As South Australia's economy continues to tank, local business leaders and the state Labor government have snatched at the nuclear option.
Leading the hopes for salvation is a proposal for a giant underground waste dump to store some of the world's spent reactor fuel.
Approval for the project is expected to be given on May 6 when the state's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission hands down its final report. A Tentative Findings report released on February 15 spoke glowingly of the waste storage scheme, claiming that the plan was safe and would “significantly improve the economic welfare of the South Australian community”.
As explained in an earlier Green Left article, the scale of the project, the number of countries from which waste would be accepted and the hundreds of thousands of years for which the highly radioactive materials would need to be stored, make a significant accident at some point all but inevitable.
Meanwhile, critics — not just from the environment movement — have damned the royal commission's economic analysis of the waste dump scheme as speculative, placing grave cost burdens on future generations and bordering on advocacy for the project.
Noone in the world has yet completed or operated an underground repository for spent reactor fuel. Cost and income projections for the scheme thus contain huge, untested assumptions. But this has not deterred the royal commission from presenting figures to make corporate magnates and pro-business politicians drool with anticipation.
Over time, Tentative Findings promises, the waste dump would yield SA revenues of $257 billion, after costs of $145 billion.
“We will be able to build a spectacular state,” enthused right-wing state Labor MP Tom Kenyon. “The wealth that can be generated by the storage of spent fuel … provides us with an amazing opportunity, similar to the transformative power of the Victorian gold rush.”
Liberal Senator Sean Edwards saw the benefits of the scheme primarily in terms of tax breaks for business. SA, he declared, could get rid of $4.4 billion in taxes, including payroll tax and motor vehicle taxes. “We have a first mover advantage which would see us generate wealth akin to being the Saudis of the South.”
Closer study, however, has the reactor-waste pie in the sky looking distinctly half-baked.
First of all, the costs cited for constructing the dump are out of kilter with international estimates. Tentative Report ventures a figure of $27 billion, to be furnished on a pre-commitment basis by contracted users. But Friends of the Earth campaigner Dr Jim Green notes projected costs for building a repository of $39 billion in the case of France, or $34 billion for Japan.
The nuclear industry has a notorious record of cost escalation, including for waste handling. “Waste management cost estimates in the UK have risen from a 2005 estimate of ₤56 billion to the 2012 estimate of ₤100 billion,” a submission to the royal commission by Friends of the Earth and other environmental organisations reported.
Meanwhile, would international clients queue up as promised to dump their wastes in the SA outback?
Tentative Findings assumes that as many as 37 countries would pay in advance to build and use the repository. Listed among prospective investor-clients are Ukraine, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nigeria and Ghana. But many of these states do not now have nuclear power industries, and may never have.
Even if developing-world countries take the nuclear path, are they likely in the next few decades to want to pay for underground storage? Currently, high-level reactor wastes around the world are stored above ground in concrete-and-steel casks. While this involves definite hazards, there is no fundamental technical reason why the wastes should not stay there for a century or more.
Given a choice between above-ground storage at home, and spending scarce foreign exchange to have their wastes buried abroad, what are the developing countries concerned likely to decide? And if they do opt for underground storage, are they likely to take up an Australian offer?
The countries that have growing nuclear power industries, and a need for long-term waste storage, include Russia, China and India. These countries are well able to build their own underground repositories, and very likely will do so. If accepting foreign wastes is so profitable, why should these countries not build extra capacity, and cash in? Their costs, and the prices they could offer, would undoubtedly be much less than those of a facility in Australia.
In sum, the business plan the royal commission has put up deserves a definite failing grade. The market promises to be weak and long delayed, the potential for cost overruns is daunting, and the likely competition ferocious. The scheme's profitability might survive one of these setbacks but hardly, as seems quite probable, all three.
Suppose, though, that the assumptions pan out and a SA waste dump is built and operated for something like the predicted returns. Would the benefits to the state be anything like what the scheme's boosters suggest?
From the vast spending, strikingly few direct jobs would result. The royal commission suggests about 1550 direct full-time jobs in the construction phase, and 600 thereafter. The latter figure would add less than 0.1% to the state's current workforce of about 811,000.
True, further jobs would arise from the money the repository workers would spend. If the dump were to prove as wildly profitable as the royal commission guesses, a large fund would accrue to the state government. Increased outlays in areas such as infrastructure, health and education could then create employment for still more workers.
Tentative Findings predicts a total of 9,600 extra jobs by 2029. That would provide a useful boost to SA's economy, but the figure is still only a little more than 1% of the state's current employment. In no sense would the waste dump solve SA's problems, which have their sources deep in the contradictions of today's capitalism.
Moreover, the royal commission assumes that nothing would, or could, go wrong with the project to force its delay or cancellation. In the US, a total of US$15 billion was spent between 2002 and 2011 on constructing the “deep geological facility” at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, meant to provide permanent storage for US high-level reactor wastes. The project was defunded in 2011, and spending to that point written off, due to public concern at potential radiation releases.
Yucca Mountain was financed by a single entity — the US federal government — and was abandoned while still empty. The South Australian dump would be financed by dozens of national governments, under strict contracts to store their nuclear wastes. But what if some calamity forced the cancellation or premature closure of the facility?
Expensive legal wrangles over money that had been paid out, and storage obligations that could not be met, would stretch into eternity. And if wastes had already been deposited, the countries that produced them would not take them back. Either way, SA would be left holding an exceedingly nasty baby.
Ominously, there is also the possibility that problems would be covered up and the facility allowed to operate unsafely.
A final category of objections — including some of the most compelling — relates to the time structure of the project's earnings and costs.
Income from the dump would end with the acceptance of the last batch of wastes. But the need to spend money on guarding and monitoring the facility would continue as long as the wastes posed a significant radiation hazard. The underground chambers could not simply be plugged and forgotten, since over millennia the protective measures would decay too.
The radioactivity of reactor wastes takes about 300,000 years to decline to the level of the original uranium ore — longer than the modern human species has existed. For all meaningful purposes, that means forever.
What does it cost to guard and monitor nuclear wastes forever? In mathematical terms, the answer is simple: infinity dollars. Certainly, the figure would be more than the arbitrary sum, of $32 billion, specified by the royal commission as accruing to a fund for closure and monitoring.
And would it even be possible to guard and monitor nuclear waste over tens of thousands of generations? The brave pronouncements of today's hucksters and fakers cannot provide the slightest assurance. What if climate change, for example, sparks wars that devastate modern civilisation?
The gravity of the choice posed by the waste dump proposal has been summed up by the economic commentator for the Adelaide Independent Daily, Adjunct Professor Richard Blandy: “We are bequeathing a stream of costs to our successor generations. They will be poorer as a result, and will have reason to curse their forebears for selfishly making themselves better off at their expense.
“We should think of what we will leave to our descendants — and not do it.”