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Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities

South Australia already mines uranium. Could it become a nuclear state? AAP Image/Quasar Resources

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill on Sunday announced a formal inquiry into the future role of the state in the nuclear fuel cycle, which will be tasked with considering options across the full gamut of mining, enrichment, energy and storage.

Currently, mining is its only involvement.

We have long supported calls for Australia to engage in transparent discussion around expanding participation in the nuclear industry.

Others have asked how this might possibly happen. Weatherill has given an answer in announcing a Royal Commission to investigate these issues. These independent, trusted processes and the findings are treated with respect. They are tasked with the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives.

The premier’s decision to turn the powers and non-partisan process of a Royal Commission to a question of our shared future may prove to be inspired.

Maturing debate

Discussion of nuclear energy in Australia has matured in recent years with greater focus on factual arguments, the relativity of risks and the need for robust scientific sourcing of claims.

Yet it has also remained open to distortions, fabrications and fearmongering. Fortunately, such tactics will not withstand the scrutiny of a Royal Commission. As scientists, academics and evidence-based activists, concerned with facts and objective judgement, we welcome this process.

The stakes are high. Several of Australia’s regional trading partners such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China are bound to nuclear energy, with good reason. Their only pragmatic alternative lies with fossils fuels, at great economic and environmental cost.

This international need for nuclear energy is unlikely to diminish, and will likely grow as concerns about tackling climate change rise. It is for us, as Australians, to now decide whether and how we benefit from this, and whether we do or do not take responsibility to make our region and world safer, cleaner and more secure by trading on our competitive advantages.

Storage potential

South Australia’s potential to merge prosperity, clean energy and good global citizenship can barely be overstated. We have no wish to pre-empt the findings of this process. However we invite South Australians to consider these possibilities.

Globally, there are around 240,000 metric tons heavy metal (MtHM ) in spent nuclear fuel, much of which was dug from South Australian ores. By 2040 this will be around 700,000 MtHM.

Our preliminary work indicates that when existing, unspent national budgets allocated to managing this material are added up, we quickly reach a sum in excess of A$100 billion.

In a soon-to-be-published paper, we find simple, robust dry-cask storage is now a demonstrated, reliable and recognised solution for holding this material. It can be quickly, readily implemented by South Australia. Importantly, such a facility would mean the material is retrievable, to enable the extraction of further value through recycling.

A modest storage facility of, say, 40,000 MtHM, would be quickly subscribed by our trading partners for near-term revenues in the tens of billions of dollars for Australia. That’s just the beginning.

A nuclear state

In two published, open-access and peer-reviewed papers, one of us (Barry), along with our colleague Professor Corey Bradshaw and other international authors, highlight the potential for commercial demonstration of metal-fuelled, metal-cooled fast reactors in electricity production by 2020.

The reactors and the associated recycling facilities can re-use 99% of the spent nuclear fuel material as energy. The revenue from spent fuel imported into Australia by nuclear partners could bankroll these facilities. The electricity could, in principle, be a free commodity for South Australians to share—a virtual side effect from a process that is already vastly profitable.

How much energy could this represent? In preliminary work we find that the 40,000 MtHM of material would provide Australia with electricity for over two centuries via a mature fleet of fast reactors with fuel recycling. The subsequent flow of waste material would be minimal (perhaps 50 MtHM per year), with an easily manageable half-life of just 30 years.

South Australia to the world

A secure, multinational destination for spent fuel, located in a politically and geologically stable country such as Australia, would spur more rapid expansion of current generation reactors. This would displace coal as the fuel of choice in rapidly growing economies.

While boosting South Australia’s uranium industry, a bold initiative like this would also deliver urgently needed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, improvements in air-quality and sparing land for biodiviersity preservation and food security from coal mining, hydro dams and biofuels.

As the world then transitions to the next-generation fast reactors (and probably other advanced nuclear fission technologies), we will already be leaders in this new global standard in nuclear, ready to re-sell material that we have recycled into new metal fast-reactor fuel.

Our sleeper advantage is our clean slate.

If the nuclear states of USA, UK, France or Japan were commencing developments in the nuclear fuel cycle now, with no historical hindrance or inertia based on established policies, practices and technological path dependencies, and all benefits of knowledge, learning and experience over the past 60 years, what type of nuclear fuel cycle would they design and operate?

That is the envious position South Australia finds itself in in 2015, with a closing window to capitalise on the advantage.

This is a big decision, and one we need to make together. A Royal Commission will provide South Australians with the foundation we need to move forward to greater prosperity in confidence and collaboration, and with the potential to take a leadership role in displacing fossil fuels worldwide.

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