Nuclear power in Australia

I’ve decided to make a submission to the South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. I can’t actually submit until I find a JP or similar to witness it. This is a minor inconvenience for me, but may be a big problem for plenty of interested groups (for example, indigenous people). On the upside, I have time to ask for comments, and maybe make changes in response. This thread will be open to discussion of any issues related to nuclear power. However, in the event of lengthy two-person debates emerging, I’d ask the parties to move to the sandpits and leave room for everyone else.

South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle; Submission

My submission is addressed to question 3.2:

Are there commercial reactor technologies (or emerging technologies which may be commercially available in the next two decades) that can be installed and connected to the NEM?

My response to this question is in two parts
1. The only plausible contender is the Westinghouse AP-1000, along with possible modifications of this design.
2. Even for this design there is no prospect of deployment in Australia before 2040.

On point 1, given the requirement for safety standards appropriate to a developed country, it is necessary to rule out obsolete Generation II and (early) Generation III designs, along with reactors from middle-income and less developed countries with inadequate safety standards, notably Russian and China. Hence, attention should be confined to Generation III+ designs from advanced industrial countries, most notably those in North America, Western Europe and Japan.
Furthermore, any design should have a substantial record of safe and economical operation. As a country with no experience in the operation and management of nuclear power, Australia should not consider adopting ‘leading edge’ or ‘first of a kind’ designs, where the risk of failure is impossible to estimate, but has historically been high.

A minimal requirement would be 100 reactor years of operation. It should be noted that a track record of 100 reactor years provides only limited evidence on risks of failure. A risk of catastrophic failure once every 100 reactor years might seem small. But if Australia were to construct 10 reactors (the probable minimum to achieve industry-wide scale economies) with a standard operating life of 40 years, the mean number of catastrophic failures would be four. Hence, a requirement for a track record of only 100 reactor years of operation is very generous.

There is currently no Generation III+ design satisfying even these minimal conditions. However, on current (considerably delayed) plans there should be eight AP1000 reactors operating by 2020 or 2021. If these are completed as projected, there is the prospect of further deployment in the 2020s, so that the required experience would be realised sometime after 2030.
There is no serious prospect of any of the competing Gen III+ designs from developed countries being constructed in sufficient quantities to achieve 100 reactor years of operation in a relevant time frame. The most relevant contenders are the EPR (three reactors currently under construction or proposed) and Candu reactors (no reactors currently under construction or proposed)

Suggestions that more advanced designs (including Gen IV reactors, small modular reactors, fusion reactors, and thorium-based reactors), might be available within a relevant time-frame are fanciful. These designs have so far not implemented even in prototype form. I have developed this point further

On point 2, I append an article published in Inside Story. This shows that, even if Australia could match the construction rates observed in the US, the time necessary to up a regulatory infrastructure and undertake greenfield site selection would delay the commencement of generation until at least 2040. Since the publication of this article, further construction delays have been announced for both US and Chinese AP1000 projects. On the basis of more recent US experience, even a 2040 startup date for Australia appears highly optimistic.

Here is a timeline which would be consistent with such a startup date. It may be observed that every stage in the process employs highly optimistic assumptions. For example, five years is allowed for a process running from initial site selection to the commencement of construction work. Projects far less complex and controversial than nuclear power plants routinely encounter delays longer than this. Similarly, a ten-year timeframe for construction would represent a substantial improvement on recent projects in the US and Europe.

May 2016: Royal Commission reports favourably on nuclear power
2017: SA government adopts pro-nuclear policy
2017-2020: Australia wide debate leads to majority support for nuclear power, and election of a Commonwealth Parliament willing to support nuclear power
2021-2023: Develop and legislate framework for nuclear power, create and staff nuclear regulatory agency, develop regulations covering safety, site selection, accident evacuation policy, waste disposal etc
2024-2030 License designs including safety standards etc. Receive proposals for construction
2026-2030 (in parallel) Select sites for up to 10 reactors, hold public hearings, issue and review environmental impact statements. Overcome local opposition and develop sites
2030-2040 Construct plants, undertake testing, connect to grid.

44 thoughts on “Nuclear power in Australia

  1. I know fusion is a long way off, but in the long term I think it will have the lowest impact on the environment of any means of power generation. But of course we do have to do something else in the mean time.

  2. Megan :
    What is the – currently available and in use – best nuclear waste solution?

    Dealing with the cost of waste is necessary to determine what “commercially available” means.

    Dealing with the requirement for commercial insurance in the case of accidents also needs to be included.

  3. @Ivor

    I’m not talking about cost (Australia has spent about $30 million to have France “re-process” a few tonnes of nuclear waste).

    I mean “best” as in highest guarantee of safety throughout the life of the waste.

  4. Currently new nuclear cannot compete with already built coal on cost. Loy Yang brown coal plant can sell electricity on the NEM apparently at a profit for $32 a Mwh. If BREE’s energy technology assessments are correct then gigawatt scale light water nuclear will cost around $125 per Mwh. That’s if built by 2020 which is unachievable. However new supercritical (high temp) black coal will cost $100 that’s without any CO2 penalties. All of Australia’s coal fired power stations will need to be replaced by 2040. Subcritical coal can be ruled out and baseload gas will be priced too high for new plant.

    The market regulator AEMO says the eastern states (NEM grid) can safely cut total generating capacity from about 48 GW to 38 GW. Some coal does not need to be replaced but they suggest more gas peaking plant. The electricity sector accounts for about 184 Mt out of 536 Mt net CO2e national emissions. However if we go large on electric cars and gas replacement we’ll need even more low carbon electricity. With nuclear we could make drastic emissions cuts but power prices will increase which they will do anyway.

  5. BilB – there’s next to zero chance of nuclear gaining the necessary political and community support, but without the past couple of decades of dedicated mainstream climate science denial it would be in a better position. I have my own misgiving about nuclear, especially the massive expansion into nations where regulatory safeguards would be almost entirely imposed and policed from outside. Yet more permanent paternalism from the Imperial – or more like Hegemonic – industrial powers.

    Meanwhile here in Oz, the politics and advocacy of nuclear is thoroughly intermixed with climate science denial and anti-environmentalism, but is so desperate for support that the leading advocates prefer to turn a blind eye to it. Julie Bishop, who has written diatribes against the evil eco-fascists who undermine the freedom to promote climate science denial just has to make the slightest positive remark about nuclear to be used as it’s poster girl (on theconversation.com). She is more coy than most on what she really thinks and her op eds in support of climate science denial may have been a requirement of Abbott’s, to lay cards on the table and show she is onside.

    Most Australians are most likely to hear claims that we must use nuclear to fix the climate problem from people who refuse to admit there is a serious climate problem and generally recieve no criticism from leading advocates for the dissonance – more likely they’ll be warmly praised – and if that isn’t a problem for nuclear-for-climate’s credibility I don’t know what is. Sure, the green left has it’s less than rational baggage too, but they have only appeared to stand so tall because everyone else has been keeping their heads down. It has never been up to the fringe to fix this and blaming it for the mainstreams failures is pure expediency. It’s always been up to mainstream politics.

  6. @Megan

    I assumed that the as the terms of reference used the phrase “commercial”, that this excluded issues such as “best” except in terms of cost.

    The whole point of nuclear is that it can be presented as commercially “best” even though it is socially “worst”.

    In general, under capitalism you only get commercial outcomes, not socially best alternatives.

    Right wing Greens sometimes peddle nuclear energy due to its attractive carbon-emission outcomes, similarly ignoring adverse social impacts.

    There is difficulty dealing with “best” issues. What is “best” for this generation may not be best for future generations.

    You cannot have “best” outcomes in one economy if there is free trade with other economies with cheap and nasty standards.

  7. This survey is interesting.

    Nuclear power in Australia: A comparative analysis of public opinion regarding climate change and the Fukushima disaster.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513009713

    However, I have reservations about how much broad public opinion and democracy control outcomes in our society. It seems in many cases that what oligarchic and corporate capital wants it gets. The situation in relation to nuclear power might well resolve itself in another way by the competition of capitals. The numbers in that arena indicate that solar power and wind power will out-compete nuclear power.

    The best thing we could do (within the current capitalist and mixed economy framework) would be to hold a federal inquiry into energy markets and negative externalities. The first goal of the inquiry would be to uncover all subsidies and all negative externalities so far as possible and to cost them. The next goal ought to be to recommend ways to remove all subsidies, to require all energy systems to pay fair negative externality costs, to require all energy systems to meet fair safety standards and to require all energy systems to consider all stakeholders in the nation (i.e. all people), not just the owners of capital. Within that framework, competition could determine outcomes.

  8. I have a personal policy of assiduously avoiding discussions of nuclear energy as parsimony is inevitably a conspicuously absent parameter. Usually this is on the proponent side, as can be seen in the disparagement of the need for risk assessment, but I’m fascinated to see that John seems to have eschewed it too, on the very same point…

    100 reactor years might seem like a generous quantum with which to determine risk, but does it not presume that the risk of failure of the reactors is consistent across their entire lives of operation? I’d suggest that in the real world the actions of neutrons, oxygen and corrosive anions, and the sequelæ of mechanical stress compound the risk of failure over time. If this is the case then increasing the number of reactors in order to garner 100 reactor years of information is not nearly as defensible as increasing the average time for which a set number of reactors has operated.

    Over time it is inevitable that Rumsfeld’s observation about known unknowns and unknown unknowns will kick in, and as the history of aviation shows there are manifold ways in which small gremlins can result in catastrophic failure.

  9. @ Bernard J.

    Here,here. Perhaps John could provide both the sites for his reactors as well as the regions he’s prepared to sacrifice to wasteland when a reactor melts down.

    The human race has moved past the period when a nuclear industry could be started in Aus. The age of the engineer is over. The age of the MBA moron has arrived.

  10. George Monbiot at least sees positives in the Fukushima event
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/pro-nuclear-japan-fukushima
    Rough figures are tsunami and quake deaths 16,000, evacuation deaths 1,600, radiation deaths 0. The latter is for the period 2011-2015 but no statistically significant change is expected in Japanese cancers. In 2014 some 537 people were killed flying with one airline yet customers keep coming back. Seems to be different standards.

  11. I also don’t understand the 100 years thing. Are you saying that newer designs have a 1 in 100 year failure rate? This doesn’t seem to have ever been observed. Or are you saying that any design used in Australia should at least have been run for 100 operation-years elsewhere? If so then the design used at Fukushima should be good enough (there are 4 plants at Fukushima that ran 25 years + without failure). Given the absence of seismic risks in Australia, the failure rates here can be expected to be much lower than in e.g. Japan. In which case the risk assessment would surely put nuclear in Oz well above coal.

    I think your risk assessment figures here don’t make sense, even in a back-of-the-envelope standard.

    However, the idea of replacing coal with nuclear in a country with huge amounts of sun doesn’t make any sense …

  12. I don’t have the figures, but the following costs need to be considered:
    1. Waste processing and very very long term storage.
    2. Decommissioning.
    3. The effective government insurance against catastrophic failure.

  13. So who is going to accept the waste, who is going to cover the insurance costs and who is going to pay for the decommissioning of nuclear power plants at their end of life? – not me

    I do not see nuclear energy as a viable source of energy once you factor in the above. While the risk of accidents may be low, the simple fact is that they are catastrophic in their consequences – just ask the people of Japan and the Ukraine. When they are able to provide nuclear energy with a much lessor risk profile, eg through use of Thorium, maybe it will be worth considering but renewables can probably provide all the energy we require at zero risk.

  14. We wouldn’t need to have these endless nit-picky arguments about nuclear power if we set up the regulatory and market apparatus to deal with all energy generation on an equitable basis. Set the level playing field properly and all energy generation methods can compete on that playing field.

    Within the current mixed economy framework, we need to hold a Federal inquiry into energy markets, subsidies and negative externalities. The first goal of the inquiry would be to uncover all subsidies and all negative externalities so far as possible and to cost them. The next goal ought to be to recommend ways to remove all subsidies, to require all energy systems to pay fair negative externality costs, to require all energy systems to meet fair safety standards and to require all energy systems to consider all stakeholders in the nation (i.e. all people), not just the owners of capital. Within that framework, competition could then determine outcomes.

    Each energy sector would no doubt make submissions concerning what they regarded as the necessary regulations, subsidies (or lack thereof) and negative externality costs (or lack thereof). These no doubt would very clearly amount to ambit claims from each sector, a concept well understood in industrial relations negotiating. A panel of independent scientific and economic experts could then sift all these claims and also submissions coming from other sources (e.g. consumer groups) plus include other and technical considerations which they (the panel) consider that no interested party has raised but which still should be considered.

    In this way all extant views, claims and interests would be considered and then resolved by the independent expert panel. Clearly, the expert panel’s determination would go back to the parliament for democratic determination. This would be the logical, disinterested* and democratic way to proceed.

    *Note: “Disinterested” in this context does not mean uninterested. It means not swayed by particular or vested interests.

  15. Gee, John, as someone who has learned a lot from you about nuclear power and who is broadly sympathetic to your stance, I can’t think this submission is all that persuasive. In a nutshell it says we can only consider designs with a long operating record on the one hand, but only shiny new designs on the other. Won’t the intersection be an empty set – and come across as clearly designed to be?

    In fact it seems to me a good example of the thing pro-nuke people often complain about in their opponents – holding nukes to far higher standards than the alternatives. Not that SA in particular hasn’t better alternatives anyway.

  16. PrQ, I am sure you are on top of this but make sure your JP is an actual JP. I recall around 2005, JP’s were required to to pay an annual fee, but they were never told. So there were many ex JP’s who thought they were still JP’s.
    (UNE management decided they didn’t need to send around a memo to staff when alerted to the problem, even though they listed JP’s in the internal phone directory.)

  17. five years is allowed for a process running from initial site selection to the commencement of construction work

    The environmental impact study by Victorian Government on the dredging of Port Phillip Bay so that bigger cargo ships could come in took five years to complete. Every grain of sand, every molecule of water, that might or might not have been disturbed was given a thorough going over. Every possible objection, genuine or contrived, was given due consideration. This, for something as harmless as a bit of dredging, which had been done plenty of times in the past

    Five years for the process of building Australia’s first nuclear power plant? Are you kidding? It will take 20 years.

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