August 2015

A nuclear future for South Australia?

uranium mine
  • By Haydon Manning, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University

Examining South Australia’s role in the nuclear fuel discussion

About a decade ago, during the Labor government’s first term in office, South Australian Premier Mike Rann conjured a ‘radioactive hell’ when, with populist zeal, he opposed the Howard Government’s plans to locate the nation’s low and intermediate nuclear waste near Woomera in the State’s far north. Observing the rhetoric at the time I concluded there was no prospect of Labor ever moving much beyond supporting uranium mining.

Last year I was surprised to find a former Labor government minister set his politics and public policy parliamentary intern the task of investigating how the state might leverage new nuclear fuel cycle opportunities. While the Labor Party’s South Australian branch supports uranium mining, something not shared by other state branches, it has never shown any interest in nuclear power, or nuclear waste disposal. However, it appears that with the de-industrialisation of South Australia a profound rethink is underway.

With no hint of prior warning in March this year the premier, Jay Weatherill, announced a ‘Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’. The intent is to consider the viability of nuclear power, fuel fabrication and managing used nuclear fuel and international high-grade nuclear waste. When setting commissions of inquiry, governments set their terms of reference normally knowing broadly what they would like to see among the eventual recommendations. At least that is the case when it’s a major scoping type inquiry, as distinct from an inquiry into a policy or bureaucratic failure. The Royal Commission is certainly of the scoping type, with its task to undertake ‘an independent and comprehensive investigation into South Australia’s participation in four areas of activity that form part of the nuclear fuel cycle’. This brief is far broader than anything I expected. It appears to reflect a major shift in thinking within the Weatherill government and potentially puts his government on a collision course with federal Labor, where opposition to nuclear power is deep-rooted.

Ultimately the politics of the nuclear fuel cycle must be viewed as playing out against the backdrop of the parlous state of the SA economy, the lost hope that was the promise of the Olympic Dam expansion and the prospect of bipartisanship in the State’s Parliament. Arguably the most significant factor at play may be what is on offer from one or a number of foreign countries willing to finance, at no cost to the state, nuclear power and associated fuel recycling and fabrication, in return for the hosting of used nuclear fuel rods.

Overview of the Royal Commission’s terms of reference

The Commission is headed by former SA Governor Kevin Scarce and will present recommendations by May 2016 on four areas of the nuclear fuel cycle. In March the government allowed a week’s public consultation on the Royal Commission’s draft terms of reference and saw a number of amendments, most notably in relation to investigating the environmental impact of past nuclear experiences and the impact nuclear power generation, fuel fabrication and waste storage may have on other industries.

‘Issues Papers’ pertaining to each of the terms of references are published on Commission’s website www.nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/about-the-commission.

Briefly I highlight some key features of each and comment on how the investigation may play out.

1. Exploration, extraction and mining

The Commission will investigate the feasibility of expanding uranium exploration, mining and milling and weigh up risks and what regulatory measures might be required to facilitate any expansion. I may be missing something, but I suspect this is likely to be the least interesting part of the report and with no significant policy implications.

2. Further processing and manufacture

The focus here concerns investigating ‘value adding’ as it relates to non-military use. While enrichment will be considered, the key area lies with assessing the feasibility of ‘re-processing’ spent fuel. This opens avenues for inquiry into how Generation 4 reactor development may proceed. As with each term of reference the Commission must weight up ‘the risks and opportunities associated …[with] carrying out of processing or manufacture’.

3. Electricity generation

Weighing up the ‘the relative advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power compared with all other viable sources for power generation in South Australia’ is the most important aspect of the Commission’s investigation. The tension between renewable energy and nuclear power will be in focus as the Commission is required to ponder the likely ‘impact a reactor would have on renewable energy – and SA has the highest renewable contribution in the nation – on the electricity market’. The other significant task under this heading concerns the regulatory environment nuclear power would require.

4. Management, storage and disposal of waste

Since the late 1990s, when the international conglomerate ‘Pangea Resources Australia’ secretively lobbied the Howard Government on the issue of high grade waste disposal, this potential ‘economic bonanza’, has been bandied around. Former prime minister Bob Hawke is a strong advocate but the political reality is that, in the absence of a very substantial ‘pay-off’ for voters, this idea is simply a complex political suicide note for any party leader. The Commission is asked to research the ‘feasibility of establishing facilities in South Australia for the management, storage and disposal of nuclear and radioactive waste …[derived from ] power generation, industry, research and medicine (but not from military uses), the circumstances necessary for those facilities to be established and to be viable’.

Public submissions are called for, but interestingly require the signature of a Justice of the Peace prior to acceptance. The Commission’s expert panel toured nuclear facilities worldwide in late May early June and upon return the process of calling expert witnesses and interested organisations will begin. When the recommendations are formulated they must be mindful of the risks and benefits to the economy, environment, indigenous communities and community health and safety.

Politics in the ‘mendicant state’

Whenever I converse on matters political and economic with friends and colleagues in the Eastern states I am usually reminded that I dwell in a ‘mendicant state’. It’s hard to deny that South Australia’s narrow economic base, and steady de-industrialisation, makes it a poor fellow within the nation’s federation. Over the past year the decline of automotive manufacturing and chronic State Government budget deficits, which have seen two credit rating downgrades over the last four years, paint a grim picture. Accordingly, it is not uncommon to hear reference to SA’s ‘genteel decline’. This sentiment resonates more than ever in state politics in light of BHP Billiton’s decision in 2012 to postpone the Olympic Dam mine expansion. The mine was to be the biggest mine in the world and a boon for the ailing economy. For the life of the Labor government, first elected in 2002, the mine expansion was spruiked as the ‘holy-grail’ and its prospect lifted voters’ hopes. Labor was lucky to be returned in 2014 and, in my assessment, the Royal Commission’s purpose for the government lies with it offering big and bold agenda in the lead up to the next State election due in March 2018.

The Commission will report in May 2016, thereby leaving will plenty of time for Weatherill – and the Liberal Opposition – to develop a response. Bipartisanship is likely to define campaigning on this issue with, arguably, the Opposition presenting the case that they would manage the transition to a new industry better than Labor due to greater unanimity within Liberal Party ranks on nuclear issues. Weatherill will probably struggle to convince his federal Labor colleagues of any virtues relating to deepening engagement with the fuel cycle. I doubt senior federal Labor MPs such as deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and leadership aspirant Anthony Albanese will be won over given their decades long opposition to nuclear power.

The promise of ‘cheap electricity’

As I write in early June 2015 it appears that serious conversations are afoot whereby one or a number of nations are prepared to bankroll the construction of a Generation 4 nuclear reactor in return for our hosting their recyclable spent nuclear fuel and high level nuclear waste. As noted above political bipartisanship is evident with SA Liberal Opposition leader, Steven Marshall, supporting the Royal Commission. Significant also is the role South Australian Liberal Senator Sean Edwards has played conversing with foreign governments and now lobbying key Abbott Government ministers. Informal discussions with nuclear power states apparently indicate that consideration is being given to the proposition of a Generation 4 reactor being financed entirely by foreign government.

In April Senator Sean Edwards briefed a cross section of people with some expertise in the issues under investigation and it was in that context that I learned of the remarkable prospect of ‘free electricity’ delivered to South Australian consumers. Crudely put, the so-called ‘hip-pocket-nerve’ moves many voters so that the unthinkable – namely nuclear power in South Australia, and possibly within a decade – is now open for debate. The South Australian Conservation Council and the Australian Greens are, not surprisingly, unimpressed and will be very active protesting against any move to more fully engage with the fuel cycle. No doubt it will be a colourful debate but uniquely for such emotional issues the background setting will be the detailed research of a Royal Commission. I predict a testing time for those who argue with passion against all matters nuclear because, for the first time, the focus will be on tangible economic benefits and detailed justifications.

When it comes to the question of ‘what type of reactor’ I understand Senator Edwards will present in his submission to the Commission the case for the ‘Integral Fast Reactor’ (IFR) as the best Generation 4 reactor option and that General Electric-Hitachi has a design ready. One member of the Commission’s ‘Expert Advisory Committee’, Professor Barry Brook, is a keen advocate for the IFR, so it is likely this option will be fully investigated. The key advantage of the IFR concerns it being ‘saleable’ to the public as a ‘meltdown proof’ reactor. The best account I’ve read of the IFR’s virtues is found in Tom Blees book, Prescription for the Planet, and he details how the IFR is much more proliferation proof than previous generations of reactors. The IFR also addresses nuclear power’s Achilles heel, namely waste disposal, because it produces low volumes of waste and in terms of radioactive longevity the half life is 30 years compared with thousands of years with spent fuel from conventional reactors. This will not reassure those implacably opposed to nuclear power but it may well quell the skepticism of the vast majority of voters who are undecided on how to weigh up the risks and benefits of nuclear power.

One point that is highly saleable to the public concerns the IFR – and fast reactors in general – capacity to recycle the spent reactor fuel rods of six decades of nuclear power generation. The very word ‘recycle’ conjures positive imagery and when it can be demonstrated that this process also reduces the volume of waste and its radioactivity it is not too difficult to see, with bipartisan leadership, the critics disarmed. Senator Edwards began the narrative when he explained in his address to the Sydney Institute in March 2015 that ‘Conventional nuclear power can use around 0.6 per cent of the energy contained in mined uranium, wasting more than 99 per cent of the resource. IFRs can use almost all of the remainder. There is already enough so-called “waste” on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for many hundreds of years.’ I believe when this is better understood support will grow quite quickly in favour of nuclear power as it is offered by the IFR.

The IFR represents a significant breakthrough technology for tackling climate change. Not withstanding my ownership of shares in ASX listed renewable energy companies, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that many cities, and certainly all mega cities, simply cannot be powered by renewable energy, even when we project the most optimistic scenarios for advances in battery technology and grid management logistics. These cities with their growing middle classes (most of whom in coming decades will be driving electric cars) have massive base load electricity requirements. That vital service all governments must guarantee, namely, ‘energy security’ cannot be delivered by renewable energy technologies and to hope so is to delay addressing worldwide carbon emission reduction. To be sure, renewables will play a role, but it will only ever, in most instances, be marginal in relation to total electricity generation. The future nuclear energy advances lie in the realm of Generation 4 reactors, and the IFR in particular. Therefore, its demonstration in South Australia would represent a genuine contribution by a small state to the task of meeting IPCC objective of temperature rise no greater than 2° Celsius.

Conclusion – the environmentalist’s case for nuclear power

A fact always prone to cause considerable discomfort among anti-nuclear advocates is that many of the world’s leaning environmentalists such as James Lovelock, of Gaia thesis fame, Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace founder and George Monboit, the influential left wing commentator writing for The Guardian, favour nuclear power. Teaching environmental politics over the past decade I’ve observed a split emerge in the (admittedly amorphous) environmental movement. This sees the traditional environmentalists, who adhere to the ‘limits to growth’ paradigm and concomitant angst relating to human activity, most notably ‘consumerism’, pitted against a more optimistic environmentalism driven by evidence rather than ideology. This is best articulated in the recently published ‘eco-modernist manifesto’ (www.ecomodernism.org) or found with the provocative writing of environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellengberger in their essay Death of Environmentalism. They subsequently established ‘The Breakthrough Institute’ www.thebreakthrough.org/about and in recent years moved from an anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear position. In essence the eco-modernists support ‘big’ technology – large injections of government investment in R&D and a role for markets. At their core they are pragmatists who prefer evidence-based policy over the ideological encumbrances of the limits to growth approach. As such eco-modernism offers an epistemological justification for Generation 4 nuclear power, even placing it ‘on the moral high ground’ when framed within the context of climate change. South Australia may yet play a key role in the journey to wean economies off fossil fuels and along the way arrest its own genteel decline. 

Associate Professor Haydon Manning owns direct shares in two renewable energy listed companies and none in any companies associated with the nuclear fuel cycle.

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