Wasting Australia's future

November 19, 2015

The appointment of nuclear power advocate Alan Finkel as Australia's next Chief Scientist led to speculation that the federal government might be softening up Australians for the introduction of nuclear power.

But that speculation is likely misplaced. Finkel is not the first Chief Scientist to support nuclear power. It goes with the turf: boys like toys and Chief Scientists like nuclear power. Finkel's comments were actually quite nuanced and at least as supportive of renewables as nuclear power.

The Coalition is split on nuclear power. There are strident supporters such as foreign minister Julie Bishop, but others see it as an economic non-starter, a political liability, and a potential threat to their mates in the fossil fuel industries.

Much the same could be said about the Labor Party. Both the Coalition and Labor are sitting on the fence for the time being, waiting for the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission to release its final report in May 2016.

At least some people in the Coalition and Labor would be aware of what is actually happening in the energy sector. Globally, renewables are taking off — renewable electricity generation has doubled in the past decade and costs have come down sharply. Renewables account for 22.8% of global electricity generation — hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2% — while nuclear power accounts for 10.8%. The share of renewables is rising while nuclear's share is falling and is well down from its peak of 17.6% in 1996.

Nuclear power has been stagnant and costs are rising. Planned “European Pressurised Reactors” (EPR) in the UK provide the most striking example. A decade ago, it was anticipated that one of these reactors would cost A$4.3 billion. The current estimate is more than six times greater at $26.2 billion. Current cost estimates for EPRs under construction in France and Finland are three times greater than the original estimates and the reactors are many years behind schedule.

Nuclear fuel leasing

While sceptical about the prospects for nuclear power in Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has given cautious support to the idea of a nuclear fuel leasing industry in Australia.

Such an industry would involve uranium mining, conversion to uranium hexafluouride, enrichment fuel fabrication and disposal of the high-level nuclear waste produced by the use of nuclear fuel in power reactors overseas.

In Turnbull's words: “We have got the uranium. We mine it. Why don't we process it, turn it into the fuel rods, lease it to people overseas. When they are done, we bring them back and we have got stable, very stable geology in remote locations and a stable political environment”.

Regardless of its merits, a nuclear leasing industry is an economic non-starter. That much is clear from the data provided in the latest edition of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Technology Review. The report notes that global conversion capacity of 76,000 tonnes of uranium comfortably meets demand of 60,000–64,000 tonnes. Global enrichment capacity of 65 million separative work units a year comfortably meets demand of 49 million units. Fuel fabrication capacity of 17,500 tonnes of uranium far exceeds demand of 10,000−11,000 tonnes.

Of course, sustained and significant nuclear power growth would boost demand for nuclear fuel cycle industries such as conversion and enrichment. But despite a lot of rhetoric about a nuclear “renaissance”, there are fewer operating reactors today than there were a decade ago.

It is doubtful whether new reactors will outnumber closures over the next 20 years. Steve Kidd, an independent consultant and economist who worked for the World Nuclear Association for 17 years, noted earlier this year that the “picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth given the recent trends”. The International Energy Agency predicts a “wave of retirements” with almost 200 reactor shut downs by 2040.

Profits from nuclear waste?

It is no secret that the driving force behind the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission is the idea that the state could make billions from storing or disposing of high-level nuclear waste from power reactors around the world.

Accepting nuclear waste might be profitable. Or it might not. Most likely, it would be profitable in the short-term and a liability in the long-term.

Proponents are talking up the billions that might be made by making Australia the world's nuclear waste dump, but they have said little about costs. Since the volume of waste would presumably be large, the cost of a deep underground repository for high-level nuclear waste would likely be in the tens of billions of dollars. Plans for a high-level waste repository in Japan may be comparable: the estimated cost is ¥3500 billion (A$40.8 billion).

The US wasted $10 billion on the plan for a deep geological repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada before abandoning the project. In 2008 the US Department of Energy estimated that the cost of construction and operation of Yucca Mountain over a 150 year period would be US$96 billion (A$135 billion).

The waste would need to be monitored and problems addressed for millennia: it takes about 300,000 years for the radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel to fall to that of the original uranium ore. The annual cost of monitoring waste might be modest; the costs over millennia would be anything but.

Explosion in deep underground repository

The idea that nuclear waste can be safely disposed of in a deep underground repository has been shot to pieces by an explosion in the world's only deep underground repository for nuclear waste: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico.

In February last year, radiation leaks were detected and 23 workers were subjected to low-level internal radiation exposure. The cause was later determined to be a chemical explosion that compromised one of the radioactive waste barrels stored underground, followed by a failure of the filtration system that was meant to ensure radiation in underground caverns did not reach the outside environment. The total cost to fix up the mess will approach $1 billion, and WIPP will be shut for at least four years.

Robert Alvarez, a former assistant to the US energy secretary, noted that a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted that one radiation release accident might occur every 200,000 years. But WIPP has been open for just 15 years and it is on track for more than 13,000 radiation release accidents over a 200,000 year period.

Fires at radioactive waste dumps

Just nine days before the explosion at WIPP, another accident took place at the same repository. A truck carrying salt caught fire, consuming the driver's compartment and the truck's front tyres. Six workers were treated at the nearest hospital for smoke inhalation and another seven were treated at the site. A report by the US Department of Energy said the root cause of the fire was the contractor's “failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground”.

Two other fires have recently threatened nuclear waste dumps in the US. A smouldering underground landfill fire, burning since 2010, has come within 400 metres of a nuclear dump in Missouri and on October 24 a faulty switch started a grass fire which came within 70 metres of the nuclear waste before it was doused.

On October 18, a fire broke out at a radioactive waste dump in Nevada. The site has 22 low-level radioactive waste storage trenches. A video supplied by the private operator shows bursts of smoke and dirt flying from several explosions. County officials and law enforcement agencies declared an emergency. A state fire inspector surveyed the site following the fire and found “heavily corroded” 55-gallon drums in and around one of the nuclear waste trenches. Two waste drums were found outside the fence line.

Maralinga fiasco

Is there any reason to believe that Australia would manage nuclear waste any more responsibly than the US? No. 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 of dealing with long-lived nuclear waste. In the late-1990s, the Australian government carried out a clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site. It was done on the cheap and many tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology.

A number of scientists with inside knowledge of the Maralinga project publicly noted their concerns. Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the “clean up”: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land”.

US scientist Dale Timmons said the government's technical report was littered with "gross misinformation". Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said the “clean up” was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups”. Nuclear physicist Peter Johnston said there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project”.

Barely a decade after the Maralinga “clean-up”, a survey revealed that 19 of the 85 contaminated debris pits have been subject to erosion or subsidence.

Australia's track record feeds back into the economic debate. Some — perhaps many — countries would surely think twice about entrusting nuclear waste to a country that has proved it is not up to the task.

[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and editor of the World Information Service on Energy's Nuclear Monitor newsletter.]

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