The Scarce Report recommends South Australia being storing the world's nuclear waste, opening the door for nuclear power generation in Australia in the future, writes Noel Wauchope.
Kevin Scarce's Report on the "tentative findings" of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel
Chain (I mean Cycle) Royal Commission runs to 42 pages. Still, he manages to leave a few questions unanswered and, indeed, a few questions not even asked, as well as leaving a few grey areas to be brushed over in a suitably vague manner.
The major recommendation of the Report is for South Australia to make billions by importing, managing, storing and disposing of nuclear waste.
'... the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel in South Australia would meet a global need and is likely to deliver substantial economic benefits to the community......Such a facility would be viable and highly profitable.'
~ Jenny Turner, communications manager, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission
Who pays up first?
An interesting question – and grey area – is exactly who would be responsible for paying for the building of the nuclear waste facilities; for the construction of the dedicated port facility, airport and rail freight line; and the maintenance of all the infrastructure?
Well, that question is not answered clearly at all by the Report. However, as it states that 'the facilities would need to be controlled and owned by government', we can assume that the tax-payer will be responsible for the costs, now unto eternity, as eternity is about how long that high level radioactive wastes have to be contained and kept secure .
The Commission's financial advice from Jacobs MCM makes this clear:
'Capital and operating costs are assumed to be met from revenue. In the first few years of the model costs are assumed to be incurred before revenue is received.'
The payments for taking in spent fuel (high level wastes) from other countries would start only 'at the moment of transfer from ship to shore in South Australia', which would happen 15 years after the waste storage facility was built
Now how could they sell that idea to the public? Well, there's the possibility of other countries paying for some of it, sort of:
'...the potential to negotiate advance reservation fees with some prospective client countries to offset at least a portion of this cost.'
How much will it all cost?
Scarce reports the underground disposal facility as costing $33 billion. The Jacob report does not make all of the costs clear. It does not reveal the costs of the surface storage facilities and of maintaining high level wastes for many decades in dry storage casks.
The Jacobs MCM financial advisory report to the Commission has a tone of optimism and yet its 214 pages contain many "ifs" and "buts".
Some of these include:
- Disposal of spent fuel (SF) will account for 93% of the costs. No country except UK has actually priced this cost, and estimates for these costs vary wildly from country to country.
- Countries with established nuclear experience – USA, UK, France, Sweden, Finland, Russia, China and India – will not be exporting nuclear waste to Australia, which leaves potential markets to a number of nuclear-inexperienced countries in Asia and Middle East — some with unstable regimes. Japan is committed to reprocessing its nuclear wastes, with no plan to export them.
- Russia, China or other countries might make competitive offers to import wastes.
- Countries' "willingness to pay" (WTP) is a debatable subject, depending on various factors.
- A warning on "optimism bias": 'Major public projects have been found to be susceptible to optimism bias reflected in underestimation of total costs when projects are announced, relative to the final costs of delivery. This is often the result of external factors.' They go on to list 18 factors, finishing up with force majeure, extreme weather interruptions, extreme events.
- Effect of any disruption to import of wastes.
- Cost over-runs for the GDF (geological disposal facility).
Given the experience of Britain, Finland, Sweden and USA, in the time taken and costs incurred, in disposal of their nuclear wastes, it is no surprise that Jacobs MCM has touched on these doubts in its report to the Royal Commission.
It's no surprise they state:
'In no part of this report does Jacobs either explicitly or implicitly make any recommendation or endorsement of the viability or otherwise of the Project.'
How come Australia is the only country to jump at this opportunity?
If South Australia could make $257 billion by importing nuclear wastes, one wonders why no other country has thought of this. It sounds too good to be true. The Royal Commission is confident that the plan is viable and that safe disposal of nuclear wastes is a sure thing. However, one must also wonder, if that is the case, wouldn't other countries find it cheaper to just develop their own waste repositories?
There's not only the cost of disposal, there are also the transport costs. Jacobs estimates the cost of a single voyage of 20 spent fuel casks to Australia at $6.4 million. Wouldn't it be cheaper to deposit them closer to the point of origin?
Jacobs suggests that it's good to keep the nuclear waste, because it might be profitable later on — for re-use in new generation nuclear reactors. If it is, therefore, a valuable "resource not a waste", as the nuclear lobby constantly maintains, why would other countries want to pay us to take it from them?
Which brings me on to another "grey area" in the Commission Report.
The Report is all too complacent about transport of wastes. It does not mention the high secrecy and security measures needed for transport of radioactive material, with the obvious risks of terrorism and increasing dangers of extreme weather events.
It does recognise that there would need to be special agreements between customer countries, and both the Federal and state governments.
Only in the Jacobs report is there a mention of the water needs of the proposed nuclear waste facility.
For example, for long lived intermediate waste disposal (ILW) they state:
'The consumption of water arising from the underground ILW facility is estimated to be 50% of the underground amount of the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).'
There are other parts of the facility that also require water. In an already dry region like South Australia, with climate change starting to bite, surely water consumption is a critical issue.
The Commission is complacent about the risk of high level wastes, especially plutonium, being diverted for the making of a nuclear weapon, saying there is little risk. Yet it pays no attention at all to the much more likely risk of diversion for making a "dirty bomb".
The Report goes on at length to reassure the public that any radiation risk is negligible. Of course, stringent safety measures would keep the risk of accident very low. However, the word "terrorism" is not even mentioned.
As the main thrust of the Report is all about nuclear waste importing, the importance of uranium mining and further processing is downplayed. Still, the Commission is quietly in favour of uranium mining expansion and also in favour of nuclear fuel leasing, which suggests that South Australia would be developing further processing to deal with the returned nuclear fuel.
The Report gives a very short, reassuring section on insurance and lightly glosses over a couple of telling phrases, saying insurance
'... would require new legislation, and the state and federal governments would become insurers of last resort.'
As in the United States with its Price-Anderson Act, the taxpayer would cop the cost of any major accident.
EFFECTS ON OTHER INDUSTRIES?
The Commission seems more worried about 'community perception' that the nuclear expansion might affect South Australia's industries, rather than about whether it actually would affect agriculture, tourism, fisheries and the wine industry.
It did, however, concede that
'... in the event of a major accident adverse impacts could potentially be profound.'
The Report spends four pages on nuclear electricity generation — concluding that it's not viable, but we'd better plan for it in the future, just in case.
In just a couple of sentences, the Report shows how well it fits with the goal of the "new nuclear" lobby, in stating that small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) should be considered and would be 'attractive' for South Australia. This ties in with the nuclear lobby's plans.
Due to regulatory problems in the U.S. and UK, SMRs can't be implemented until there is a committed waste disposal repository. The favoured SMRs, such as the PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module) and thorium reactors require plutonium and/or enriched uranium for their process to start. So, by importing nuclear wastes, Australia also guarantees the fuel for these reactors.
The nuclear lobby is keen for Australia to import nuclear wastes. The costs will be borne by governments who send the wastes and the government which receives the wastes, not by the nuclear companies. They're not interested in permanent waste disposal. There's no income stream in it. The income stream is in selling nuclear reactors and electricity from reactors.
It is a worrying thought.
If this next new generation nuclear renaissance does not take off, where is the income stream for dealing with nuclear wastes?
Could South Australia be setting up the most expensive and toxic "stranded asset" in history?
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