Ten years ago, the uranium price was on an upward swing. South Australians were dazzled by the prospect of becoming the 'Saudi Arabia of the South' because of the state's large uranium deposits and the prospect of a global nuclear power renaissance.
Those comparisons didn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny — Australia would need to supply global uranium demand 31 times over to match Saudi oil revenue.
Ten years on, how is the nuclear renaissance going? The number of power reactors has actually declined, and Australia's uranium industry is also in decline and accounts for just 0.2% of national export revenue.
Despite that experience, South Australians are once again being dazzled by the prospect of fabulous wealth. The state government has initiated a Royal Commission to investigate nuclear options. According to Liberal Senator Sean Edwards, a plan to import nuclear waste and convert it into reactor fuel would "generate wealth akin to being the Saudis of the South".
How much money might be made by taking nuclear waste from other countries? No one has much idea since there is no precedent. It's doubtful whether it would generate any more than a fraction of the revenue that Edwards thinks it might. He thinks the income would cover the cost of building nuclear power reactors, enable the supply of free electricity to South Australians, and supplant the $4.4 billion in state taxes paid by South Australians each year.
Some of the proponents of the waste-to-fuel plan believe that spent nuclear fuel is a "multi-trillion dollar asset" — because it can be processed for reuse as reactor fuel — and they also believe that countries will pay "tens of billions of dollars" to relieve themselves of this multi-trillion dollar asset.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And it's not hard to envisage the economics going pear-shaped, with the cost of managing nuclear waste over long periods of time exceeding the amount that is paid to accept it.
INTEGRAL FAST REACTORS
The waste-to-fuel plan involves importing nuclear waste and processing it to fuel so-called "integral fast reactors" (IFRs). IFRs don't exist but they were the subject of a research program in the US for several decades. On the basis of that experience, GE Hitachi says it is willing to build an IFR if it can find a customer.
The US and British governments have shown some interest, and the reports published last year by those governments make for interesting reading.
The US report notes that pursuit of IFR technology would be associated with "major technical challenges"; that it would take 18 years to construct an IFR and associated facilities; and that the IFR option is by far the most expensive option for dealing with the US stockpile of surplus plutonium.
The British report notes that IFR facilities have not been industrially demonstrated; that waste disposal issues remain unresolved; that GE Hitachi's timeframe of 14 to 18 years for development, licensing and construction is "ambitious"; and that little can be ascertained about cost since GE Hitachi refuses to provide estimates of capital and operating costs.
If IFRs are built, might they live up to expectations? Proponents claim that there is essentially no risk of a serious accident. And on that point we can agree. Reactor designs that exist only on paper are indeed risk free. As a nuclear industry insider puts it: "We know that the paper-moderated, ink-cooled reactor is the safest of all." He went on to warn that: "All kinds of unexpected problems may occur after a project has been launched."
Proponents also claim that IFRs could not produce weapon-grade material — but that claim is false and has been refuted by a scientist who worked on an IFR prototype in the US.
Proponents argue that countries with nuclear power programs are wedded to conventional reactor technology and that Australia has an opportunity to be a “first mover” in the development of innovative technology.
That's one way of looking at it. Another perspective is that other countries have decided not to throw good money after bad since the history of fast reactor technology has largely been one of extremely expensive, underperforming, and accident-prone reactors. Instead of contributing to the resolution of proliferation problems by gobbling up weapons-useable material, fast reactors have repeatedly worsened proliferation problems.
Proposals for Australia to take the lead in developing IFRs will most likely come to nothing. But that still leaves the option of taking other countries' nuclear waste and disposing of it in a deep underground repository.
Only one such repository exists anywhere in the world — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA. WIPP stores long-lived, intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program.
In February last year, a heat-generating chemical reaction ruptured one of the barrels stored underground at WIPP, followed by a failure of the filtration system which was meant to ensure that radiation did not reach the outside environment. Twenty-two workers were exposed to low-level radiation. The total cost to fix up the mess will top $500 million, and WIPP will be shut for at least four years.
A US government report points the finger at the operator and regulator of WIPP, noting their "failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard ... compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture."
Is there any reason to believe that Australia would manage a nuclear waste repository any more responsibly than the US? None that I can think of. Is there any reason to believe that things might be worse in Australia? Yes. The US has a wealth of nuclear expertise at its disposal; Australia has comparatively little.
Moreover, Australia has its own troubled history dealing with long-lived nuclear waste. In the late 1990s, the federal government oversaw a clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site in South Australia.
The government said the Maralinga clean-up was “world's best practice” even though it breached Australian standards for the management of long-lived nuclear waste.
A leaked email written by an officer in the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency said that the “clean-up” was beset by a "host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups".
A scientist-turned-whistleblower said the dumping of long-lived nuclear waste in shallow, unlined pits at Maralinga was "a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land". Another whistleblower said the government's technical report was littered with "gross misinformation".
Barely a decade after the Maralinga “clean-up”, a survey revealed that 19 of the 85 contaminated waste pits have already been subject to erosion or subsidence.
A recent poll by the Adelaide Advertiser found that fewer than one in six South Australians want the state to host an international nuclear waste repository.
[Jim Green is national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter produced by the World Information Service on Energy.]