For some time now, there has been a Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuels and Energy uses and potentials, past and future. Rear Admiral and former Governor of South Australia, Kevin Scarce, and an expert panel have made, arguably, the most thorough investigation of the nuclear fuels cycle ever in this country.
Background: Royal Commissions are set up by a Government of the day to investigate something. They have special terms, sometimes narrow, sometimes broad, and strong legal support. They can be used to investigate serious criminal activity, Government misbehaviour, technical, industrial, social development, anything deemed worthy of devoting a large expense to investigate. Royal Commissions are used and misused by Governments for genuine or political purposes, and they can have lasting positive, and sometimes negative, impacts. They can be fully supported by the Government that calls it, or almost ignored. They have, eventually, sent people to prison or released people from prison, on evidence they have found. In short, they can do anything they are set up to do.
The facts behind this Royal Commission are simple. South Australia is, by and large, broke. Always living on the edge, SA has never made an impressive contribution to the national weal. (I suspect this is because most of the state is desert or of marginal productivity, a very low population, 7% of the nation’s population and falling, while producing about 6% of the nation’s GDP, and falling. SA goes broke on a fairly regular cycle, usually from the excesses of the business community and inaction from the political community, which means it is always the Government that wears it.)
The larger states have always accused SA of dragging the nation down, irrespective of whether it is true or not. On average, this is actually not true. SA has often punched well above its weight, but as a lot of people in SA believe that the State is an insignificant minnow, so are dismissive of good news. As Australia generally is largely ignored by the rest of the world, South Australia is treated just as poorly by its larger partners. (Damaging interstate rivalries are rife in Australia, but SA is seen as an annoying little nuisance by everyone.)
The financial potentialities of a larger involvement in the nuclear fuels cycle by SA are staggering. The Royal Commission, the tentative findings of which can be seen here, suggests the contribution to the State’s coffers from this activity could be as much as $5B per annum, for 60 years. A figure of $455B has been mentioned as possible from such an extended program.
There are a couple of problems though. First, how long will the nuclear fuel cycle actually last? The advent of Gen4 nuclear power plants will change the dynamic of the nuclear fuel cycle dramatically I suspect. A Gen 4 plant produces little high level waste during operations and the accumulated waste of the lifetime of the plant will more likely be infrastructure and equipment rather than nuclear materials.
Currently, mining operations are being estimated to only last another 80 years, based on known reserves and present demand. (This figure is flexible, depending on who provides the information, so either no-one really knows or no-one is saying.) So how many more Gen2/3 nuclear power plants will be constructed? So how long will the nations with large deposits of high level wastes will keep paying for storage?
The worst case is that the last power plants will still be being built when reserves run out. So the demand is likely to be placed upon recycling rather than mining. The Royal Commission does not recommend a recycling option. Disappointing to say the least.
The logic here is that there are a sufficient number of recycling options available already so venturing into this game is risky and could be disastrous. Well, yeah.. it could, but is that not the nature of competition?
What I suspect has been overlooked is the more complex questions of political cost/benefit ratios. Some of the recycling plants in operation are pioneers, that is, they began the recycling industries. This means that they are not as efficient as more modern plants could be. Second, those plants are not well positioned, geographically or politically, to service the market properly, particularly the Asian markets. China, Japan, Taiwan and the US could ship to SA far more easily, politically and environmentally, than they could to Europe or north-eastern Russia, where the major recycling plants are. The issue is simple, is reprocessing and recycling of high level waste a useful option or not?
Most nations do not think so, so are burying a future course of nuclear materials. This is the ultimate in throw-away economies. Yet is is incredibly dangerous garbage. Any effort to reduce that danger does not seem to get a second look. Why?
All in all though, the entire Royal Commission has been a very useful project. It is focusing debate, and attention. While the Nuclear debate is largely stalled into a series of emotive, navel gazing, “is not, is too!”, lethargic, name calling flareups, this Royal Commission has tried to move the debate forward into calmer, broader vistas. I hope it works.