Home > Economic policy, Environment > Build it, and they probably won’t come

Build it, and they probably won’t come

December 1st, 2016

When the SA Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle brought down its report, I welcomed the conclusion that there was no serious prospect that nuclear power generation would be feasible in Australia. That was unsurprising, since my own submission to the Commission had shown this pretty clearly. As regards the Commission’s recommendation for a waste dump, I argued that there could be no objection in principle, given that SA was an exporter of uranium and the waste had already been generated.

That left open the question of whether the waste dump proposal made economic sense. I’ve now looked at the case in more detail and concluded that it doesn’t. Countries with existing nuclear power industries have made arrangements that may not be satisfactory, but are unlikely to change. There is little prospect of any significant growth in the future. So, building a nuclear waste dump in the hope of attracting demand makes about as much sense as the actions of the protagonist in the movie Field of Dreams, who ploughed up his cornfield to make a baseball diamond for the ghosts of disgraced players.

I make the argument in more detail in this piece in New Matilda. Right on cue, Vietnam, which was one of the hypothetical users of the dump, decided that it would be better to dump nuclear power as uneconomic. Expect more announcements along these lines as the economics of renewable energy improve.

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  1. pablo
    December 1st, 2016 at 08:18 | #1

    But wasn’t a fundamental claim for a nuclear waste dump that it take existing waste from all states and territories of Australia first up. These predominantly low level wastes are accumulating and the logic of a national facility seems to make sense. Attracting foreign waste is an ‘add-on’ and maybe worth the gamble?

  2. James Wimberley
    December 1st, 2016 at 08:58 | #2

    I was wondering why JQ gave evidence to a commission in South Africa.

    Incidentally, SA (South African) developments on nuclear are much more exciting than anything in Australia, even Queensland. The scandal-plagued government has signed an MoA with the Russians of all people, for no less than eight reactors. in secret. The Guptta family, close friends of President Zuma, stand to benefit. It does not of course add up economically, and renewables would be much cheaper and quicker. Zuma is under atack for a string of corruption charges, and if he falls, the deal surely goes too.

  3. pablo
    December 1st, 2016 at 10:08 | #3

    Or am I confusing the SA initiative with the proposed Federal Government ‘Muckety” facility?

  4. John Quiggin
    December 1st, 2016 at 10:56 | #4

    These are two different proposals

  5. Smith
    December 1st, 2016 at 12:42 | #5

    It’s like a shopping centre. If they get an anchor tenant, so to speak, they will build it. If they don’t, they won’t.

    So it’s a matter of doing a deal. Can a deal be done? As always, it will depend on the terms of the deal.

  6. derrida derider
    December 1st, 2016 at 13:43 | #6

    Nuclear power will no doubt continue to generate considerably more metaphorical than physical heat. We should not let annoyance at the large number of spurious arguments as to its safety or environmental effects blind us to the fact that it was never cheap and, relative to feasible alternatives, is ever less cheap.

    John’s right – ‘taint the greenies but the bean counters that will kill nuclear power, and with it nuclear dumps.

  7. Collin Street
    December 2nd, 2016 at 06:21 | #7

    We should not let annoyance at the large number of spurious arguments

    The problems with nuclear power are social, not technical: the problem is building social structures that guarantee adherence to safety protocols long-term. Oddly, the sorts of people who support nuclear power tend to be the sorts of people who are… blind to social aspects of situations?

  8. David Jago
    December 2nd, 2016 at 14:49 | #8

    @Collin Street

    Yes. And also economic. New nuclear power, as distinct from older and already paid for plants, just can’t compete with new solar and wind.

  9. Ken Fabian
    December 4th, 2016 at 14:45 | #9

    I would like to know our nuclear waste does go to well built repositories in a geologically stable places well away from any aquifers for long term storage but I remain doubtful doing so will ever be a profit making exercise.

    John’s right – ‘taint the greenies but the bean counters that will kill nuclear power, and with it nuclear dumps.

    Climate science denial has been a significant problem for nuclear also – diverting lots of the most influential nuclear tolerant bean counters with the seemingly much cheaper option of not fixing the climate problem at all. Nuclear will gain some real support when our LNP conservatives finally get some courage and stops surrendering to climate cowardice – cowardice in not taking the extraordinarily serious expert advice seriously, cowardice in avoidance of dealing with the problem face on, cowardice in not defending hardworking Australian (and international) professional scientists and the institutions they work within against relentless slanders, cowardice in preferring convenient lies over inconvenient truths, cowardice in caving in to powerful interests and economic alarmist fear. Even with that support I suspect it is too late for nuclear; it rather than renewables is likely to be the niche energy technology. Renewable energy will have it’s day in the sun and only an enduring failure of storage technologies to thrive will give nuclear another open window.

  10. Robert Merkel
    December 5th, 2016 at 07:02 | #10

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s certain that countries would continue to use their ad hoc arrangements for waste storage if a repository became available in Australia.

    However, storing foreign radioactive waste in South Australia is almost certainly political suicide for any government that tries it, and I’m amazed SA Labor is persisting with it.

  11. Charlene MacDonald
    December 6th, 2016 at 22:14 | #11

    ..and I’m amazed SA Labor is persisting with it.

    Because the SA govt is clean out of money. Simplistic statement I know, but the matter pretty much is that simple.

  12. Ernestine Gross
    December 8th, 2016 at 17:13 | #12

    Since the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan seems to have a huge nuclear waste storage problem.

    What exactly does the word ‘nuclear waste’ include? Does it include radioactive (contaminated) water and soil?

    The transport of nuclear waste, however defined, by road, rail, on water surely entails a risk of a nuclear waste transport accident.

    If, as has been suggested, the SA government is out of money, then where would the funds for the construction of a so-called waste dump facility from?

    Does the idea per se make economic sense? It seems to me the answer depends on who is asked. I wouldn’t want to know the answer from one or any of the big (multinational) accounting firms who have been engaged by various governments at great cost to tax payers.

    PS: I apologise in advance for broken sentences. I have bought a Lenovo lap top without checking the key board. The place where my fingers expect to find the right hand shift key is occupied by a page up key – perhaps it is a sign that the two finger typing system is now the standard one.

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