The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has just released its Tentative Findings for public comment before it finalises its  report, due on 6 May. This is the first independent and comprehensive review of prospective nuclear activities in Australia since the Switkowski report of  10 years ago. The Commission’s findings have major implications for South Australia (SA) and Australia generally. They also have international implications – my remarks relate primarily to these.

The Commission was established to investigate the risks and opportunities for SA from participating in four aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle: expansion of uranium exploration and mining; further processing of uranium; electricity generation; and the storage and disposal of used fuel and radioactive waste. The findings in relation to these four aspects released today are summarised below.

Expansion of uranium exploration and mining

The Commission finds that an expansion of uranium mining would be beneficial but would not deliver a significant impact to the SA economy unless the uranium can be further processed in SA.

Further processing of uranium 

The Commission finds that in an oversupplied and uncertain global market there is no opportunity for the commercial development of uranium processing (conversion, enrichment or fuel fabrication) in SA in the next decade. However, some of these activities might be more commercially attractive in the context of fuel leasing, discussed below.

Electricity generation

The Commission finds that with factors such as the size of currently available reactors relative to the scale of SA’s electricity requirements, and the current national electricity market rules, nuclear power would not be commercially viable in SA. However, Australia needs low carbon generation sources to meet global emissions reduction targets. The Commission concludes that nuclear power may be necessary as part of a national low carbon energy mix, and Australia should plan for nuclear energy now so it will be available if required.

In this regard I note  Australia has among the world’s highest per capita gas emissions, and it is the world’s highest per capita coal consumer. Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel has pointed out that although Australia has spent billions of dollars on wind and solar, these will take decades to reach significant scale, and their effectiveness is limited by intermittency. Nuclear energy can help achieve carbon reduction goals more quickly and provide reliable baseload power. In the future there could well be trade and other sanctions against countries that fail to meet climate change commitments. We cannot afford to exclude consideration of nuclear power.

Storage and disposal of used fuel and radioactive waste 

The Commission finds that undertaking these activities in SA would deliver substantial economic benefits to the community, with revenue equivalent to about 34% of current state earnings.

This area of the Commission’s findings will generate greatest debate in Australia and internationally.

For many people the idea of importing used fuel and radioactive waste is anathema. Better public awareness is needed about the extent of the risks involved (far smaller than generally supposed), as well as the potential benefits. In our region Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have been unable to progress used fuel disposal programs due to lack of suitable geological areas and the proximity of populated areas. SA has several areas with geological conditions highly suitable for this purpose.

Taking used fuel, and fuel leasing, could also have an important non-proliferation benefit. The dangers of nuclear latency — the spread of potential nuclear weapon capability through ostensibly peaceful enrichment and reprocessing programs — are well recognised. No-one can be sure how any country, however well trusted, might react to external pressures decades into the future. For this reason it is preferable for such programs to be curtailed, or controlled on a multilateral rather than a national basis.

Japan has based its nuclear fuel management strategy on reprocessing, which is hugely expensive and contentious domestically and internationally. China and others have expressed concern about Japan’s plutonium stockpile and the risk this could be used for nuclear weapons in the future. South Korea is also looking at reprocessing, raising similar concerns. If these countries had an alternative, to send used fuel elsewhere for disposal, and decided against reprocessing, this would be a major non-proliferation gain.

Fuel leasing would involve a supplier providing complete fuel assemblies to customer countries, under international supply guarantees, and taking back the used fuel. The customer country would have no justification for maintaining enrichment and reprocessing programs. Thus fuel leasing would be an effective counter to the continuing spread of these capabilities.

Previous proposals for fuel leasing have envisaged all the processing steps being undertaken in Australia, but this is not practical given the current global oversupply in fuel processing industries. Instead Australia could form an international partnership under which Australian uranium for fuel leasing would be processed offshore. Some of these industries could be established in Australia when commercial circumstances are more favourable.

Since national enrichment programs create potential proliferation risk, Australia should not add to this problem. The Commission recommends that if enrichment were established in Australia, this should be on a multilateral basis. In a previous Interpreter post 'A regional uranium enrichment centre in Australia?' and research paper I have outlined how this could be done.

The Commission has shown how Australia could take the lead in establishing a regional approach to the nuclear fuel cycle, addressing the issue of nuclear latency, deriving very substantial economic benefit, and becoming a leader in fuel management science and technology. A regional approach on nuclear fuel could lead to a broader nuclear energy community, promoting cooperation in nuclear safety and other areas of nuclear governance.

As the Commission emphasises, nuclear activities will not proceed in Australia without social consent from the public and affected communities and long-term bipartisan political support at state and federal levels. The Commission’s findings reflect a careful examination of the facts. It is essential that the ensuing consideration by the public and political leaders is also firmly based on fact.

John Carlson is a member of the Commission’s Expert Advisory Committee. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user IAEA Imagebank