'). Nuclear generated electricity remains a vital component of the global energy mix with undisputed greenhouse benefits. But waste management, safety and proliferation issues remain a source of concern for many in Australia and elsewhere. These concerns are manageable with the adoption of internationally approved regulatory controls.  

Nuclear energy's share of the global energy mix will undoubtedly increase over time, primarily through growth in China and India. Elsewhere the prospects are less positive, though eventually we might see take-up in the ASEAN region with Vietnam already in an advanced planning stage.

The most obvious short term opening for Australia, and specifically South Australia, is expansion of uranium production. Further processing of uranium ore to make UF6 (a gaseous uranium compound needed for the next fuel cycle stage) is superficially attractive, but as the Switkowski Report observed, it is a very challenging market.

The following stage in producing fuel is 'enrichment': increasing the proportion of the fissile isotope of uranium. The technology is complex, expensive and proliferation-sensitive, since it is a pathway to nuclear weapons. Australia developed an enrichment capacity but stopped work on centrifuge technology in the 1980s. The privately developed laser enrichment technology that originated in Australia (Silex) has been sold to the US. If enrichment were to be considered again it would most likely be in the context of a regional or international consortium with the close involvement of the IAEA (further discussion of this issue here).

In the 1960s, South Australia was the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's preferred location for a nuclear power plant, which was intended in part to keep Australia's nuclear weapons option open. Today, there is a wide range of peaceful technologies of potential relevance to South Australia, from base-load electricity generation to desalination and to energy for remote settlements. The Commission should review recent advances in the technology, especially the utility of smaller modular units.  

One immediately attractive option is nuclear waste management. Decades of effort have been invested in developing a long term scheme for managing Australia's radioactive waste. The only impediment now is to agree on a disposal site. An imaginative new look at these issues and a State Government willing to back the investment would be a significant national achievement. A solution is needed for both managing long-lived intermediate and high level waste from Australia's research reactors, and for the growing quantities of low and intermediate waste accumulating at hospitals and industrial facilities around the country.

However, our domestic needs are trivial compared to what international arrangements could field. Decades ago Australia considered implementing the Soviet model for nuclear cooperation: Australia would make the fuel rods and lease them for the production of energy, with the spent fuel returned to Australia. This strategy promised optimal financial benefit and strong safeguards against diversion of our uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

A contemporary version of that approach would be for Australia to offer to take back spent fuel made from Australian uranium for final disposal.

Apart from the substantial financial returns of such a service, we would strengthen the attractiveness of Australian uranium, reinforce non-proliferation objectives and contribute to the global public good by offering Australia's unmatched geological as well as the social and political stability, all necessary for the responsible management of radioactive waste over generations. Ultimately, with growing public confidence in our technology and management experience,  disposal services could be offered to other countries which have taken up the nuclear option but enjoy less favourable geological or political and social conditions for managing final disposal of their spent fuel.  

South Australia has had a brush with the dark side of the nuclear industry — the atomic weapon tests at Maralinga and the subsequent decades of cover and clean up. It would be a fitting twist of fate if the sword of Maralinga could be turned to a ploughshare for the descendants of the unwitting victims of those tests and for the international community.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user