Strange time to suggest a LEGO nuclear future for Australia

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By 2022, Australia could have many "Lego-like" small nuclear reactors in operation, dotted about the nation.

This is being proposed now, not just by the long-term fervent believers in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), but in formal submissions to the coming Energy White Paper.

Last month, the Department of Industry's submission to the Energy White Paper pitched Small Modular Reactors as an energy solution for isolated areas in Australia, where there is no access to the electricity grid. 

The Energy Policy Institute of Australia (EPI) agreed in its submission, suggesting in its submission small modular reactors (SMRs) are particularly suitable for use in mines and towns in remote locations around Australia.

The BHP-funded Grattan Institute's submission envisages a string of these little nuclear reactors, connected to the grid, along Australia's Eastern coast. 

Keith Orchison reports on the Grattan Institute submission: 

'The Abbott government is being told that now is the time to flick the switch to “technology neutral,” opening the way for nuclear options.'

Orchison described the advantages of SMRs as 'Lego-like'.

Why now?

In 2014, it was becoming clear that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) were not likely to become an operational reality for many decades — and perhaps never.

America was the pioneer of small reactor design in the 1970s.  Again recently, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox have been the leaders in designing and developing SMRs.

But in 2014, the bottom has fallen out of these projects.

Danny Roderick, President and CEO of Westinghouse, announcing the closure of its SMR plan, saying:

"It was not the deployment of the technology that posed the biggest problem – it was that there were no customers."

He added:

“The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market.

On the last day of March, Babcock and Wilcox CEO Jim Ferland warned that they were cutting back on their expenditure on SMRs, despite the fact that they received up to $225 million in loan grants from the U.S. government for the SMR development in Charlotte. 

Taxpayer associations are concerned, as are the U.S. House and Senate committees.

The Charlotte Business Journal reports that:

'B&W has been unable to find an investor or investor group to take on a 70 percent to 80 percent share of its joint venture to develop a 180-megawatt reactor to produce electricity... The eventual market for the reactor... appears weaker than initially projected.'

So, in the USA the outlook for small nuclear reactors is poor.

But what about China?

The proponents of small thorium nuclear reactors have had a field day, with numerous media articles about 'Chinese going for broke on thorium nuclear power' and 'China accelerating thorium reactor development'.

All of these news reports seem to have been derived from an initial article by Stephen Chen in the South China Morning Post: 'Chinese scientists urged to develop new thorium nuclear reactors by 2024'.

It should be noted that nowhere in this article does Chen mention "small" reactors. However, Australian proponents of 'small' reactors welcomed this article, as the Thorium Small Nuclear Reactor is the favourite type proposed for Australia from all 15 possible small designs.

So, while we're being told that China is racing ahead in the scramble to get these wonderful SMRs, in fact, China has been very much encouraged and helped into this by the U.S. Department of Energy

This is understandable, seeing that for China it is a government project, with no required expectation of being commercially viable.

In their enthusiasm for China's thorium nuclear project, writers neglected to mention the sobering points that Stephen Chen made in his South China Morning Post article, such as:

  • 'Researchers working on the project said they were under unprecedented 'war-like' pressure to succeed and some of the technical challenges they faced were difficult, if not impossible to solve.'
  • '... opposition from sections of the Chinese public.'
  • '... technical difficulties - the molten salt produces highly corrosive chemicals  that could damage the reactor.'
  • 'The power plant would also have to operate at extremely high temperatures, raising concerns about safety. In addition, researchers have limited knowledge of how to use thorium.'
  • '... engineering difficulties .…The thorium reactors would need years, if not decades, to overcome the corrosion issue.'
  • 'These projects are beautiful to scientists, but nightmarish to engineers.'

Who else is trying to design and develop small nuclear reactors?

In the UK there has been a determined push for thorium fuelled reactors, and for the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM).

Secret talks are going on between GE Hitachi Nuclear Power and the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency about using PRISMS to deal with plutonium wastes.

However, the UK government and science authorities still conclude that deep burial, not reprocessing, is the best eventual solution for nuclear wastes. 

Other small nuclear reactor plans in India and South Africa have foundered.

Then there are Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson. 

They have the advantage of plenty of money with which to try out a commercial experiment. Gates has signed loan guarantees to Toshiba of $8 billion to work with TerraPower on Gates' thorium-fuelled Travelling Wave Reactor.

The zeal of Gates and Branson could be misplaced.

Australia's SMR enthusiasts discount the known problems of SMRs. Some brief reminders from the September 2013 report, from the United States' Institute for Energy and Environmental Research:

  • 'Economics: $90 billion manufacturing order book could be required for mass production of SMRs ...the industry’s forecast of relatively inexpensive individual SMRs is predicated on major orders and assembly line production.'
  • 'SMRs will lose the economies of scale of large reactors.'
  •  'SMRs could reduce some safety risks but also create new ones.'
  • 'It breaks, you bought it: no thought is evident on how to handle SMR recalls.'
  • Not a proliferation solution. 'The use of enriched uranium or plutonium in thorium fuel has proliferation implications.'
  • Not a waste solution: 'The fission of thorium creates long-lived fission products like technetium-99 (half-life over 200,000 years).'
  • Ongoing technical problems. 

All this has been overlooked by the promoters of SMRs to Australia. Perhaps they're banking on Australia being the saviour that brings that desperately needed $90 billion manufacturing order.

Keith Orchison is upbeat about '... the advent of small modular reactors':

'These units, the argument goes, are very well suited to Australian conditions. Strategically located, SMRs of 25 to 300 megawatts can enhance supply security and improve the overall resilience of the grid ...The case for SMRs also rests on their use being a much lower investment risk because of their lower capital costs, the relative speed with which they can be installed and the fact that their capacity can be readily increased, Lego-like, on an established site ... SMRs could be in operation by around 2022.'

So, the SMRs could (eventually) line up along the East Coast, connected to the grid. Or they could go to remote inland sites.

Then there is that other agenda — a foot in the door for the bigger nuclear power industry. 

Ben Heard's pro-nuclear website Decarbonise SA sets out the steps from a SMR start to uranium enrichment and the full nuclear cycle. More secretively, Dr John White works on the long range plan, ranging from thorium fuelled reactors, to Australia as importer of radioactive wastes.

There are ructions in the global nuclear industry

Westinghouse is getting out of uneconomic Small Modular Reactors, and getting in to a lucrative new area — decommissioning nuclear reactors. 

Big Nuclear has its own problems: it is uneconomic in USA; super-expensive in UK;  Japan is in a sort of nuclear paralysis; Finland, with its long-delayed, over-budget Olkiluoto nuclear reactor

There's a bewildering array of nuclear technology companies, from USA, Japan, Russia, France, China, South Korea — all jostling for markets. They have spent up big in development, promotion and lobbying, over many years. They, and Australia's uranium industry, are not going to give up now and hand over the market to the Small Modular Reactor — the undeveloped, untested, new kid on the block.

Still, Big Nuclear might like it, if a scientifically illiterate government such as Australia's can be persuaded to let that expensive new kid in. It could be a foot in the door for the whole nuclear fuel cycle and another foot in the door for the American nuclear weapons industry.

Even Westinghouse might be pleased if Australia did buy into SMRs, as it may facilitate their plans for empire in that quaintly termed 'nuclear decommissioning' industry.

Nuclear decommissioning — so much nicer sounding than 'radioactive trash dumping'.

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