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Nuclear in Australia: Through a New Prism

The entrenched Australian anti-nuclear narrative has crumbled: a federal senator proposes a bold plan for a next-generation nuclear industry in South Australia.

On March 12th Federal Senator for South Australia Sean Edwards (Liberal) announced that his submission to South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission1 – instituted last month by the state Labor government – would revolve around the establishment of a new nuclear fuel recycling industry.2 Australia does not generate power with nuclear reactors but its single research reactor, operated by ANSTO,3 is a world-class multi-purpose facility which this year is set to triple its production of medical isotopes. As Senator Edwards pointed out:

“Australia is already a nuclear nation. The Federal Government runs a reactor in suburban Sydney, 40km from the CBD.”

The proposal would be to establish a world-first service to accept and store spent nuclear fuel at a site in South Australia, at a price intended to be attractive to the many countries with substantial accumulated waste management funds but no finalised strategy. The new professional sector and income stream would be a boon for the state, but is intended as merely the first stage of the plan.

Based on information released from the Senator’s office and subsequent media,4 it is suggested that sufficient profits from the “spent fuel bank” would cover the capital required for Australia’s debut nuclear power facility. With the strong emphasis placed on complete recycling of spent fuel, this is likely to be a sodium-cooled fast reactor of the type exemplified by the PRISM Integral Fast Reactor from GE Hitachi. This technology was, of course, the focus of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promise5 and is a contender in the UK’s imminent decision on the Sellafield legacy plutonium stockpile.6 Briefly, PRISM is a pool-type sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor derived from the Argonne National Labs Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor project and the successful Experimental Breeder Reactor II prototype.

GE Prism

GE Hitachi PRISM. Source: Midwest Studios.7

The inherent and engineered safety systems of this design have been described by the Argonne engineers themselves in detail8 and in brief.9 It has enjoyed support from a core of pro-nuclear South Australians for some years, most notably the distinguished biologist Professor Barry Brook. In December he and co-author Professor Corey Bradshaw stressed its importance in a paper focussing on ecological sustainability. Seventy-four other distinguished conservation scientists were signatories in a supportive open letter to environmentalists.10 Combined with the purpose-built electrorefinery through which fuel material is “pyroprocessed”, recycled and fabricated into novel alloy fuel, this power plant is able to extract virtually all of the potential energy from natural uranium.

In addition, conventional spent nuclear fuel is equally suitable – which fulfils the second stage of the proposal. Following completion of PRISM in South Australia, foreign spent fuel would be literally withdrawn from the bank, processed and used to fuel the brand new reactors. In principle, this would displace over six hundred megawatts on Australia’s major national grid – overwhelmingly supplied by coal and gas at present. The economics of this endeavour are such that if storage and reactors are established as an integrated service solution for nations with spent fuel stockpiles this electricity would potentially be generated at no further cost. South Australia currently has high (and rising) electricity rates which threaten industry and economic sustainability, so the potential to slash the wholesale cost of most of its baseload supply is no small opportunity. The ongoing cost of poles-and-wires infrastructure would still be met by end users.

The domestic nuclear sector developed around this plan would provide direct and indirect employment for thousands, if other regions – such as Ontario, Canada – are any guide. If operated as a net nuclear breeder, excess fuel from the South Australian reactors can be prepared as exportable starter bundles for more of these reactors, if and when they are built elsewhere in Australia and abroad. The success of this plan will amount to no less than the unblocking of the back end of the global nuclear cycle. With the confidence of an assured destination for conventional spent nuclear fuel, nations may reinvigorate their own nuclear sectors, extending existing plant licenses and embarking on fresh builds using advanced and fully commercial Generation III+ light water reactors. Developing nations may be similarly emboldened to adopt nuclear rather than lock in to fossil fuels for their economic ambitions. Such results will help with the substantial global nuclear expansion required by the IPCC’s11 and IEA’s12 most optimistic climate scenarios. They will also enhance the market for South Australian uranium, which in time may overtake coal as Australia’s premier energy commodity.

40 countries and nuclear

“Almost 40 countries are considering introducing nuclear power. The majority of these are located in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.” Source: IEA.13

In a region of the globe that is increasingly seeing interest in nuclear on the part of many emerging Asian nations, the potential for renewed Australian leadership in the peaceful use of clean energy production was a key recent message from ANSTO,14 who have stressed that, aside from Iceland, New Zealand and Israel, “Australia is the only other OECD country that has policy settings that exclude nuclear power.”

It goes without saying that this proposal – indeed the Royal Commission itself – defies the decades-long national anti-nuclear narrative. It is notable that it is being discussed a mere four years after the worst accident to ever involve not one, but three, reactors of western design in a fully developed nation. “It’s getting easier over time,” observed one of the state’s outspoken pro-nuclear Labor parliamentarians recently,15 underscoring the politically bipartisan support gathering for consideration of nuclear. However, environmental groups and Greens leaders have yet to freshly examine the value of the narrative, and remain vocally opposed. The Royal Commission will ideally be the definitive medium for final analysis in the South Australian context.

nuclear protest

About a dozen people stood on the steps of Parliament House on Wednesday to urge the Government to ‘steer clear’ of any future nuclear industry.” Source: Adelaide Now.16

Depending on the conclusions of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, any action will be limited by current federal regulations which arbitrarily prohibit consideration of nuclear-related facilities.17 Assuming these restrictions are presently amended, with sufficient support and an effective, fresh regulatory environment, the Senator’s plan just might take South Australia from being a national leader in new generation renewable energy adoption, to a trailblazer in fully decarbonised, nuclear-based clean energy integration that could inspire the world.





  4. a), b)













Oscar Archer's picture

Thank Oscar for the Post!

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Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on March 20, 2015

It’s worth asking those activists where the money for their big blowup barrel and other props came from.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on March 26, 2015

When the time comes to make decisions, the most critical item is the financial case.  Where is it?  

What would be the revenue from this plant?  What is the basis for the estimate of the revenue?  What would be cost of this plant, goiven that it is in SA?  What would be the operating cost.  

Who pays?  Who takes the risk? Consider, what vendor would be prepared to take on any financial risk given the history of anti-nuke protesting in Australia, the precedents of Labor government’s passing legislating to break government contracts e.g., newly elected Victorian Labor Government’s decision to pass legislation to break, without compensation, the previous government’s contract to build an expressway in Melbourne, and the NSW Labor Opposition’s pledge during the current election campaign to pass legislation break government contracts in NSW without compensation.  

Given all this, it is clear the entire risk will have to be paid by the South Australian tax payers and electricity consumers.  I certainly wouldn’t want the Federal government to waste money on it, at least not unless I can see the business case, the financing plan, the contract terms and conditions, the project performance measurement requirements, e.g. requiring that is to be used to ensure payment for construction and commissioning is made on the basis of Earned Value (EVM).

Oscar Archer's picture
Oscar Archer on March 27, 2015

I’m glad it is you, Mr Lang, who has asked these questions, as I know from your many previous contributions how thorough you are. I am also eager for numbers on this, despite the prima facie rationale of drawing on foreign nuclear disposal funds while storing their spent fuel, then bankrolling the reactor build when enough has been “saved up”. My strong suspicion is the Senator has his finger on this, but that is very different to having the entire project planned, costed and ready to deliver.


Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on March 27, 2015

Thank you Oscar.  I am fully supportive of nuclear power, if and only if it is likely to supply electricity at least cost for the expected life of the plant compared with other options.  I believe the people pushing for the IFR in South Australia want government funding and government regulation to make it possible.  Thyat would be another massive boondogle. 

The government intervention approach will not succeed over the long term, in my opinion.  There is a much better way.  It’s been the way that has been succeeding since man first began to trade and swap – e.g. one person could make better spear heads and another was better at hunting; they traded spears for food and that was free trade.  Both sides benefited.  Freer trade, and lightly regulated fair competition is what we need.  For the nuclear industry we should be advocating for appropriate deregulation – certainly not for more regulation, carbon pricing, renewable energy targets and subsidies etc.  We should do nothing to put up the price of energy (such as penalising fossil fuels).  We should do all we can to reducde the cost of energy – to improve human wellbeing world wide!

I am opposed the governments distorting markets, although I do support government subsidies that are justified on the basis of offsetting the impediments previous government have imposed on industries – such as the nuclear industry.  The effects of the previously imposed impediments will take a long time to remove, and subsidies are needed to offset them untill they have been completely removed.

Rather than rewrite what I’ve written elsewhere I’ll repost a recent comment here (I doubt many people are still following this thread now anyway).

I argue that, if we adopt pragmatic, achievable policies, reducing the cost of nuclear power by removing the impediments governments (especially USA, UK and EU) have imposed on it over the past 50 years, nuclear power alone could reduce global GHG emission by around 30% or more.

 Below I’ll explain the basis for my estimate and following that in subsequent comments I’ll explain how I believe the policy can be achieved (pragmatically and realistically).

Over about 50 years nearly all existing fossil fuel power stations will be replaced. They will be replaced by the technologies that are expected to supply electricity to meet requirements at least cost over the life of the new plants. If we (led by the US President and leaders of the countries that have nuclear power, as well as the IAEA and NRC) remove the impediments to nuclear power, it can become the least cost option and then it will become the technology of choice for new capacity and capacity replacements. Thereafter, the replacement of fossil fuel plants at the end of their economic life will give a net economic benefit, not a cost – and that’s without even including the benefits of lower externalities (like reduced fatalities per TWh). 

Allowing nuclear to be cheaper than fossil fuels, would mean most fossil fuel electricity generation would be replaced by near-zero emissions nuclear in the 19 countries that contribute 80% of the world’s GHG emissions – all but one of the 19 countries (Australia) already has nuclear power or is planning it or building it. Assuming replacing most fossil fuel electricity generation with nuclear reduces emissions intensity of electricity by say 80% (France’s EI is 90% less than Australia’s), and assuming electricity as well as fossil fuels for heat and transport displaced by electricity over the period avoids 50% of total GGG emissions in the 19 countries, then this deregulation policy alone would reduce global emissions by 80% x 80% x 50% = 32% over 50 years. Nuclear would be the cheaper option in other countries too, so they would also convert to nuclear later in the period. 

I urge those who are concerned about reducing global GHG emissions to give serious consideration to the deregulation approach as an alternative to the regulatory approach. Regulation, which inevitably raises the cost of energy or damages economies, has virtually no chance of succeeding. It will not get sustained support and even if temporarily implemented it will not be sustainable for much the same reasons as carbon pricing has little chance of success. If given a vote, less than 1% of the world population (i.e. <70 million people) would vote for higher energy prices for the promise of some intangible benefit of “climate damages avoided” in a century from now. That’s the reality. But there is a way forward. We just need to change what policies we focus advocacy on.


Originally posted here:


Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on March 27, 2015

If the problem is human emissions of CO2 then the answer is well within our grasp–nuclear buildout, with natural gas as a bridge until it is complete. 

Yes, that would provide a large part of the total solution. 

The next question is how can it be achieved? It won’t happen unless electricity from nuclear becomes cheaper than from fossil fuel. That is the key point that many people haven’t yet accepted or if they have they haven’t acknowledged it, clearly and unambiguously. 

Once that is acknowledged, then we can move to addressing how to achieve it. 

Reducing the emissions intensity of electricity will have to do the early lifting if the goal is to substantially reduce global GHG emissions. Emissions from electricity will have to be reduced by some 80% to 90% if we want to reduce global emissions from all sources by around 50%. 

Renewables will have only a relatively insignificant role. They are very expensive and not stainable. 

Nuclear power will have to be a major part of the solution. It seems nuclear will have to reach about 75% of electricity generation (similar to where France has been for the past 30 years), and electricity will have to become a significantly larger proportion of total energy than it is now, to reduce global GHG emission by 50%. 

It’s worth repeating: to achieve and sustain an accelerating rate of rollout of nuclear power, the cost of electricity from nuclear power will have to become cheaper than from fossil fuels. 

Here is a suggested way this can be achieved (to reduce emissions from electricity by around 80% to 90%). 

The next US Administration takes the lead to persuade the US citizens nuclear is about as safe as or safer than any other electricity source. US can gain enormously by leading the world on developing new, small modular nuclear power plants; allowing and encouraging innovation and competition; thus unleashing the US’s ability to innovate and compete to produce and supply the products the various world markets want.  The next US President uses his influence with the leaders of the other countries that are most influential in the IAEA to get their IAEA representatives to help implement a process to re-examine the justification for the allowable radiation limits – as the US recently announced (January 2015) it is to do over the next 18 months. 

“US study on low-dose ionising radiation 

The US Department of Energy (DOE) and National Academy of Sciences have been directed to work together to assess the current status of US and international research on low-dose radiation and to formulate a long-term research agenda under a bill approved by the US House of Representatives. The Low Dose Radiation Research Act of 2015 directs the two organisations to carry out a research program “to enhance the scientific understanding of and reduce uncertainties associated with the effects of exposure to low dose radiation in order to inform improved risk management methods.” The study is to be completed within 18 months. 

The Act arises from a letter from a group of health physicists who pointed out that the limited understanding of low-dose health risks impairs the nation’s decision-making capabilities, whether in responding to radiological events involving large populations such as the 2011 Fukushima accident or in areas such as the rapid increase in radiation-based medical procedures, the cleanup of radioactive contamination from legacy sites and the expansion of civilian nuclear energy. The aftermath of the Fukushima accident has boosted concern that unduly conservative standards may have large adverse health and welfare costs.”

Source: WNN 20/1/15. Radiation health effects

Once the radiation limits start being raised this should have a catalytic effect on reducing the cost of nuclear energy, leading to many substantial benefits including more electricity for more people, reduce fatalities caused by pollution and reduced global GHG emissions.  Raising the radiation limits will have the following catalytic and flow on effects: 

1) it will mean radiation leaks become understood to be less dangerous than currently thought > less people will need to be evacuated from effected zones > reduced cost accident of accidents > reduced accident insurance cost; 

2) the voters in democracies and policy makers in other countries reconsider the evidence about the effects of radiation > they gain an understanding it is much less harmful than they thought > fear subsides > opposition to nuclear declines > easier and less expensive to find new sites for power plants > increased levels of support from by the people in the surrounding areas > planning and sight approval costs come down over time; 

3) The risk of projects being delayed during construction or operation declines > all this leads to a lowering of the investors’ risk premium > thus reducing the financing costs for all of the plants life; 

4) Increasing public support for nuclear allows the NRC licensing process to be revamped and the culture of the organisation to be changed from “safety first” to an appropriate balance of all risks, benefits and costs, including the consequences of making nuclear development and rollout too expensive to compete as well as it could if its costs were lower (e.g. consequences such higher fatalities per TWh).

5) NRC is revamped – its Terms of Reference and its culture are changed. Licensing period for new designs is reduced, e.g. to the equivalent of the design and licensing period for new aircraft designs.

6) Small modular reactors are licensed quickly. New designs, new versions, new models, and design changes are processed expeditiously. This will lead to more competition, more innovation, learning rate continually improves so that costs come down.

The efficiency of using the fuel can be improved by nearly a factor of 100. That gives some idea of how much room there is to reduce the cost of nuclear power over the decades ahead.

Eventually, fusion will be viable and then the technology life cycle starts all over again.

Comment originally posted here



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