Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Science and technology | Australia

13 August 2015

Australia has the opportunity to consider nuclear power as a second, low-carbon option alongside renewables to enable more rapid decarbonisation of the economy. Will it take it?

Australia’s energy future is at a crossroads.  The nation has abundant energy resources:  fossil fuels, renewables and uranium for nuclear power.  Because Australia is blessed with abundance, in the past there has been no driver to make critical choices between these sources, and the apparent least-cost route was taken.

However, in response to climate change, the real (and hidden) costs of future climate impacts need to be factored into fossil fuel sources, with renewables and nuclear being the remaining options.  At this time there is no legislated opportunity for nuclear power to contribute.  Nevertheless, Australia needs to decide whether to use nuclear power to speed up climate change mitigation in order to avoid the higher future costs of delayed climate action.

Recently the South Australian Government made a landmark decision:  it established a Royal Commission into prospects for the state to participate in the nuclear fuel cycle.  This includes the mining and pre-processing of uranium, nuclear electricity generation, and the processing and storage of nuclear waste (domestic and potentially from overseas).

This isn’t the first time that a review of nuclear fuel cycle has been undertaken in Australia.  In 2006 the Howard government presented the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review (UMPNER).  More recently, in 2012 and 2013 the Australian Energy Technology Assessment (AETA) by the Federal Government Department responsible for energy evaluated the levelised cost of producing electricity (LCOE) for 40 technologies, including large-scale (~1GW+) and small modular reactor (SMR < 200MW) nuclear power.

The methodology included fuel and operational/maintenance costs, the generating capacity factor, and the initial investment cost amortised the over the lifetime of the plant.  The LCOE then enables comparison of ‘plug-and-play’ replacements for existing electricity generating stations.  However, if the resource site is at a remote location (as is the case for some renewables), then the additional cost of distribution network infrastructure needs to be factored in.

Image by Danimations on Wikimedia Commons.,_Adelaide,_South_Australia.jpg

Image by Danimations on Wikimedia Commons.,_Adelaide,_South_Australia.jpg

The AETA study showed that in the coming decades nuclear is competitive with – but slightly more expensive than – renewables.  This advantage for renewables disappears if the cost of additional network infrastructure is included, as shown in the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) study 100% Renewables.  The AEMO work indicated that although the Australian National Electricity Market is one of the most extensive and geographically distributed in the world (which favours access to distributed renewable resources to address intermittency), additional infrastructure is still required to capture the required renewable resource.

In addition, the AEMO study relied heavily on geothermal and concentrated solar to provide ‘baseload’ capacity at times when wind, solar PV and other renewable output did not match demand.  This is a role that could also be played by nuclear where it has a proven track record.

Adoption of nuclear energy is technically feasible in Australia, which has abundant uranium reserves, a stable system of government and a considerable capacity to store nuclear waste on a geologically stable continent.  However, a significant investment will be needed to create the social license to operate nuclear power in this country.  This will require bipartisan political support, public education, and empowering of communities to create confidence in modern technologies.

The public needs to be convinced that the latest nuclear technology is safe, that waste disposal is practical and that the regulatory and governance structures to ensure that it remains safe are of a high standard.  A low-barrier entry point might be to allow installation of a SMR for a remote, energy intensive mining project (with scalability by adding other modules as required) that could provide a test-bed for public acceptance.

One step towards obtaining the social license to operate is the SA Royal Commission.  This respected and independent review process will be closely watched by all interested parties to see how the prospects for Australian participation in the nuclear fuel cycle pan out.  The recently (April 8) released Federal Government Energy White Paper states:

“The Australian Government will consider the outcomes of the South Australian Royal Commission into its future involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle including the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Royal Commission will allow for a considered and informed community discussion on nuclear industries and energy, examining the opportunities and the risks.”

Australia now has the opportunity to consider nuclear power as a second, low-carbon option alongside renewables to enable even more rapid decarbonisation of the economy.  Indeed, Australia’s strong record of good governance may place it in a central position to become a contributor more generally in the global nuclear fuel cycle.

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3 Responses

  1. Greg B Nolan says:

    I hope the nuclear energy option is seriously considered. There’s at least 26 developed countries using it. I think the establishment of this technology, the use of this low carbon energy source, and the consequent benefits to our economy, would strengthen Australia both domestically and internationally..

  2. George Lerner says:

    You don’t have to use a Light Water Reactor to use nuclear power. Though we’ve been using it almost exclusively, it is not the best design, it is the design that coal companies, who owned USA Congress, picked in the 1960s.

    Several types of SMR would work, with better safety. Less radioactive material, at less pressure, makes less risk.

    My recommendation is explore Molten Salt Reactors. They use no water. Most designs of MSR use over 99% of the fuel (LWR uses about 2%).

    There are scientists designing MSR in many countries, including Australia, Canada, USA; the country putting the most money into developing MSR is China. The demonstration reactor was built at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in USA in 1960s and ran successfully over 12,000 full-power hours. The project was killed by politics, not technical or engineering issues.

    Since they are not cooled by water, but by salts far below their boiling temperature, MSRs run at atmospheric pressure, eliminating the main risks of LWR (pressure explosions and loss of coolant).

    Since the fuel is molten, dissolved in the salt coolant, and thermal expansion of the fuel/salt strongly regulates the fission rate, the fuel temperature can never get high enough to melt the reactor vessel or components.

    Physics, not complex engineering, says Molten Salt Reactors are “walk-away safe”, inherently safe, even without operator actions or electric power.

    Molten Salt Reactors can generate electricity, desalinate water, make CO2-neutral gasoline, or provide heat for other industries (with already tested materials up to 1000C, modern materials should work far higher temperatures).

    The cost of developing and building factories to mass produce 200MW MSRs would be less than the cost to build a single 1GW LWR, and a fraction the cost of an “all renewable” replacement of coal, oil, natural gas. A factory could be completed in under 5 years, with adequate funding and personnel, to produce a reactor a week.

    We could factory-build MSR to power reversing ocean acidification; nuclear energy (modern designs, not LWR) is the only source we can build fast enough to prevent mass extinctions in the oceans. CO2 in the air settles in the oceans, making carbonic acid that dissolves plankton and other microscopic sea shells, killing the base of the food chain. Many countries use seafood as their primary source of protein.

  3. Walter J Horsting says:

    The west has much to learn from the blind plunge into renewables that is Germany, Denmark and now California:

    The Green Mirage:

    Molten Salt Reactors are the way to go forward 1/3 the price to build than a PWRs, 5 million times energy dense than Wind, 24/7 operation and very useful Thermal for removing emissions from the Petrochemical industry and it can convert coal to high quality low emission liquid fuels.

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