Nuclear fission offers the opportunity of a next-generation alternative to fossil fuels. Could Australia be a global first mover on the new technology?
The recent announcement by the Premier of South Australia, Labor’s Jay Weatherill, of a Royal Commission into an expanded future role for the state in nuclear energy, is a potentially pivotal moment. Major economic and technical opportunities exist at the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle (for example waste management). But there is also the prospect of new generating technologies.
To achieve the long-term goal of phasing out fossil fuels and slashing greenhouse gas emissions, Australia must actively invest in the science, technology and commercial demonstration of next-generation electricity infrastructure. Ideally, the underpinning technologies will be fit-for-service, low-carbon ‘plug-in’ alternatives to fossil energy that are scalable, reliable and cost-effective, while also balancing issues of societal acceptance and fiscal and political inertia. ‘Generation IV’ nuclear technology and its spin-offs offer the realistic prospect of meeting these challenges.
Nuclear fission, an abundant and low-carbon energy source, has an enormous and proven potential to supply reliable baseload electricity and displace coal or gas power plants directly. Yet the prospect of nuclear energy concerns many people who worry about sustainability, spent-fuel disposal and radiation release from accidents.
The goals of Generation IV nuclear designs embody four core requirements: improved sustainability, economics, safety/reliability, and proliferation resistance. Innovative advanced fission designs based on small modular reactors could, if commercialised, meet these goals squarely and mitigate hazards by incorporating passive safety with inherent self-protection, and by recycling nuclear waste to generate zero-carbon electricity.
This is not hypothetical or wishful thinking. A technology developed between 1964 and 1994 at the United States Government’s Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), consumes over 99 per cent of the nuclear fuel, leaves only a small amount of waste that decays to below background levels of radiation within 300 years, shuts itself down automatically and cools itself indefinitely if the control systems fail or the operators abandon the facility. The IFR technology, in particular, also counters one of the principle concerns regarding nuclear expansion —the proliferation of nuclear weapons — because its electro-refining-based fuel-recycling system cannot separate weapons-grade fissile material.
The production of such material requires either specialist uranium-enrichment facilities or else dedicated short-cycle reactors associated with large (highly visible) aqueous chemical processing infrastructure — neither of which are required for the IFR’s pyroprocessing-based, closed-fuel cycle. As an added benefit, the large-scale deployment of fast reactor technology would result in all of the nuclear-waste and depleted-uranium stockpiles generated over the last 50 years being consumed as zero-carbon fuel.
A reactor blueprint that embodies these key design features, the General Electric-Hitachi 380 MWe PRISM—based on the IFR prototype—is now ready for a commercial demonstration, which, if done successfully, would give confidence for a large-scale deployment. Although this would inarguably be a politically bold move, it is plausible that Australia could be the place to site this first-of-a-kind unit. Indeed, this very possibility has been proposed recently by an Australian Senator, with the added appeal, beyond the technological advantages, of us securing a real first mover advantage.
In terms of future costs and build times, the standardised, compact, passive-safety blueprints of Generation IV designs are ideally suited to be built in assembly-line factories and shipped as complete units to site—and thus have the potential to be transformative in an industry that has, in the past, been plagued by regulatory ratcheting and legal challenges against one-off designs. These units, in offering a low-cost and sustainable energy source, also hold the potential to provide vast amounts of clean, reliable electricity, heat, industrial processes and desalination. It is a long-term vision worth striving for, but it starts with tractable near-term goals.
Of course, advocating for an active involvement by Australia in Generation IV nuclear technology does not mean that traditional nuclear power plants, or large-scale renewables, would not also be worth pursuing.
No perfect solution exists that meets all future energy goals with no down sides. But there are good solutions on offer, and Australia ought to be looking hard at these, now.
This article is taken from presentations at the 2014 ANU Energy Change Institute’s annual flagship event, Energy Update: http://energy.anu.edu.au/news-events/anu-energy-update-2014