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:
- Better technologies and options will continue to move to commercialization
- 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:
- Direct, 100 % disposal of all material (as currently tabled by Jacobs MCM)
- 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
- 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)
- 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:
- The shorter-lived, highly radioactive fission products. This is generally regarded as waste and is perhaps 2 % of the used fuel rod
- 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
- 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:
- The best size of the geological facility
- The best location for the facility
- The right depth of the facility
- 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
- Identify what the right service offering is
- Acknowledge that this may be a blend of offerings
- 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.