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No nuclear reactor for South Australia

February 15th, 2016

That, for me at any rate, is the crucial element of the Tentative Findings of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (here. The media releasee summarises

aking account of future demand and anticipated costs of nuclear power under the existing electricity market structure, it would not be commercially viable to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant in South Australia in the foreseeable future.

However, Australia’s electricity system will require low-carbon generation sources to meet future global emissions reduction targets. Nuclear power may be necessary, along with other low carbon generation technologies. It would be wise to plan now to ensure that nuclear power would be available should it be required.

The detailed findings are sensible (that is to say, largely in line with my submission and evidence. A crucial para:

If nuclear power were to be developed in South Australia, a proven design should be used that has been constructed elsewhere, preferably on multiple occasions, and should incorporate the most advanced active and passive safety features. This is likely to include consideration of small modular reactor (SMR) designs, but exclude for the foreseeable future fast reactors

Given that Barry Brook, a leading enthusiast for fast reactors was part of the Commission’s Expert Advisory Panel, this finding should make it clear that fast reactors are an option for the distant (beyond foreseeable) future.

The finding is striking because South Australia is, or ought to be a test case for those arguing that a carbon-free electricity system must rely on “baseload” nuclear. South Australia has high and increasing reliance on renewables, is close to phasing out coal, and has limited interconnection capacity. It’s exactly the modle that anti-renewable sites like Brave New Climate have “proved” time after time can’t possibly work without nuclear power. Yet, it seems, even a sympathetic inquiry finds nuclear power to be an option for the distant future, if that.

Most of the news attention has been focused on the Commission’s other key finding, that South Australia should establish a nuclear waste dump. I don’t have a view on the economics of this, but I see no reason for an objection in principle. The waste exists and has to be kept somewhere. South Australia produced some of the uranium and continues to produce it. Finally, the difficulty of dealing with waste is at most a minor factor in the growth and decline of nuclear power, so there’s no likelihood that the decision to create a dump would have much effect on the process.

In these circumstances, I can’t see why any other location should be preferred. If it works for South Australian voters (it probably won’t), the dump should go there.

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  1. Pete Moran
    February 15th, 2016 at 13:29 | #1

    carbon capture and storage (CCS) integrated with new
    fossil fuel plants remains commercially unproven at
    scale internationally and in Australia, and would require
    significant public investment to achieve

    pp 14

    Anyone know if we are still giving the CCS elephant money via CSIRO research, via tax breaks or directly to the fossil lobby?

  2. John Quiggin
    February 15th, 2016 at 14:09 | #2

    Hockey killed off most of what was left in CCS, but I think CSIRO is still flogging coal-to-diesel.

  3. Ikonoclast
    February 15th, 2016 at 14:33 | #3

    It all makes sense to me. Except that an Australian nuclear dump should only take Australian nuclear waste. Furthermore, we should not export uranium or other radioactive materials for power generation. We should leave it in the ground except for the relatively small amounts needed for research, nuclear medicine, nuclear engineering etc.

    And CSIRO is still flogging coal to diesel or the new anti-science CEO is flogging coal to diesel? Coal to diesel makes no sense. Gas powered cars and trucks make more sense than that. We have a lot of natural gas. Use it for import replacement of diesel and petrol rather than sending all our gas to China. And also keep cooking gas and heating gas costs lower. Of course, even gas is a transition fuel. We will need nothing except renewable solar and wind in the medium to long run.

  4. BilB
    February 15th, 2016 at 14:39 | #4

    On Nuclear waste the lazy thinking is that you dig a hole of sorts stick the material in collect the money and forget about it. I don’t think that it works like that for all waste types.

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/appendices/radioactive-waste-management-appendix-2-storage-an.aspx

    This item barely touches on the long term monitoring of long lived nuclear waste, but it does suggest that this is a desirable requirement. That of course brings up the issue of cost beyond the 100 year point, into the 500 year and 5 thousand year terms and who is going to foot the bill over extended time.

  5. BilB
    February 15th, 2016 at 14:50 | #5

    This is the bit that I believe proponents glaze over

    “c. imports of used fuel and intermediate level waste
    ending 83 years after the project decision.
    d. post-closure monitoring phase for the geological facility
    commencing 120 years after the project decision.
    90.Such facilities would need to be controlled and owned
    by government because of the long-term nature of the
    activity and the need to secure the long-term trust and
    confidence of customer countries. Further, because the
    society would carry the risks of the activity in the long
    term, it is entitled to the significant benefits. This does not
    mean the government would be precluded from sourcing
    appropriate private sector operational expertise.”

    This is the sort of activity that would occur out of sight and out of mind, right up to the point in 150 years time when someone notices how much the monitoring costs and asks who is going to pay for that. I am not seeing such a stable world that future governments in various places will feel a responsibility to pay for what would be seen as an Australian problem.

  6. Brett
    February 15th, 2016 at 14:59 | #6

    You’d want to do a design that minimizes the need for fresh water. Given how dry much of Australia is, a water-hungry power plant (or set of them) probably isn’t a great idea (although if you’re phasing out coal power, then maybe it would even out since coal plants need water too).

  7. GrueBleen
    February 15th, 2016 at 15:10 | #7

    Yes, but will the nuclear waste storage use that great Australian invention, Synroc ? See http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/synroc.aspx

    Besides, what about solar thermal ? The Spanish seem to be going ahead in leaps and bounds (probably because they’re using that great Australian invention, Fresnel mirrors), see http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/solar-storage-plant-gemasolar-sets-36-day-record-247-output-12586 )

    Besides, whatever happened to that ANU invention of using solar thermal to dissociate ammonia into nitrogen and hydrogen and then use the N & H as a combustible fuel in a completely closed system (ie no N H or NH3 escapes) to power a steam turbine generator. Did that just disappear ? Look here: https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/40848/3/SolarEnergyResearchANU2001.pdf
    under the heading: “Ammonia Based Thermochemical Storage of Solar Energy”.

    But I rather think, Ikono, that it will be a long while before we have large scale international aircraft powered solely by solar or wind. Might need some of that that fossil fuel for a while, yet.

  8. Robert Merkel
    February 15th, 2016 at 15:12 | #8

    Note at all surprised by the outcome, but the politics (as distinct from the economics, environmental outcomes, or human safety risks) of a waste facility in South Australia are mind-bogglingly bad.

    Does anyone seriously believe that any government could win an election supporting such a facility, particularly when the waste was imported?

    And given that, what was the point of holding the inquiry at all?

  9. John Quiggin
    February 15th, 2016 at 15:41 | #9

    @Robert Merkel

    I’ve updated slightly to note my agreement with you on the politics.

    There was quite a push in Adelaide to support nuclear reactors, including Gen IV vaporware, which I think reflected the influence of Barry Brook. An inquiry was probably a sensible way of responding to this.

  10. Ikonoclast
    February 15th, 2016 at 16:14 | #10

    @GrueBleen

    Well, exactly. We should keep hydrocarbon fuels for niche applications like flight. Yeah ok flight is a big niche application but a lot of human cargo (tourists) is not really necessary. It’s a luxury we might not be able to afford in the future.

  11. David Allen
    February 15th, 2016 at 16:21 | #11

    Nuclear waste dumps should be constructed in Vaucluse and Toorak. That way they will be always be a focus on making sure they don’t leak. No “out of sight, out of mind” proposals can be guaranteed.

  12. GrueBleen
    February 15th, 2016 at 17:26 | #12

    @John Quiggin

    Never stage an inquiry that you don’t already know the answer to.

    So let me see, Barry Brook’s studies have been in biology and computer science (BSc) and population viability analysis (PhD). So why, pray tell, would anybody pay him any attention at all on the question of nuclear energy viability ? I can, however, imagine that he just might be a vocal supporter of vaporware.

  13. GrueBleen
    February 15th, 2016 at 18:02 | #13

    @Ikonoclast

    If we could return to a more leisurely era, we might just be able to do most of our tourism – and a large percentage of our trade – via wind (and solar photovoltaic) powered clipper ships.

    I understand they’re quite sophisticated and safe these days (unless there’s a tsunami or two on the horizon).

  14. February 15th, 2016 at 18:04 | #14

    Building a nuclear power plant in South Australia is of course nuttier than a lumpy chocolate bar. It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to arrive at this conclusion, all it takes is the ability to tell if one quantity is larger than another quantity, and I learned how to do that months ago.

    Last financial year the average wholesale price of electricity in South Australia was 3.9 cents a kilowatt-hour. The proposed Hinkley C reactors in the UK require 20 cents per kilowatt-hour produced. And that does not include the cost of insurance for a nuclear disaster or increased ancillary service costs. The same sort of massive expense applies for new reactors in the US and elsewhere. And building a nuclear power station in Australia would cost more because there are no existing brown sites to construct it at and no existing nuclear power construction industry. And trust me, we have no special ability when it comes to keeping costs down on large projects.

    The average cost of wholesale electricity in South Australia over the past 10 years has been 5 cents a kilowatt-hour. In Queensland it has been 4.4 cents. New South Wales 4.3 cents. Tasmania 4.4 cents. Victoria 4.0 cents. There is no where in Australia where nuclear power even comes close to making the slightest bit of sense. And putting a price on carbon does not help nuclear power become competitive, it helps new renewables and they are horrible for the economics of nuclear power as they push down the average wholesale price of electricity and when coupled with baseload generators such as coal or nuclear, result in negative electricity prices during periods of high renewable production and low demand, as coal and nuclear are generally too inflexible to shut down during these periods. South Australia has closed its only coal mine with plenty of extractable coal left in it and the state’s last operating coal power station will close down for good next month because it isn’t profitable to run and cannot compete. When a paid off coal power plant using otherwise valuless stranded coal cannot compete with new renewables, which are continuing to come down in cost, a new nuclear power plant sure as hell can’t compete.

  15. Geoff Edwards
    February 15th, 2016 at 21:12 | #15

    The Royal Commission was only ever a cover for the waste dump proposal: even the advocates of nuclear power have come to realise that it can’t stack up financially in Australia.

    Nor anywhere else, if the cost of decommissioning is factored in.

    By the way, nuclear power is not carbon free. Huge tonnages of cement, steel and copper are used to build the things. It is claimed in the literature (though this is contested) that out of an average 21 year life, a third of the production is required to reimburse the energy cost of establishment and a third or more to decommission afterwards.

    I don’t understand the references above to 90 years, 120 years, 500 years, 5000 years etc. The half life of plutonium 239, a component of some high-level waste, is 24,000 years. A waste dump would need to be stabilised for a geological period of time, not a historical period of time. How people think that governance can be guaranteed over that period leaves me puzzled.

    The US, with all its nuclear technology and experience, has not been able to settle on a site for a long-term high-level waste dump. All around the world, the stuff is stored in rusty drums and other forms of “temporary storage” waiting for a solution. One can write the script for what happens next.

  16. conrad
    February 15th, 2016 at 21:46 | #16

    “I don’t have a view on the economics of this, but I see no reason for an objection in principle.”

    Is there any real sense in having an economic view on something that lasts longer than humans have had civilization for? Even across shorter time-spans, it’s not clear to me that we should be cursing people in, say, 200 years, with this sort of thing even if we happen to think it will make us rich now.

  17. paul walter
    February 15th, 2016 at 22:12 | #17

    Then comes the issue of the dump.

    Have they found some where close enough to a town or water table or fault zone to build one?

    Good heavens, perish the thought it is built out in the desert away from these things for a couple of bob more, would never do.

  18. James Wimberley
    February 16th, 2016 at 00:21 | #18

    @GrueBleen
    There are two routes to sustainable aviation using jet engines.
    1. Biofuels (algae and plant biomass like bagasse). Corn ethanol is terrible, but other sources look could be sustainable.
    2. Synthetic kerosene: first electrolyse water to get hydrogen then reform the hydrogen (Fischer-Tropsch process) into methane, then further into liquid fuels. Ideally you want a concentrated source of carbon dioxide like a cement works. On paper you could juice up a biomass reactor with extra hydrogen to double the amount of methane, which is otherwise limited by the high carbon-to-hydrogen ratio in cellulose.

    The issues are not of principle but of costs. The Nazis fought the last year of the war basically on synthetic liquid fuel made in huge Fischer-Tropsch plants (google Leuna).

  19. James Wimberley
    February 16th, 2016 at 00:29 | #19

    JQ: “South Australia … has limited interconnection capacity.”
    I thought that Australia’s high retail prices for electricity came from over-investment in a gold-plated and oversized grid. What did they spend the money on, if the backbone interconnects are too thin? For that matter, why is Australian supply so unreliable? Germany has an expensive gold-plated distribution system too, with all-buried cables in urban areas, but they at least get a SAIDI of 12 minutes a year.

    The price of a couple of HVDC power lines would be trivial compared to that of new reactors. Oh, and design them properly.

  20. James
    February 16th, 2016 at 05:22 | #20

    In 10 years time, battery costs will be low enough to provide baseload power from intermittent renewables at any scale you want for less than than nuclear. Nuclear has had 3 or 4 times the R&D spent on it than other power sources combined. It is a zimbie research programme .

  21. Moz of Yarramulla
    February 16th, 2016 at 07:20 | #21

    @David Allen

    David Allen :
    Nuclear waste dumps should be constructed in Vaucluse and Toorak. No “out of sight, out of mind” proposals can be guaranteed.

    You might think that, but you’d be wrong. The Hunter’s Hill uranium smelter is an ongoing problem that even people in the immediate area tend not to know about. NSW Parliament talk about it a bit but there’s still no plan and even the anti-nuke people can’t raise much fuss.

    I suspect it would end up like the two reactors just upwind of the CBD in Sydney – a few people within sight of the problem would care a bit, sometimes, the people running it would make soothing noises when asked, and the local real estate agents would pretend there’s nothing there. When asked to explain the cancer cluster the government would say it’s just claims by (soon to be) discredited cranks, nothing to worry about.

  22. GrueBleen
    February 16th, 2016 at 09:04 | #22

    @James Wimberley

    I may not have made this particularly clear, but my concern isn’t whether or not we can synthesize non-fossil fuels but whether any such fuels have a markedly lower CO2 footprint than fossil fuels. Do they ?

    Also, of course, but of lesser importance is whether aa major rework of infrastructure would be needed to handles the storage, transport and dispersal of the bio/artificials compared with current fossil fuels. Presumably artificial kerosene should be easy, how about the biofuels ?

  23. John Goss
    February 16th, 2016 at 09:07 | #23

    I would have agreed with Robert Merkel 2 years ago that there was no chance of convincing South Australians of the merits of hosting a major nuclear waste dump. But in talking to family and friends back in SA I have changed my mind. The SA economy is in a difficult spot and when you point out that SA has some of the best sites in the world for nuclear waste disposal out in the desert in spots where there is no water table, then people are prepared to consider it as an option. And when influential members of the ALP left wing faction like Mark Butler and Jay Wetherill make supportive noises, then maybe there is a chance of nuclear waste disposal getting up.

  24. Nevil Kingston-Brown
    February 16th, 2016 at 11:51 | #24

    I would have thought that considerations of Ricardo-style economic comparative advantage would rule out nuclear power here regardless of environmental and safety concerns.
    We have a low density population, hence less demand for centralised generation, and huge supplies of alternative power sources (both renewable and non-renewable) because of our large land mass and geology. Places like the UK, France, Scandinavia and Japan who have invested in nuclear power have high population densities and much fewer sources or space for renewables and other sources. Hence uranium will always be a better option for them, leading them to pay more for it, than it is for us. It makes no sense for us to use the stuff here as opposed to exporting it.

  25. February 16th, 2016 at 18:41 | #25

    James, Australia did not use the money spent on over investment in electricity infrastructure on useful things like improved transmission capacity between South Australia and the rest of the country. They spent it on things that would let retailers sell more electricity to people and if that demand didn’t materialise it didn’t matter because they could pass that cost onto consumers no problem – which they did. Long distance links tend to lower wholesale electricy prices which generators and gentailers (generator-retailers) don’t like unless it happens to benefit their assets. Fortunately, they are not in charge of if state interconnectors are built, but they certainly have influence.

  26. BilB
    February 16th, 2016 at 18:43 | #26

    Jay Wetherill was enthusiastic or a GST increase, too. I think his judgement is somewhat compromised, JohnG.

  27. Ken Fabian
    February 17th, 2016 at 13:45 | #27

    We might need nuclear in a couple of decades if we fail to push ahead with adequate emissions reductions. Huh? Surely the converse would be more true – if we do push ahead we won’t need it. And if the same political forces that have obstructed emissions policies to date continue obstructing, what makes anyone think adequate community support for emissions reductions using nuclear, which more than any option needs broad, enduring public acceptance of serious need, will be ready and waiting?

  28. Collin Street
    February 18th, 2016 at 06:18 | #28

    > The waste exists and has to be kept somewhere.

    The turds that I extrude from my bowels have to go somewhere too, which is why you should build a public commode on your front step.

    Nuclear waste storage isn’t a problem we have to solve.

  29. Robert Merkel
    February 18th, 2016 at 13:54 | #29

    If anybody is interested, I expanded on the reasons why I think a nuclear waste storage facility storing imported waste is a political impossiblity here

    The bit on nuclear waste storage is towards the end, and discusses the abortive attempts to establish a toxic waste incinerator in rural NSW in the 1990s. I would be very surprised if the same political forces that killed off the incinerator rule out a nuclear waste dump dealing with imported waste.

  30. Tim Macknay
    February 18th, 2016 at 14:41 | #30

    @Collin Street

    Nuclear waste storage isn’t a problem we have to solve.

    Well, not imported nuclear waste anyway. Everyday domestic and commercial activities do produce quantities of nuclear waste that need to be dealt with, which is often politically problematic in itself.

  31. February 19th, 2016 at 17:02 | #31

    Nevil, countries such as France and Japan may not have renewable energy resources that match Australia’s, but they are definitely going to have a strong tendency to install the lowest cost generating capacity and throughout the world renewable energy is cheaper than new nuclear. New nuclear power is extremely expensive. This is why France is using renewable energy to replace aging reactors that are going to be retired.

    And also, while a fresh nuclear fuel rod represents an awful lot of energy that can be extracted once placed in a nuclear reactor, nuclear power is not in practice the most concentrated source of electrical energy. Nuclear power plants take up space, as do uranium mines, and things such as nuclear waste dumps; so the average watts produced per square meter are not extremely high. And if you throw in existing exclusion zones in the Ukraine and Japan then the average watts generated per square meter are quite low.

    Rooftop solar is the most concentrated source of electrical energy since it doesn’t remove any land from its original use, and on land geothermal may be next, though wind power is also very concentrated as a modern onshore windfarm only removes about 1% of the land it covers from use. And for offshore wind, well if the original use was fishing, they appear to do no harm there and may actually help improve fish stocks. (But you’ll have to check with a fishologist to get the dirty on that.)

  32. David Irving (no relation)
    February 24th, 2016 at 11:10 | #32

    @BilB
    Not so much enthusiastic as desperate to replace the money Abbott had ripped out our hospitals and schools.

  33. Tim Macknay
    February 24th, 2016 at 11:45 | #33

    @Ronald Brak
    The trouble with fishologists is they’re not always reliable. I have to keep reminding the ones near me not to exceed their bag limits…

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