There aren’t too many topics that polarise discussion or incite more emotion than nuclear energy. For the nuclear industry, the events of the past few years have nothing short of remarkable. Between (tragic) disasters, the military nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and Iran, Germany’s abandonment of nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, and the planet’s overall growing energy needs – nuclear technology has had a lot of airplay.
Overall, I’m a big fan of nuclear energy because I think that it has technologically evolved to the point where it truly could be safe (socially safe is an entirely separate matter…). In the past couple of decades, a lot of ancillary advancement in construction technologies and material science have also been made that could really supercharge the nuclear industry and change the footprint from a Chernobyl or a Fukushima, into something much more compact and urban. Alongside other renewable “green” energies, nuclear energy could – if we chose to – start to displace coal and other hydrocarbons for electricity supply within a decade.
But I also agree that that the waste is a problem … though only to an extent.
Why this caveat? Well I remember a lecture I attended a few years ago where it was suggested that if you were to accumulate the lifetime energy consumption (everything) of an individual living in the “west” (let’s say broadly, US, UK, Canada or Australia) and present it in the form of typical emissions from a coal power station, it would amount to something like 6,000 train loads of compressed (liquid) CO2. The equivalent in nuclear waste from your typical U135 reactor is a disc 15 centimetres in diameter and 2mm thick. When you put it into that context, it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a place to stash a little disc than a very very long train (by the way, I’d love it if someone could substantiate this comparison for me).
It’s a great visual. Surely easier to bury the “disc”?
Australia has a lot of uranium – although uranium mining isn’t yet really big business. According a few reports I have been able to find, Australia exports about 8,000 tonnes of uranium oxide a year – roughly 85% of it going to the US, EU and Japan in equal measure. This amounts to about a $1 Bn business a year, though because of shifts in German and Japanese nuclear policy and fairly “stagnant” US nuclear industry, growth rate is on the decline. I suppose to counter this, there are opportunities to sell uranium to countries like India and Korea (South).
The really interesting thing is that Australia has 30-50% of the world’s uranium reserves alongside places like Canada and Kazakhstan. However, Australia has some attributes that make it rather different than other countries with a lot of uranium in the ground. It has a stable (if slightly dysfunctional) government, it is isolated, it is sparsely populated, it is mostly incredibly geologically stable and … drum roll… it is still comparatively proximal to the growth markets for which nuclear material could be transformational (i.e China).
As such, there is a real opportunity to take a more vertically integrated view of Australia’s uranium future. I personally believe that Australia could export enriched uranium products (and perhaps even one day thorium too – has a lot less problems in some ways) that are further up the value chain than just ore. For example, we could manufacture advanced ceramic composites that enable uranium to be stabilised and transported without needing coolants. However, what I really think is that Australia should repatriate the world’s nuclear waste and process, store and manage it.
This is obviously not a new idea and environmental groups have furiously rebuked he idea in the past. However, it really is a debate that should continue to be actively explored for a whole variety of very positive reasons that would possibly leave most conspiracy theorists and even some “big picture” environmentalists scratching their heads for a good reason to object. I am going to broadly segment these justifications into economic, technological, defence, environmental and moral categories.
Building a nuclear management facility, probably somewhere in a remote corner of northern Australia, would be a major infrastructure project with few peers. Building and operating such a facility at the scale required to support the potential growth of the nuclear industry would be a major undertaking, probably able to justify the establishment of a community that would rival Darwin and possibly even eclipse it (not hard, it’s only a couple of hundred thousand people).
The revenue for managing nuclear waste could be enormous – most countries with nuclear energy or research capabilities have thousands of tonnes of transportable (i.e. stable) nuclear waste that is currently suboptimally stored. More importantly, if Australia could move up the value chain of processing and re-processing nuclear material, we might choose to implement a total “lifetime” (not the isotope lifetime, but rather the energy utility) strategy for disseminating nuclear material. Why export a few thousand tonnes of unrefined uranium when we could “lease” energy in the form of small pre-assembled nuclear cores with incredible energy densities that could be safely shipped around the world and then returned for reprocessing at the end of their production/service life?
Secondary industries could also spring from this activity. Waste can be recycled into useful isotopes for medical and industrial use, in massive demand the world over, but particularly growing Asia. So this is not just about exporting energy and importing waste, it’s about generating major secondary industries that could easily eclipse today’s miniscule uranium ore exports. One could even envisage actually turning this into a comprehensive nuclear technology offering that includes services – such as healthcare (yep – not all radiation is bad, some of it very effectively fights cancer).
No matter what aspects of such a project you consider, it is going to involve huge technology development and will drive a massive investment in R&D. But not everything is going to have to be invented from scratch – it will also leverage considerable existing advanced expertise (by global standards) in mining, drilling, construction, etc. In some regards it’s a bit ideological, but Australia could use some nation-building projects that are truly transformational and that could tie the “second speed” economy to the “first speed” economy in a way never seen before. In my view, building cars (especially not Fords) and submarines are not examples of such a project.
This could be.
This kind of a massive scale project would touch just about every area of science and technology, would motivate both imported and home grown innovation and would even drive capacity through some of the toys we have (like a synchrotron) that are currently a bit idle and directionless (we shall see if ANSTO’s management of the synchrotron improves things). From a science policy vantage point, it would force Australia to look very closely at the buy vs build model for innovation and productivity in a way that the country has never done before, and much more closely ally ourselves with major research initiatives in other parts of the world. It could be a boon for attracting talent.
By the way, it’s all very well to be critical (as I often am) that our politicians don’t understand innovation. But to some extent, our politicians don’t understand innovation because relatively little home-grown innovation (as opposed to technologies purchased from abroad) has ever impacted the economy. As such there isn’t much of a case study to learn from. This could be changed.
Also, don’t just think about a nuclear processing facility as a bunker in some remote region of the country. Think about it as the industrial core of a super high-tech “nuclearopolis” in the Torrid Zone. Don’t build a compound, build a community that would be within spitting distance of places like Singapore, Malaysia and China – build an international airport (or put in place a bullet train to Darwin a couple of hours away). Sure the actual processing facility needs to be super-secure, etc. but the industry that could spring up around something like this could be incredible. In fact, I would argue that building a civilian infrastructure around it is possibly a fundamental part of making it secure.
Lastly, infrastructure. To make something like this secure is not just about barb wire, retinal scans and security patrols (and not just a defence matter, as per the next section) but about making the project self-sustainable. It will need energy itself – imagine solar farms, food and water too. It will require advanced construction and transport infrastructure can survive often harsh climates. It will require new strategies for urbanisation based on completely different ideals of industrial safety – standards, incidentally, that don’t just apply to nuclear materials, but may also be relevant to other types of advanced technologies as well, such as nanomaterials, specialty chemicals and biotechnology products. There could be lots of synergies for other industries.
I have often written about the “shift” in power from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific – no doubt part of the “Asian Century” that is clearly of fundamental importance to Australia’s future. That we allow a greater US military presence in Australia in the face of an “awakening” China and perhaps also India, is evidence of this shift (however you may feel about it).
Australia’s northern coastline is particularly difficult to patrol – partially because of sheer expanse but also because the expenditure for larger scale security is probably hard to justify on economic grounds. Certainly, we never quite seem to spot asylum seekers or an off-course Chinese oil tanker until it is a bit late and they are washed up on a coral reef somewhere. My understanding is that in the event of a (entirely hypothetical and kind of ridiculous) invasion from, say, Indonesia, the military strategy would essentially be to abandon most of the country and retreat a few tanks and aircraft to the bottom right corner – a rough hypotenuse from Sydney to Melbourne (again, if there any experts reading this, correct me – but it seems logical).
Building a nuclear processing and storage footprint in the northern part of Australia would have some interesting implications for defence and the globe’s vested interest in Australia’s security. Presumably our various multi-lateral defence agreements currently cover most contingencies but actually having something worthy of defending on our northern border (sorry Darwin) does change the game a bit. One could even envisage a deep-water port where military vessels would actually dock to recycle nuclear materials – putting Australia on the map as part of a combined military supply chain and nuclear deterrent without actually having to establish a nuclear deterrent domestically. I am not suggesting, incidentally, that this be open purely to allies – rather it could also be a way for Australian to strengthen its ties with ASEAN/China too.
Clearly, if a lot of nuclear material is going to get shipped around S.E. Asia through the usual (already very congested) shipping channels, this is going to require some increased security as well. If defence treaties could be expanded to make patrolling our northern boundaries an international responsibility in order to secure and protect Australia’s nuclear processing infrastructure, this could have a dramatic impact on our ability to patrol and secure our northern frontier, essentially leveraging an already growing international presence in our backyard.
The bottom line is this – Australia is not really economically important enough to go to war over. I do believe that in the event of an act of aggression there would be an international response – and I am also one of those optimists that believes we increasingly live in a world where the “battle” can be based on dialog, rather than unleashing destruction. But I don’t think anyone is ever going to protect our country holistically, because it basically can’t be done. Therefore we need to create an international incentive for our northern maritime border to be absolutely secure.
Unlike Abbott, who thinks that it is ok for us to turn a blind eye to our responsibilities to improve the globe’s carbon footprint despite being a major coal exporter, I actually think that we have a case here of “those who can, should.” The plain fact of the matter is there are a lot of coal power stations in China that are going to burn Australian coal (for which we have something like 800 years of reserves based on projected energy consumption). If we could lower the global cost and risk of nuclear power by building infrastructure to manage waste materials, we could provide a real alternative.
And we should do it. Environmentalists should get up to speed on the technology and start practically understanding what the global impact is of our coal export industry.
Incidentally, for those people who think that building windmills and solar farms are the entire solution, the reality is that we need constant energy supplies to “reinforce” the bursty and intermittent output of most renewables, in most parts of the world. Advancements in energy storage technology can partially solve this but that has huge cost as well – at least with current technology.
So I personally feel that taking a step back and looking at this from a global (i.e. planetary) vantage, this could be of huge environmental benefit for the world. It would also take a lot of wind out of the sails of the hydrocarbon industry and would likely drive more momentum towards renewables and a “carbon neutral” energy landscape. Especially, as I have previously said, there is no technological reason why small nuclear installations cannot be made perfectly safe.
Looking at it from a local/domestic environmental perspective, I concede that the issues are more complex. Most of the areas where you would want to geographically do something like this are highly sensitive ecosystems. I am quite certain that Native Rights would also (appropriately) come into the picture at some point, just as they have with most mining projects in Australia. Not an environmental issue, per se, but certainly important.
But then let’s also be clear. We have already proceeded with Ranger and Olympic Dam and these are major projects. Some of our larger deposits might actually be places where the kind of infrastructure I am proposing could be co-located. We needn’t necessarily enlarge the environmental footprint to build this sort of facility, though I concede that if we wanted to build an urban environment / tech ecosystem around it, that would have additional impact.
It’s a tough one.
I think, however, that providing the risks to nearby populations can be managed, food chains are not compromised, etc. it should be considered. I suppose if one wanted to go on the “sell” you could argue that in order to properly secure such a project, large buffer zones of land should be formalised as protected and uninhabited reserve. Perhaps this is an opportunity for environmentalists to cordon some very large national parks as part of a deal. Certainly, I’d like to see a bunch of nuclear terrorists try and trek through croc-infested mangrove swamps!
I do worry about shipping nuclear waste to Australia. A nuclear “spill” in our oceans might be 1000ds of times more catastrophic than an oil spill. I guess we’d have to understand that more, though the advantage of heavy isotopes is that they tend to … er… sink. Although now outlawed, a hell of a lot of nuclear waste has been dumped into the oceans – including by even more nefarious organisations than governments. This may not be such a big deal and may even, in the final analysis, make shipping oil look positively dirty.
For me personally, the moral justification and the environmental justification are strongly entwined. However the most compelling argument is that if we are not willing to be part of the solution for managing nuclear waste, then we shouldn’t be part of the problem of creating it in the first place. I do think that there is a moral argument to being part of a global proliferation of safe, carbon-neutral energy and I think that our regional economic stability depends on it.
I personally struggle more with the idea that we are a major coal exporter without obviously attaching some sort of environmental premium (penalty?) to it, than the fact that we might want to store nuclear waste in Australia. I actually have less problem with exporting uranium than coal but I’d rather that we attached an equal environmental imperative. I remember a few years ago seeing vast coal trains in northern Queensland and questioning of myself what it meant in terms of Australia’s contribution to global warming. For anyone who thinks that our footprint is purely domestic consumption, they are morally misguided. Every brick of coal we export to China has an impact too, we just (conveniently) choose not to count it.
The question is really whether the moral justification actually undermines the business case. When we agree to sell uranium to, say, India and we require as part of the pricing structure for our exports that the waste be repatriated, do we simply no longer make ourselves cost effective as a uranium exporter? Or does the attraction of being able to safely stash everyone’s nuclear “trash” have a stand-alone market opportunity compared to the cost and risk of our prospective client’s domestic storage. Very interesting question that I will have to leave to the experts.
What I do know is that there are other countries who are thinking about doing this – for some of the same reasons. Mongolia also has some stable geology, some great mining expertise and comparative remoteness/low population density. But it’s also a young (though promising) democracy, is proximal to a lot of countries undergoing turbulent change and still carries some of the hallmarks of its corrupt communist legacy. Is that really the place we should be wanting to store nuclear material from a global security vantage? I suspect not.
I don’t think this is a slam-dunk by any means, and not without issues, but I think it is something that should be seriously considered and properly studied. Maybe I lack imagination but I can hardly think of a larger scale project with the opportunity to super-charge Australia’s economy but also create something of enormous international importance at the same time. I do, to an extent, believe in “nation building” projects and I’d like to see a focal point for R&D expenditure that actually did something of value to the economy. I also really like the idea of a northern technology frontier that has the potential to unify our “two speed” economy and increase our regional development relevance, particularly to fast-paced economies in Australia’s backyard.
Let us not forget that it was amidst enormous opposition that the second generation OPAL reactor went ahead after the decommissioning of Lucas Heights. There were lots of practical reasons why such infrastructure can be justified (medical, industrial, research, etc.) but the primary reason was to ensure that Australia maintained its seat at the IAEA – the prerequisite to which, is a functioning nuclear reactor. Why was this important? Well, perhaps not next year and perhaps not in the next decade, but at some point the nuclear industry is going to have a proper renaissance and when the time comes to reconsider policy on peaceful nuclear proliferation, Australia will want to have a seat at the table.
My question is, do we want to wait until then, or do we want take a leadership position that could cornerstone an energy, technological – and economic – transformation?