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

Unmissable signage with an open invitation

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

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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”

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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

atomic

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

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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.

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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

tower-damage

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?

Hypocrisy on Hansard

Hansard

I recently sat in on a session of the Joint Committee reviewing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. Speaking to the committee this day was Dave Sweeney, Nuclear Free Campaigner of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner of Friends of the Earth. The transcript of the session is now available.

I was stunned by some of the hypocritical and contradictory messages put forward by these spokespeople. Truly, the arguments about issues of used nuclear fuel will be manipulated into whichever directions serves the goal of nil progress. They do not want a solution because they like the problem. The problem is good for them and their cause. Consider the following assertion:

 Dave Sweeney: The ACF view is that we don’t have a moral responsibility as a uranium exporting nation to bring stuff back. There is no other mineral product that we are asked to do that with, so we don’t accept that line.

Yet just a few short months earlier, when writing for The Guardian, Dave Sweeney said this:

Ancillary wha? Ancillary services

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Just because something is cheap to buy, does not mean it will be cheap to own, and just because the sticker price of some renewables is coming down does not mean we can keep adding them without costs. A reliable electricity supply is more than just electrons, and most of our reliability is provided by the dirtiest generators that we need to retire to deal with climate change. We can clean up our electricity supply and maintain reliability  provided we use all the technology available to us. Understanding more about ancillary services and the great concentration of greenhouse emissions in a relatively small number of generators in Australia illustrates a likely sensible floor for a nuclear sector in Australia. There is more than enough space for that, as well as a strongly growing renewables sector. We desperately need a sensible centre in our energy discussion that respects the way our system actually operates.

Ancillary adjective : providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc.

Suddenly it seems like everyone is talking about ancillary services.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration. I am sure there are more people talking about the colour of the diving pool in Rio. In my little world of energy though, ancillary services have seemingly gone from nowhere to very interesting.

What the heck are ancillary services? You can read this piece to get a little idea, you can read this from AEMO to get much more of an idea or you can go with this…it’s all the important ingredients in running a reliable electricity system that you don’t know about. It is only one part of the game to provide the right number of megawatt hours in a given hour. The system needs to run at the right frequency, the voltage needs to stay within limits and the system needs to be able to get back up and running again in case of serious failure. That’s all called ancillary services.

So why are we suddenly talking about them?  Like most necessary support services, we acknowledge their necessity when they start to go away. In the Australian National Electricity Market, all of the ancillary services for the control of frequency are provided by 116 connected generating units that bid to provide that service; a mixture of coal, gas and hydro electricity units. No solar or wind generators are bidders to provide this service because, at this time, they can’t: they are non-synchronous, non-dispatchable generators.

South Australia has taken on a very large share of wind generation which has contributed to the exit from the market of several dispatchable, synchronous generators. The availability of ancillary services has declined, and our dependence on the rest of the NEM to provide those services has gone up. The latest 2016 Electricity Statement of Opportunities for the National Electricity Market (Australian Energy Market Operator 2016) has led with this issue:

You’re doing it right: impressive consultation for nuclear in South Australia

THIS! Nuclear on the front foot

En route to work I stopped at the opening of the community consultation road show in Rundle Mall, Adelaide. This will  be visiting dozens of locations around South Australia as part of the discussion on whether to advance plans for a multinational repository. Here are some pictures and a short video. 

 

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