NEW PAPER: How Australia and Asia can benefit from reinventing used nuclear fuel management

This paper was released by Australian Science Media Centre yesterday and has caused an immediate stir. As Wiley and Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies are yet to provide a download, I will host it here for now. It is creative commons licence so please share!

Update: the official version and supplementary material now available for download. Click here!

The paper is leading the South Australian print media today and I am doing several morning news bulletins to discuss this.

This tells us a couple of things.

People want inspiration and exciting ideas! I think many South Australians feel short-changed that we have been told, so very early in this process, that such innovative ideas are off the table. There is no reason they should be, none, particularly in a state that is now starved of reliable clean energy. There are many ways to provide a service to the global community. This latest round of double-blind peer review reaffirms that the pathway we have proposed is valid for consideration and should remain part of discussions.

I don’t regard this paper as a win-lose competition of ideas with the repository-focused project proposed by the Royal Commission. Both concepts share a great deal: acknowledgement of a large global need for service and beginning that service with secure above-ground storage. We have proceeded to explore a pathway the Royal Commission left unexplored, a decision I regard as highly premature.

Both pathways involves challenges and uncertainties and both pathways (and some more besides) should be on the table at this early stage as we simply try to define the right service to provide to the global community, and work with global partners to enact such services.

I happen to think some of the enthusiastic pick up of this article from media (there was no release, just the normal science media notifications) comes down to a palpable frustration among South Australians: stop telling us we can’t. Stop telling us we musn’t. Stop telling us to think small. Stop telling us it’s too hard. Stop trying to frighten us and start trying to inspire us.

Enjoy the paper.

We finished on a high, and 2017 will be huge!

Hi there! We hope you have enjoyed watching the beginning of Bright New World!

We have had an immediate and major impact on one of the most important environmental fronts in the world right now: the prospect for international cooperation in managing used nuclear fuel to be based in South Australia.

We arrived publicly in mid-November as support for moving forward on this was precariously poised. Together with other stakeholders we immediately activated support in the community and media and played a clear role in preserving a way forward for these discussions.

Bright New World presented a compelling case for “why” at the international Waste Management Symposia in Adelaide on 15 November and the conference report is available for download here.

We had our first community event at Science in the Pub to a nice rowdy crowd of 100 Adelaideans! As one of three speakers with the “controversial” topic, I took plenty of fire, and then was swamped with interest right afterward!

Then in December, Bright New World coordinated an open letter signed by high-impact South Australians, calling for sensible consideration of the nuclear opportunity to continue. In just nine days from concept to publication in South Australia’s highest circulation newspaper, twenty-two of some of the best known names in South Australian business, science, academia and politics joined our call. But even better… since then it has grown to 31, as more and more of South Australia’s biggest contributors embrace the opportunity to support a sensible path forward. You can read the open letter and the full list of signatories at our home page. The letter is doing its job, and you have not heard the last of it.

Today, I was interviewed on 5AA radio about our organisation, how we view the state of play currently, why we think we should proceed, and what we will be doing about it next. You can here the interview here!

In little more than a month, we have a burgeoning community of financial members and supporters! If you enjoy our newsletter and believe in what we do, we have made it super-easy to join the effort! Our “Spark” supporter subscription is just $5 per month. As well as a little financial support, when we get a new supporter you lend us your name and your voice and we know we are one person stronger! You can sign up here!

We have been inspired by the hard work and success of our friends in other nations. We know that 2017 is going to be an amazing and exciting year. You can know that Bright New World will be working smarter and harder at every turn to deliver the outcomes we know we need for the world and its people.

On behalf of myself and the board of Bright New World, we wish everyone a restful and peaceful holiday period and a great start to the new year. See you in 2017!

Ben

Interview with Matt Pantellis, 5AA

Today, Bright New World was interviewed on 5AA radio to discuss the current state of affairs regarding the possibility of developing a service in used nuclear fuel management.

Here is the interview!

Thank you, farewell…and welcome to a Bright New World

Dear readers,

It is with mixed feelings but overwhelmingly with excitement that I bring the blog Decarbonise SA to a close. Why stop now? It’s a good question.

Jury votes down progress on nuclear fuel cycle…with a stinging minority report

The South Australian Citizen’s Jury considering the question of further engagement in the nuclear fuel cycle handed a report to the Premier yesterday citing a 2/3 majority “No” vote on the specific question:

Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?

Two-thirds of those assembled indicated that under no circumstances would they agree to proceed in pursuing this opportunity.

The report can be found at this link. Be warned, it’s a difficult read, however before criticising, please appreciate this was put together from a group in extremely time-constrained circumstances.

From my first review of this report the rejection of the concept appears to be based almost entirely on two core issues:

False revelations, manufactured outrage: the timing tells the story

This post is co-authored with Dr Oscar Archer of The Actinide Age

Mark Parnell MLC  has engaged in what appears to be openly deceptive conduct, attempting a last-minute derailing of the nuclear Citizen’s Jury by claiming fresh “revelations” of conflict of interest- when Hansard records prove he received this information over three months ago.

Yesterday, radio show AM Adelaide ran a story alleging a conflict of interest relating to the economic study commissioned by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, specifically that two of the seven authors are connected to a non-profit organisation called Arius.

This led to the demand by Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) Mark Parnell (Greens) that the Citizen’s Jury considering these matters be halted just two days before the jury is due to report to the State Government, and that everything that has occurred to date is now “tainted” . Parnell stated:

Revelations on ABC Radio’s AM program this morning show that the consultants engaged by Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce, to advise on the viability of a nuclear waste dump, included both the President and Vice-President of ARIUS – the Association for Regional & International Underground Storage – a nuclear industry lobby group promoting nuclear waste dumps.

These “revelations”, however, are nothing of the sort. The connection between MCM and Arius was raised by ABC News on 26 July of this year. The issue was then raised, face-to-face to Mark Parnell MLC the very next day during a hearing the Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Royal Commission, as captured in the official Hansard transcript. The authorship of the report itself has been in the public domain for over eight months. 

“We must be a full-service provider to the nuclear back-end”

This morning I addressed the South Australian Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. I was invited to discuss specifically the influence new technology may play on the proposal for South Australia to manage used nuclear fuel. I provided prepared remarks and then took questions. My prepared remarks are below.

Thank you for receiving me here today.

In my submission to this joint committee, I highlighted that the Royal Commission has taken a conservative approach with regard to the role of new technology.

Today I will explain this point further and describe some of the characteristics that I believe would represent a more balanced position to take forward for the further investigations, the development of policies, and the eventual offering of a commercial service.

Firstly, to be clear, I consider the overall findings of the Royal Commission to be robust. I consider the project that has been proposed by the Royal Commission to be well conceived, and the studies underpinning that project to be valuable information.

Were that currently tabled project to proceed I have absolute confidence that it would be safe in the immediate, short and long term. I am confident that such a project would be profitable, while acknowledging, as does the assessment by Jacobs MCM, that this is early-stage analysis.

The point I wish to raise here today is that while all of the above is true, this only represents one possible project, one possible pathway, within a narrow range of assumptions.

The options for detailed investigation were constrained to only consider direct disposal of used fuel in geological repository.

Such a service may well turn out to be the right service. Such a project may well turn out to be the right project. However at this stage it is too early for South Australia to be constraining its thinking in this regard.

Based on this constraint imposed on the investigations to date, we now have a single-track of conversation relating to the probable use of remote lands for disposal. This presents a difficult task of consent.

Our options are actually much broader. We have the chance to offer a range of services with lesser imposition, that is both seen and felt to be more just and equitable including, and not only, for traditional owners of the land.

What the Royal Commission has identified, as has my own research, is that there is a strong global need for service in the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. As such, a commercial opportunity exists. This simple concept is virtually beyond question.

In responding to that opportunity, South Australia should not only consider pathways to the establishment of an underground repository. We should be considering pathways to be an active, flexible, nimble, full-service provider at the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Various technologies offer different pathways for the material in question. At this time we don’t know precisely what the right combination of services will be and we cannot be certain how that market will evolve over the course of this project life. We should not feel threatened by that uncertainty, we should respond to it by positioning ourselves wisely to manage risk and capitalise on opportunity.

We can be confident of two fundamentals in providing service to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle:

  1. Better technologies and options will continue to move to commercialization
  2. The right combination of services is going to be a combination, not just one service.

What we therefore must do is create a foundation service and, from the outset, position ourselves intelligently across the range of options such that implementation of different services can occur.

In providing a holistic service, there are some things we can already say with a high-level of confidence.

The first is that commencing with the establishment of an above-ground cask holding facility is the right way to go. Delivering a range of services can stem from that facility and that initial service of approved transfer of custody, and the need here is very high. This provides the foundation.

The second is that eventually, some form of disposal is necessary. However the range of need here, and what happens between those two points, can vary. Pathways might include the following:

  1. Direct, 100 % disposal of all material (as currently tabled by Jacobs MCM)
  2. Rolling above ground storage paired with 100% recycling of material via power generation (as proposed by Senator Edwards with my assistance) and only disposal of short-lived material
  3. Storage and disposal paired with partial recycling focused on existing long-lived material in in advanced reactors (i.e. using the existing plutonium without any net creation of new fuel)
  4. Storage, recycling, fuel fabrication for export and use elsewhere, with disposal of existing fission products only

In order be a flexible service provider, one other piece of infrastructure becomes important, and that is a fuel recycling and fabrication plant, based on electro-chemical process known as pyroprocessing.

I hasten to point out that this is very different from the chemical processes known as aqueous reprocessing that are commercially mature and deployed elsewhere, notably in France. As recently as introductory questions from the Citizens Jury, I have noted that this important distinction remains unclear in the minds of both those involved directly in investigations and in the general public.

I hasten also to point out that, as made clear in the reference I am tabling today, this is known and understood science. The current stage of investigation and progress in pyroprocessing is detailed facility design at industrial scale with accurate costing, not scientific breakthroughs.

A pyroprocessing plant enables separation of the used fuel into three basic groups:

  1. The shorter-lived, highly radioactive fission products. This is generally regarded as waste and is perhaps 2 % of the used fuel rod
  2. The longer-lived and also radioactive plutonium and other actinides. This is known to be effective fuel material and is perhaps 3% of the used fuel rod
  3. The balance of uranium-238. This material scarcely radioactive. It can be turned into more fuel, but does not have to be. It can be disposed as low-level waste or simply stored for future use.

The availability of such a facility would enable South Australia to boost the range of services it can provide in the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. From an environmental and energy point of view, it would provide the massive benefit of a pathway to destroying long-lived material as reactor fuel, rather than disposing of it. It is my contention that this would substantially lighten the challenge of consent by moving toward a model of disposal of only short-lived or low-level material.

The type of reactors that might be best deployed in partnership with such a recycling facility is an open question and, again, the best solution may well turn out to be a range of reactors depending on our priorities and the national priorities of other nations.

The solid-fuel fast reactor profiled in the submission from Senator Edwards provides the ultimate full recycling of the entire contents of the fuel rod. It can progressively turn all of the uranium in to usable fuel and therefore extend the fuel resource by nearly 20 times. If the uranium from the enrichment process also enters that cycle, the resource is extended by around 150 times. That may be seen as a desirable outcome.

Today I table an announcement this week of a Memorandum of Understanding between General Electric Hitachi and South Nuclear Company to collaborate in studying the development and licensing of advanced reactors including GEH’s PRISM sodium-cooled fast reactor design, which provides the comprehensive recycling attributes I have just described.

A molten salt reactor would provide a simpler and more efficient pathway if the priority goal was getting rid of the existing long-lived material without any net increase in fuel material. With regard to this class of technology, I table a media release from September this year from Terrestrial Energy, notifying their invitation and intention to apply for a loan guarantee of between $800 million to $1.2 billion to support financing of a project to license, construct and commission the first US IMSR Advanced Nuclear power plant, a 190 MWe commercial facility. For the purposes of disclosure, I sit on the Environmental and Sustainability Advisory Board of Terrestrial Energy. This is an unpaid, non-executive position.

Those two reactor options could certainly co-exist, and they could also co-exist with a geological disposal facility. So while it may well turn out that a geological disposal facility is indeed required, being active in the development of these other pathways could well influence our decisions regarding:

  1. The best size of the geological facility
  2. The best location for the facility
  3. The right depth of the facility
  4. The right operational practices for the facility

Of these additional options, the recycling facility is relatively little additional investment, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and naturally provides outstanding skilled employment via the annual operations budgets. It also delivers very valuable product through those operations.

The reactors may well be very expensive, or they may not be too expensive. Either way, they too are not simply cost sink-holes for disposal: they would generate saleable electricity, at large scale, with high reliability and with important contributions to network stability through synchronous generation coupled to the network. Critically, these high-temperatures reactors can provide a vital part of the energy picture that is completely unaddressed by renewable technologies, which is reliable, high-grade industrial heat.

Or, we might choose no reactors in Australia. We might simply recycle and become suppliers for other nations. That too is an option.

In summary, while I endorse the work prepared to date, I ask this commission to acknowledge its limitations in breadth of scope. The study looked long and deep, it did not look wide. I believe that from a policy point of view, the right way forward is to proceed with further studies with an intent to provide a service. Those studies must include active engagement with key stakeholders in science and technology to ensure we position ourselves to

  1. Identify what the right service offering is
  2. Acknowledge that this may be a blend of offerings
  3. Acknowledge that this blend will likely evolve over the course of the project

Rather than fearing these technology developments as any kind of threat to the commercial opportunity, we must position ourselves to integrate them into the opportunity and make the opportunity itself more robust and future-proof.

Thank you for hearing these prepared remarks. I would be happy to now take your questions.

All dread and no promise, “Atomic” misses the mark

As I entered the theatre of Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, to view Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, the thought struck that my previous visit was also for a nuclear documentary. On that occasion, Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise offered the Adelaide audience an arch-contemporary environmental narrative of challenges and choices in a complex world, grounded in historical legacies but with a firm eye on the future. In Atomic, director Mark Cousins roots us in a narrow vein of terrifying history with seemingly little interest in granting a leave pass for critical thought.

Fortunately for Cousins, he achieves this with a mostly-beautifully composed montage of historical footage accompanied by a transcendent original soundtrack by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai. Truly, the music is the consistent champion of this film, with this viewer frequently lulled to hypnosis only to reawaken in appreciation. It is only a shame Atomic doesn’t provide a superior film in partnership.

Evidently crafted as a tribute and memorial to the events and victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Atomic provides a never-redundant reminder of the horrors of war and the particularly existential period of the cold war nuclear terror. Based on the incredible footage of warning video played to citizens of the day, it is clear that Gen X and beyond will never truly grasp how formative these experiences were for the post-war generation.

When Atomic brings us, as we know it must, to the graphic and horrible footage of the results of atomic explosions in Japan, this viewer felt torn. Who could not feel a sense of abhorrence at these acts? Committed as I am to context and critical thought, it was difficult to ignore that death and destruction in Japan was never contingent on atomic weapons. The fire-bombing of Tokyo is considered the single deadliest bombing raid in history. It incinerated 100,000 civilians. Yet awareness of that event is nothing like that of the nuclear attacks.  I had to ask myself why, and is this focus somehow reasonable or explainable?

I conclude it is a reasonable human response. World War 1 was the first great conflict of literature. When we combined the greatly expanded reach of the written word in this period with the newly mechanised destruction of mortar and machine gun, it seems humanity collective reached a point of pivot in our revulsion and fear of war and our awareness of our ability to kill each other in terrifyingly large numbers. The atomic attacks delivered that with the extra twist: one bomb. One plane. Maybe one decision maker. It was our next elevation, not in actual destruction, but in destructive potential. It changed the game. Being in a forgiving move, I forgave Atomic. It was not a WW2 docco, but a nuclear docco. Fair play.

Being entirely of historical footage it is striking that most of the nuclear conflict/testing/disarmament footage then seems to run dry around 1990. Given it is 2016 this is itself telling, surely, an important truth: the world has progressed and moved on from the most terrifying nuclear period. Certainly for this viewer, post the testing at Mururoa atoll, nuclear conflict and the threat thereof has been far from a defining experience. Notable conflicts have, if anything, been driven by an addiction to fossil fuels. While serious progress in disarmament has been irritatingly lacking, the world has clearly changed. It’s a major weakness of the film, in that it simply is not contemporary, giving the viewer nothing to contextualise nuclear conflict in 2016.

Most disappointing and surprising for me was that Atomic scarcely even attempted to broach the positive impacts of the nuclear power technology, biasing instead for a fascinating, beautiful and mostly doom-laden sequence of the Chernobyl accident. Cousins teases us with footage and dialogue from curiously resilient locals, seemingly even at the time determined not to abandon their home in the face of radiation and threat of expulsion or worse. These are characters Stone follows up on in Pandora’s Promise and it would not even surprise me to learn that the priest featured in the archival footage of Atomic was the same interviewed decades later in Pandora! Here the film simply failed to live up to the Dread and Promise ideal, giving us much dread and no promise. When we heard, for the second time, the wide-eyed child ask his Mr President why he dropped the atom bomb, immediately juxtaposed with a damaged Chernobyl reactor, this forgiving viewer ran out of forgiveness. Whether from ignorance or laziness (which so often come in pairs), in that moment Atomic departed from documentary and landed firmly in propaganda. When we saw the desperate shivering child survivor for a second time late in the film this viewer felt no longer moved but repelled. Once seemed a fitting recognition. Twice seemed to lurch toward exploitation.

Even the apparently redemptive applications of nuclear medicine are delivered as foreboding and terrifying. Humans are portrayed as figuratively and in some scenes quite literally as meat; passively accepting and receiving, powerless in the face of something powerful, external and invisible. This message is driven home with images of our churning sun, the fusion reactor that gives us all life, over which we have no control. That these medical techniques and technologies are conceived, designed, constructed, calibrated, operated by loving humans, that we integrate these technologies into our daily lives… perhaps this seemed too-jarring an angle to explore. Cousins appeared to have had no time to attempt a film of light and dark. The aesthetic is set early and holds throughout.

Provided aesthetic is what you care most about, definitely see Atomic. If you want to stretch your thinking and embrace the complex, stay at home and rent Pandora’s Promise.

I was a guest of Environmental Film Festival Australia. Thank you for having me. 

 

Tomorrow’s anti-nuclear protest will reinforce regional coal dependence

Tomorrow, Adelaide will host a national day of action to protest any progress in potential further involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle in South Australia. The event is planned and coordinated by anti-nuclear groups from across the nation despite the fact that:

  1. The Citizen’s Jury process has only completed one of the three weekend meetings
  2. The Stakeholder Reference Group advising the jury process includes representation from these organisations
  3. The Citizen’s Jury will hear directly from representatives of several anti-nuclear organisations in the small expert witness list selected by the jurors themselves

Apparently, this level of involvement and representation is not enough. They will also gather and protest in the middle of a process in which they are deeply involved. There seems scant actual respect for the process itself.

We know why anti-nuclear groups are so terrified of this proposal. If South Australia/Australia were to provide a responsible service in used fuel management with international oversight, it would make it much easier for other nations to choose nuclear fission in their energy mix.

Why are they so concerned? We keep being told that nuclear is dying, that renewables are taking over, look at this investment level, look at these batteries. Despite being steeped in this literature and working on these matters full-time, according to my critics I seem to be constantly one media release behind on the technology breakthrough that will completely tip the energy balance to renewables.

This is basically complete rubbish. What is really happening is that we live in a world that is and continues to be dominated by fossil fuels. For evidence, consider Indonesia.

Earlier this year Indonesia released their energy investment plan from 2016 to 2025. I have reproduced the key table below. Allocated means a share of new production already allocated to private investors.

Generation Source Allocated (MW) Unallocated (MW) Total (MW) Percentage of total
Coal 25,125 1,714 26,839 43%
Gas (combined cycle) 6,780 9,310 16,090 26%
Geothermal 5,060 690 5,750 9%
Hydro 6,787 2,029 8,816 14%
Solar 0 2,900 2,900 5%
Other 1,922 0 1,922 3%
Total 45,674 16,643 62,317 100%

It’s 2016. They have all the options in front of them, and their electricity plan for the next 10 years is 43% coal and 69% fossil fuelled in total, in this huge, fast growing, poor nation on our doorstep. The 2.9 GW of new solar is something to cheer about, but not less than 26 GW of new coal is to come on line in the next 10 years.

This is not a blog discussion. This is not my opinion v yours. This is not the latest announcement from Elon Musk. This is the investment plan for Indonesia and PWC tells us loud and clear that coal fired power plants are to remain dominant.

080715_0124_TwofriendsT2.jpg
A life of poverty for some Indonesians means living under a bridge. Image from Michael Shellenberger

So, if you were concerned about climate change, would it be a good thing or a bad thing to make it easier for Indonesia and dozens of nations like it to tilt their investment toward nuclear technology? While doing nothing, absolutely nothing, that need tilt investment away from renewable technology?

Australia will be lining up to help meet the growing coal demand from Indonesia, India and elsewhere. Many of the same faces and organisations you will see shouting down nuclear in Adelaide tomorrow will be asking you to protest and blockade Australian coal mine expansion and coal port expansion in Sydney and Melbourne the day after.

We are seriously running out of time for Australia’s “environmentalists” to wake up, grow up and join the damn dots.

Why I waited to comment on the SA blackout: reflections on preliminary findings

I have been commentating on electricity in my home state of South Australia for the past five years. So it may have surprised some that when the entire state (Yes, the whole place. Everything) went black a little over a week ago that I did not get right out there with comment.

There are two simple reasons for this.

Firstly, I was in China. More on that another time.

Secondly, and more importantly (wait for it)… I absolutely did not know or understand what had happened.

And, as I gradually took in news report, tweet, meme, media release in my inbox and op-ed, it became pretty obvious that no one else did either. What we have had is a week of furious politicking and spin, across the board, because seemingly no one was prepared to say “I don’t know yet”. It was seemingly more important to get preferred messages embedded in the public consciousness nice and early.

Our state government was quick to claim that this was an extreme weather event resulting from a catastrophic loss of infrastructure and literally nothing to do with our (frankly untested) energy mix. Yep, the wind event was hardcore, the pictures attest to that. Nope, I wasn’t buying the balance of that argument within the first hours because frankly no one knew. A piece from Tony Wood of Grattan Institute seemed to partially reinforce this, plying an argument I am tiring of: “It’s not wind, it’s that our system is not well structured to manage wind”. A lot of South Australians are struggling to appreciate that distinction and never really consented to being placed on the policy vanguard of system reliability in the first place.

Our Prime Minister (Turnbull), State Opposition Leader (Marshall) and independent Senator Xenaphon were quick to pin the blame all on the renewables, seemingly content to ignore a major, weather induced catastrophe that was hurting people in my home town even though at that time they, too, did not know.

The climate hawks had an interesting spin… apparently wind was the hero of the day, chugging away merrily until disaster struck and then swiftly back on deck.

“The fact is the system brought down all three generators for safety reasons after three transmission lines and nine towers fell. And wind generators actually helped restore power- the Snowtown wind farm was the second generator brought online”.

Andrew Stock of the Climate Council

Again, such a claim coming in scarcely after power was even restored is testing credulity because, yet again, they did not know. Independent energy commentator Tristan Edis asked us to compare this to a coal-induced failure in 2005… except that even did not black out the entire state. Fact is we seem to have nothing like this event on the record.

edis

So frankly, the response in this first week has been mostly a politicized, tribal hot air. While I had my ideas and suspicions, I have been waiting for the reports to begin from the Australian Energy Market Operator. The preliminary report was released today and you can read it here.

So what happened?