It has been a busy start to the year, however I am always happy to assist my friend Fed Bernal of OETEC in Argentina. This piece will be translated into Spanish and published by OETEC soon.
Towards the turn of last century, the High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) was beginning to show its age. For Australia to continue into the future with nuclear research activities and the production of vital medicine, a new reactor was needed.
Australia, home of such physics pioneers as Oliphant and Bragg, had early, longstanding involvement with nuclear science and technology. Yet it had never developed nuclear power reactors. With no nationalised nuclear technology provider, the job of building Australia’s new reactor went to global tender. Four pre-qualified providers were to tender with Australian companies; from Germany, France and Canada along with what many considered to be a rank outsider… Argentine company INVAP.
As the story goes, the major players didn’t seem to be taking Australia’s needs very seriously. Proposed designs were variously outdated, unimaginative iterations of existing reactors.
INVAP took a different route, working carefully from the ground up to tailor a reactor in response to Australia’s needs. The technical assessment team were highly impressed and put forward a clear recommendation that they be awarded the tender.
To the last minute, the technical assessors did not believe that the Australian Minister would accept a recommendation to steer away from the more traditionally favoured nations. As the story goes, when the Minister awarded in favour of INVAP, the Australian assessors applauded.
Fast forward to 2015 and the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor is well-recognised as among the very best research reactors worldwide. With world-leading availability, OPAL provides medicine for Australian hospitals and export, high-grade silicon doping, and neutron beams for thirteen scientific instruments. The production of nuclear medicine from OPAL will shortly be tripled to meet burgeoning demand in the Asia-Pacific region.
It is clear that in the global nuclear technology industry, Argentina has a strong role to play, so it is with pleasure that I welcome the full commissioning of the Atucha II Nuclear Plant. This, along with recent landmark agreements with China for five new nuclear reactors, technology sharing, and potential on-selling to other global markets signals what will hopefully be an exciting and empowering phase of growth, development and stability for Australia’s great friend in South America.
The parallel yet divergent paths of our two nations over the past hundred years have been the subject of much scholarship. Our large, frontier, new world nations in the southern hemisphere seemed to have the world at their respective feet in the early 20th century. Yet while Australia prospered under strong institutions, Argentina languished, falling into a prolonged period of conflict and instability. Now, the economic gap is stark.
Yet this can change. Hopefully it will do so rapidly as Argentina seeks to regain and sustain economic stability. Growth in the nuclear sector serves as a wonderful harbinger of such change. But any economic or environmental historian will know that as the income gap closes, so too will the energy gap. While every Argentine deserves to enjoy the prosperity that comes with more electricity consumption, production of electricity is one area in which Australia must not serve as a model. At this time, Australian emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity are nearly three times that of Argentina. The dark side of Australian prosperity is a grievous crime against our shared climate.
Nuclear technology offers Argentina a path to energy security and prosperity that is clean, safe, and future-proof as the world moves to stronger action on climate change. As Australian conservation scientists Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw recently established, the compact nature of nuclear power could also prove a saviour of South American biodiversity. Should proposed hydro-electricity developments across South America come to fruition the result will be massive further loss and fragmentation of vital habitat. It does not need to be so. We can split atoms instead of splitting ecosystems.
To do this at a meaningful scale, nations need to cooperate with nations. The sovereign nature of nuclear power must be broken down in favour of greater sharing of knowledge and technology in the pursuit of greater outcomes. Nuclear prowess is no longer a proxy for international prestige. It is a product, a commodity that must be efficiently traded so that growth can be clean and development can succeed. One need look no further than the OPAL reactor to see that when the right customer can find the right supplier, with the minimum of political interference, great things can happen.
In South Australia, a Royal Commission has just been launched to investigate the potential for further developments in the nuclear fuel cycle. Australia may yet embrace nuclear power technology and if it does? It will be a customer looking for the right supplier, one that can deliver reactors to suit our needs, on time and on budget. We could also benefit from learning from a nation that has recovered and re-built their standing in nuclear technology.
Who knows? Perhaps the story of Australia and Argentina does not just belong in history, but also in the future.