Ben Heard

South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has recommended the state investigate an international storage site for intermediate and high-level (spent fuel) nuclear waste.

This coincides with the shortlisting of South Australia’s Barndioota Station as the federal government’s preferred site for storing domestic low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste.

Two years ago, Barry Brook and I argued that “nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush”. Based on the knowable hazard and established management techniques, we argued that storage and even disposal of radioactive materials does not demand the use of the remotest locations Australia has to offer.

Fast forward to today, and our nation, with its well-earned reputation for hypocritical antipathy to nuclear technology, is taking serious steps toward hosting used nuclear fuel from the global market.

So how is our “don’t avoid involving our cities” argument holding up?

As a member of the independent advisory panel assisting the federal government in the siting process for the domestic facility, I have learned a lot about how the waste challenge can both succeed and struggle with the tools available to us.

Getting community buy-in

For the domestic facility, committing to a voluntary process paid dividends, with an unexpectedly high 28 nominations from around the country.

So, lesson one: voluntary processes can work. Give people a no-obligation process and many will participate.

Lesson two: in a voluntary process you work with what is volunteered. I would have loved to explore locations closer to Australia’s capital cities, but none were volunteered, so the point was moot from the get-go.

In assessing these volunteered locations, experts on our panel could say with relatively certainty that nearly all nominated sites were “good enough”. Give or take some design and engineering, they could all work well.

Here lies a perverse problem: Australia is spoiled for choice in terms of technically good locations for such facilities. To distinguish between locations on physical characteristics inevitably favours flatter, drier, remoter locations.

This can have unintended consequences, as remote locations scream “danger” in a perfectly rational way to everyday Australians.

So lesson three: just because we can does not mean we must. The mere availability of somewhere more remote than another place may not make it materially better, even if it looks better in assessment.

So is Barndioota Station a good choice for detailed site assessment and deeper consultation?

In many respects, it is excellent. The location was volunteered by the landowner. It is, technically, outstandingly suitable even by Australian standards. While remote, it has reasonable accessibility.

There are no known cultural heritage issues* on the site itself and no native title claim.

The local government has expressed support for a more detailed assessment, as did a notable body of stakeholders in the nearest towns. There is flexibility in where the actual facility (just 100 hectares) could be placed within the very large station property.

Counting against, the traditional owners have expressed their wish for this site not to proceed. Some neighbouring landowners and community members have also expressed concerns.

That holds lesson four: in none of the long-listed locations was support from local stakeholders universal. We must maintain realistic expectations in that regard.

If this sounds like a broadly familiar situation, it is. Back in 2014 we wrote of the (failed) process to shortlist Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory for a nuclear waste site. We asked:

How have we ended up with a process that includes only one site, with that site in the middle of nowhere?

With no disrespect intended to Barndioota Station, we seem to be in roughly the same place today, even if the process that brought us to here was remarkably robust.

I’m feeling the irony. I don’t object to the Barndioota decision per se. However, I suspect that shortlisting only Barndioota may prove to be the catalyst for agitation based on perceptions of unfair imposition. It doesn’t need to end that way, although there is much work ahead.

Now for international waste

These lessons are crucially important if South Australia goes ahead with a higher-level, international waste site. The commission has proposed a storage site in two stages: a temporary above-ground site, before shifting to a permanent below-ground site over a period of 30 years.

A safe above-ground temporary facility for storing used fuel can go anywhere with suitable zoning.

If the whole state is to profit, then the whole state must be equitably involved in the responsibility. That may not suit an entirely voluntary process.

Keeping our cities involved may demand a more active hand from government in identifying and involving sites, based on the recent experience that wholly voluntary processes may not yield any near-city locations. As a resident of Adelaide, I would welcome an approach that actively included suitable sites near my city.

We also need to walk the talk in demonstrating the difference between hazard and danger.

An adult African lion is hazardous to humans. Yet three of them live in the centre of Adelaide, in our zoo. The hazard is there, yet instead of thinking “danger” we think “outing with the kids”. The difference is the engineered barriers, the operators of the zoo, and the trust we have in these barriers and institutions.

The storage of high-level nuclear waste should be no different. It too should be a site for education, visitation, science, research and development. It should be planned and presented as a part of the future industrial and cultural fabric of our state.

Should South Australia create such a facility I will honour this pledge: give me a crib, some power and an internet connection and I will live there, among the casks, for a week. Or a fortnight, if that will make the difference.

While good science necessarily deals in probabilities, safety is essentially a binary issue for everyday people: it is or it isn’t safe. I say it is, so I will do it.

Australia has moved remarkably quickly in the nuclear space to be now seriously examining a project of global significance, in part thanks to an embrace of innovative ideas and approaches. We mustn’t stop the innovation now.

Ben will be on hand for an author Q&A 5pm AEST Thursday May 12. Leave your questions in the comment field below.

The Conversation

Ben Heard, Doctoral student

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

*This statement refers to information currently available on government register and database. Further survey work will occur as part of the detailed site characterisation.

The feature image 

30 comments

  1. As for a HLW waste site I see no way local or foreign organisations will stump up the $41 bn suggested on Table 5.6 of the RC final report. However building an ILW site in central SA may smooth the long term path towards that.

    Ben recalling your appearance on SBS TV with the Muckaty people bursting into (antinuclear) song I note the similar language of the Flinders Range aborigines some 1,000 km away. You’d almost think it was co-ordinated. If Barndioota is a pastoral lease it’s not clear how aboriginal groups can veto it.

    I see from Google Earth that Barndioota is 150 km southeast of Olympic Dam but the other side of a salt lake. In my opinion the HLW site will have to be in the Woomera zone perhaps by modifying the decline tunnels at Challenger or Prominent Hill mines. They have restricted access, above ground facilities, elevated background radiation and holes already dug. Barndioota is kind of nearby in outback terms so I think it could be as good as anywhere.

    1. The TOs do not have a legal veto per se, if they did the `site would not have made it. They can express their wishes and have done so.

      Beyond that I don’t see fit to comment on motivations.

  2. Ben,
    This may be outside your expertise however I know of no expert to present the question. It is my thought that your expertise may include contacts that could provide an answer.
    Is it possible that a nuclear waste container could be ‘tapped’ of its energy while in storage by the installation of some type of radiation collector similar to current solar panels?
    In my mind (admittedly stuffed full of science fiction) nuclear radiation is similar to solar radiation. We can detect and measure nuclear radiation in a way that is not so different from the way we detect solar. There are probably scientists who can calculate the amount of energy stored in each container of ‘waste’. Therefore we should be able to ask the question, “Who would like to be paid to store a battery that makes the Eveready Bunny’s product look like a static spark, that will supply your home with 24/7 energy for ten or twenty years while you collect a solar tariff for excess energy sent to the grid?”
    My question may well be within the realm of science fiction however I believe science fiction is just science that we have not yet found the technology to harness. Men like Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov may well have been scientists instead of authors had they been alive today.
    Regards,
    David

    1. Yep, a bit beyond me. The residual heat is considerable but declining and not really of a useful grade, I don’t think. As to a battery from the emitted radition no, I don’t know.

      What I do know is that about 95% of the so called used fuel is recyclable, meaning we have about 19 times more electricity available from that material.

      That’s handy!

      1. From http://www.zwilag.ch/en/cask-storage-hall-_content—1–1054.html which outlines the well-established Swiss facility that is nestled quietly between a collection of villages:

        “The highly active waste emits heat. This heat must at all times be able to escape. The heat can always dissipate thanks to the natural circulation of air through openings in the side walls of the hall and in the roof. Initially, the heat output of a steel casks filled with high-level radioactive waste can amount to between 40 and 50 kilowatts. The heat output drops continuously and equals only around 25 to 30 kilowatts after ten years in interim storage. Given the current state of the technology, it is not yet possible to use this heat potential economically.”

  3. Good analogy with Adelaide lions!

    I volunteer to join you camping among the casks! Organise a relay??

    Good thought to have the whole set-up close enough to Adelaide for school excursions.

    The RC report made a good point in saying (62) “The disposal of low level and short-lived intermediate level waste need not rely on the technical characteristics of the site. There is no need for a perfect site; rather, a sufficient one. The emphasis is placed on a facility design that
    is engineered with sufficient barriers that, in combination, provide for long-term containment and isolation of radionuclides.”

  4. “Location, location, location…” brings back so many memories of innumerable late night public hearings, over 4 decades, in the breathtakingly remote corners of Humboldt County, California: (also known as Humboldt Nation, by our fiercely independent locals).

    Having somehow survived decades of those often contentious meetings, I can personally attest to the power of NIMBY, and wisdom of being ever vigilant in recommending development of anything new, in anyones “Back Yard,” anywhere, ever…

    Having discussed how to secure public support and navigate the regulatory process years ago with Kirk Sorensen, who wanted to develop Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors ASAP, everywhere, my advice at that time was:

    1. Design a prototype, based on the most promising, state-of-the-art technology,
    2. Form a Public/Private sector partnership, to promote and demonstrate the efficacy of this revolutionary prototype, in a way which makes the Moonwalk look like child’s play,
    3. Develop the prototype, on an existing nuclear power site, with as few “back yards” nearby, as possible (i.e. Diablo Valley Nuclear Power Plant in California),
    4. Invite the public to come see, touch, hear and witness the technology which can actually deliver clean air and water, sustainable communities, and prosperity for billions, forever…

    Basically, tap into the power of NIMBY, with the promise of replacing all fossil fuels, and dated nuclear power plants, with a new energy producing technology, which will stop the annual deaths of tens of millions globally, from energy poverty and air pollution.

  5. I look with envy at people in natural radiated spots in the world who lie in at times tunnels to receive radiation. It helps arthritis. It aids the immune system to fight the problem. Geothermal pools will do this, but even in New Zealand these are some distances away.
    As recently as yesterday I had 3 x-rays on a shoulder. I’m usually tired out after the 1 ½ hour I drive over a mountain to get there and back yet was quite frisky last night and feel good today.
    The Radiologists of course must protect themselves on a daily basis. That knowledge of getting just enough radiation, but not too much would surely reduce medical bills if such retreats could be developed in built up areas throughout a country. There are those places in the world where people in whole villages reach the age of 100 years where the surrounding rock radiates.
    It would be interesting for laypeople to understand the different levels of nuclear waste such as this.
    http://medicalphysicsweb.org/cws/article/research/60212 Mo-99

  6. Q for your A; could you elaborate on the expected materials for storage? Which are high-level & which are intermediate-level? What would be the expected decay rates over a century be?

    If there’s time, could you comment on Lovelock’s wish to store used fuel rods under his garden? Not so dissimilar from you sleeping amongst the fuel casks – except he’d get a warm home for several decades.

    1. So!

      Low level waste: in Australia’s case by volume this is mostly lightly irradiated soil. That’s pretty much all legacy material. New arisings of LLW are mostly medical and from production at ANSTO: lightly contaminated materials like gloves, aprons, etc.

      Intermediate level waste: We have the conditioned material that has been returned to us from France, which was part of the deal for them accepting used fuel from our reactor. It is in vitrified (glass) form. It is currently in a monolithic storage container at ANSTO: a bloody big cask. Just one. There will, sometime in future, be more. Ongoing arisings are mostly a liquid from the production of the medical isotope. This is to be mixed with an ANSTO-developed granule, put in isostatic press and turned into Synroc. There is a small amount, some cubic meters, per year.

      Used fuel, from multinational customers, is ceramic material, in fuel assemblies, which has been cooled in water and transferred to dry casks for intermidiate storage. The RC report suggests a facility for about 140,000 tons. In context, the world makes about 12,000 t per year.

      On the domestic front, the resources at this page are very good. http://radioactivewaste.gov.au/resources

  7. Ben

    My assumption is that people believe actions more than words.

    I’ll join you in the camp out, it will make a great excuse to visit your fine city. I’ll start saving for the trip now.

    A few weeks ago, I suggested that advanced reactors should be purposely built in some people’s backyards.

    http://atomicinsights.com/advanced-reactor-leaders-will-put-one-backyard/

    The Silicon Vally tech industry has a cliche about the importance of being willing to “eat your own dog food” and following through with that promise from the very first available batch. Nukes can shift the conversation in the right direction by adopting a similar communication and action plan.

    It needs to include more than just people like you and me; it should start at the top of each design team.

    1. Rod, I agree. This is what people remember. I’m dobbing on my fine editor at the site, however it was proposed to change the “binary” sentence back to something along the lines of “science says…”, a change I rejected. People largely can’t /won’t ken obtuse probability, just bloody tell me: is it safe? If it is…well, clearly, you get it.

      1. Unfortunately, your backyards are everyone’s backyards, when it comes to nuclear power…

        Undoing decades of horrible messaging by the Nuclear Power Industry will not be easy, and a public/private sector partnership is essential to building an advanced reactor prototype, in anyone’s backyard, anywhere.

        1. Kirk:

          There is every possibility that I am wrong, but I firmly believe that decades of horrible messaging can be sufficiently overcome with a few months to years worth of well planned, honest communication that includes communicating by actions as well as words.

          If nuclear plant designers and owners build facilities that they are happy to put in their own LITERAL backyards so that they can show them off to guests and explain their operation to their own children, enough members of the pubic will support the effort to enable it to be a success.

          We do not need unanimity. The biggest challenge I see with a public/private partnership arrangement is that it will inherently be too big and too complex with too many conflicting interests. In case you have forgotten, there are a lot of competitors in the energy industry that have no desire to compete against a well designed nuclear generator that can be built and operated with good efficiency and cost effectiveness.

          One of many reasons that I have been advocating smaller reactors since 1991 is that the early projects have to be simple enough to be affordable for a small group of devoted individuals that share a common interest in success.

          Rod Adams
          Publisher, Atomic Insights

  8. I hope Barndioota gets moving soon. I see there is to be a referendum about foreign high level waste in 2018. If the answer is ‘Yes’ does that mean SA has to find the $41 bn? In the meanwhile several other factors will be in play
    – the Yorke Peninsula grid battery trial which I think will be inconclusive
    – the Pt Augusta solar thermal project confirming what we know from the US and Spain
    – moves to close large brown coal generators in Victoria
    – gas price increases.
    Interesting times.

  9. If SA is happy to rely 15% on Vic imports until 2030 my new thinking is to build twin AP1000s at either Hazelwood or Yallourn but replacing both. Note Toshiba coal plant at the latter. Those power plants are rated at 1600 and 1450 MW producing 16 and 11 Mt a year of CO2 respectively. Clearly both the owners (Engie, EnergyAustralia) are amenable to their replacement as is possibly the Vic govt with its recent brown coal royalty hike.

    Then later SA can get a smaller output CANDU, MSR or IFR with required add-ons to recycle that spent fuel. Build a cheap HLW site for discarded material to start the ball rolling then re-visit the idea of foreign waste. Frankly the proposal for a $1m Citizen’s Jury in 2018 to discuss foreign waste is a loser.

    1. John – Engie may be interested in replacing coal power plants, but they would most likely prefer to replace them with natural gas instead of new nuclear. Financial Times has an article today about Isabelle Kocher, the new CEO at the company. She made her preferences quite clear, especially for those who read closely and critically.

      I’m not sure why you think the the Citizen’s Jury is a loser. Perhaps it’s because you think it won’t happen until 2018 instead of its actual schedule of producing answers before the end of this year. Invitations for expressions of interest in participating have already been sent out.

      1. Rod 2018 is for a referendum to coincide with a state election admittedly not the Citizen Jury.
        http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/opinion/daniel-wills-voters-nuclear-reaction-can-avoid-meltdowns-in-future/news-story/fae428aedd70a823c06302bf15b92289
        On other forums critics are asking why have a Royal Commission if the main recommendation is not accepted. I think the Citizen Jury has to consider the possibility of the public paying higher taxes for several years to get the facility up and running. If other finance is available even conditionally it should be announced beforehand. Japan, Taiwan, whoever.. please speak up.

        SA’s electricity mix will be about 40% wind and solar, 15% east coast imports dominated by brown coal and 45% gas. The federal regulator has a graph predicting eastern gas supply p3
        http://www.aemo.com.au/About-the-Industry/Resources/Industry-Newsletter-Energy-Update
        so SA needing 45% gas makes it vulnerable. Australia’s emissions are increasing 1-2% a year since the repeal of carbon tax. Coal was 72% in 2014 now it’s 76%. That’s why I think nuclear electricity should come first (somewhere in southern or eastern Australia), then small scale reprocessing and/or waste facilities in SA then open up to the rest of the world once the public is reassured.

        SA should be the reprocessing state since they thought of the Royal Commission, had 7 A-bomb tests and have 25% of the world’s uranium.

        1. John

          The Royal Commission’s report clearly lays out a pragmatic approach that starts with storing used fuel as a much quicker revenue generating proposition than building any kind of nuclear plant. Starting today, there is little to no likelihood that a pair of AP1000s could be completed in Australia before 2030. Until they’re completed, there is no source of revenue, so the $10-$20 billion project would have to be completely financed with a combination of debt and equity.

          There is an immediate need for used fuel storage. Even though the facility does not exist, once there is a firm commitment to accept it as long as financing can be arranged customers can sign long term contracts that can be used as collateral for the facility finance. Enough surface storage facilities have been completed around the world to be able to know, with reasonable precision, what the facility will cost and how much customers will need to pay to make it a profitable venture.

          Curing the constipation that has afflicted the world’s nuclear industry for the past 40 years will be hugely beneficial to SA’s uranium mining businesses. The income generated from storage and mining can help to pay for nuclear plants that will be much easier to build once there are more projects in progress around the world.

          Successful journeys happen with positive steps taken once a reasonably good plan has been developed. You can’t reach a destination if you never begin, but you also cannot reach it if you start going in a dead end direction and run out of resources before you find your way back to the starting point.

          1. On the money side Westinghouse-Toshiba visited Adelaide and said their quote for twin AP1000s with ‘high local content’ was $A17.5 bn for 2214 MWe if I recall. Too big for a town with 870 MW max interconnection, In contrast Victoria’s brown coal capacity is said to be about 7300 MW and was described last week as the backbone of Australia’s electricity system but it averages over 1300 grams of CO2 per kwh. In contrast the Royal Commission final report Table 5.6 says that initial outlay for a high level storage facility is $41.02 bn. Also by way of contrast the diesel submarines to be built in Adelaide and France are said to cost $50 bn.

  10. In the year 2000,I attended a two day conference held in the Napier building at the University of Adelaide. Ian Hore-Lacy was present as was a Dr. ?Crombie and Mr Marcus Kurzeme.representing Pangea Resources if I remember correctly We were discussing the possible development of a low-med waste dump on Arcoona station near Woomera. I was one of about six pro nuclear people present out of the two hundred present. We had all of the usual anti nuclear garbage from Caldicott,, Jean Mc Sorely from the UK, and others includiung a local spokesperson who as Ian Hore- Lacy noted said something that made common sense sound like something sinister. Mike Rann put paid to any idea of the waste dump a bit later and everyone went away and have remained asleep until now. The Barndioota site is probably the wrong place for the low-med dump. It should be located on Arcoona as first discussed. However, with the Scarce Royal Commission findings recommending development of a high level waste repository in SA it would be sensible if all of you bloggers considered the following.
    1. The IAEA has been trying to get [unsuccessfully] a high level waste repository for at least 30 years.
    2. In the late 90’s, the IAEA engaged Pangea Resources to investigate the WA section of the Officer Basin because it was seen as the best of the four suitable sites the IAEA had identified in its world wide search. One of the site requirements was that there be no resource conflicts. There would be only nuclear waste at this site. No farming, no mining, no nothing. To placate the anti nuclear brigade it would seem sensible to ensure that any site we develop should meet that requirement.
    3My late brother was consulting geologist for Pangea. He had spent 8 years mapping and writing the geology of the SA section of the OB about a decade beore the IAEA investigation.. It is without doubt, the best site on the planet for high level waste.disposal.
    4. The only people living near the possible site are the Aboriginal community at Oak Valley. I know that Kevin Scarce visited Oak Valley quite early in his Royal Commission meanderings.
    5. It’s obvious to me that the Officer Basin site should be chosen for the development of an international high level waste repository and probably along the lines of what they are doing in Sweden. The advantage for us in SA is that our OB rocks are sedimentary while those of Sweden are igneous/metamorpohic. Ours are easier to work than Swedens.
    I have ben advocating nuclear power for Australia since 1998, having converted anti to pro nuke in 1981 while on teacher exchange in Canada. I’m not a scientist nor an academic just a lay person who has gone to hell of a lot of trouble to find out the truth about the nuclear industry. I claim a better knowledge of it than most Australians. Should any of you bloggers be interested, please log on to http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor,bring up past programmes and check the transcripts for Sept 4th 2011, Jan 15th 2012′, March 10th 2013 and Feb 9th 2014. I believe that the four together make a pretty good case for nuclear power for Australia. But be warned, I admit to being a global warming [Climate Change] skeptic [Shame Horror Shock] in the first of the four talks [Sept 2011]

  11. Had to check that the vitrified material returned from France was regarded as intermediate level waste not high level
    http://www.ansto.gov.au/NuclearFacts/Managingwaste/Returnofwaste/Frequentlyaskedquestions/index.htm
    That presumably means if Barndioota SA goes ahead the canisters will be taken from the shed at Lucas Heights NSW and stored out there. Under cover?

    If those hot tamales are seen to cause no harm that might soften public opinion. That’s consistent with my view you can’t hit the public with a major ‘take it or leave it’ decision early on. Barndioota is a necessary stepping stone to bigger things so hopefully it will go smoothly.

  12. The prediction is for SA baseload (now mainly gas fired) to nudge $100 per Mwh by 2018.
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/business/sa-to-assess-new-interconnector-battery-power-options/news-story/b554629cf29dca81350b5898a691cbca
    No numbers yet on the amount of battery storage or whether the interconnection boost is additional to that already planned. A couple of years ago the Australian Energy Technology Assessment (AETA) report suggested large nuclear could have an LCOE as low as $100 per Mwh. Add carbon pricing to gas fired electricity (say 0.45tCO2 X $24) and nuclear works out cheaper.

    The link says the interconnection is vital to maintaining SA voltage and frequency. What happens when 1970s built east coast baseload needs replacing?

  13. Aboriginal groups are confident they can get the federal resources minister to cancel an intermediate level nuclear waste facility at Barndioota.
    http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/05/25/traditional-owners-call-resources-minister-halt-nuclear-waste-dump
    Victoria’s 1.6 GW Hazelwood brown coal fired power station could be looking for a new owner.
    http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/may/26/hazelwood-power-station-may-be-closed-or-sold-off-french-owner-says
    If closed it could mean other coal stations will have to work at higher capacity or burn $7/GJ gas. A recent article said Hazelwood emitted 1490 grams of CO2 per kwhe. Currently it must be a key contributer to SA’s 15% coal power imports.

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