ARDR Analysis

Digging it down under?

ARDR editorial

Following the release of the Tentative Findings by the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) asked academic experts to comment. Unsurprisingly, their responses were right along well established battlelines and professional interests.

The worry is this: if experts with supposedly deep understanding of this vexed issue cannot agree on accepting even the basic findings let alone the commission's conclusions, how can this be expected from the broader community - and in proxy its political leaders? But precisely this will be required if this Royal Commission can avoid being just a waste of money.


Before having a look at these comments, lets remind ourselves that what the commissioner has put forward as SA's best option is to establish far reaching services which in one way or another will affect the state or the nation for the next century and beyond. If the state is going to offer the storage of spent fuel it will take at least until the end of 2020 to implement a facility at a substantial cost. Importantly, though, the stored fuel will be with us pretty much forever.

Politicians around the world have managed to support nuclear power in breathtaking avoidance of the fact that the inevitable spent fuel has to go somewhere.

France and Germany are notable examples: In the 70s German politicians gave the nod to nuclear power in the belief that geologically stable salt domes in Gorleben, an area in the Lower Saxony, would be an assured way to get rid of the waste, not only from German but also French reactors.

Only, it was not, as the community increasingly resisted the transport and storage of the high-level radioactive waste.

It also appears that some of the assumptions on the suitability of salt domes were overly optimistic.

Now, in 2016, there is still no solution in sight, and high-level radioactive fuel is kept above ground in intermediate storage creating an ongoing headache.

Australia has avoided this problem - we are indeed a lucky country - but by exporting the fuel we are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. Somewhere high-level nuclear waste needs to be put away. The commission's report tells us now that we could become part of the solution, and not only that, South Australia could financially benefit a lot from it.

Community protest against the transport of nuclear waste to the Gorleben intermediate storage facility

A way forward is possible, with Sweden and Finland showing how it can be done. There storage facilities will come online in the 2020s, the first in the world.

However, the decision making process in Nordic countries is famously slow but consensus driven, whereas other countries - including Australia - tend to have a more polarised discourse with one side then simply winning. That is until the other side gets the upper hand and decisions are overturned.

The potential money that could be made, at least according to the commission's estimate, is a siren call few politicians will be able to rationalise without immediately succumbing to a state of profuse salivation.

Take SA state Labor MP Tom Kenyon who in an piece in Adelaide's InDaily conjured a land of milk and honey - "We will be able to build a spectacular state" - all paid for by the nuclear waste of others.

Some in the wider community will take the bait. Trouble is, as the commissioner rightly points out, to pull this off we will need a broad consensus across society. This cannot be just a matter for SA alone, and it has to be inclusive of the concerns that our indigenous community may bring forward.

It is not just a matter of bipartisan agreement by our policy makers.

Indeed, the Gorleben example highlights what happens when political parties agree but large segments of the society, who feel not represented by the major parties, do not and resist.

The quality of public debate and the expert advice that can inform this debate will be crucial, but if the responses experts provided the AusSMC are anything to go by, it is going to be a hard ride.

Lets have a look:

AusSMC collated ten expert comments across the spectrum of relevant expertise, of which five broadly welcomed the findings of the commissioner.

Four experts rejected the commissioner's conclusions regarding a proposed storage facility for high-level nuclear waste from other countries.

Notably, three of these experts broadly rejected not only the conclusions but the basic assumptions underlying these conclusions.

Thus, Professor Jim Falk, a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne and an emeritus professor at the University of Wollongong said: "Given this [the widespread concerns across the globe about the safety of storing nuclear wastes], it would be fair to characterise any government which sought to open the way to waste storage and disposal in Australia as at best 'courageous' and perhaps less politely, as 'very politically foolish.'"

Ian Lowe, former president of the Australian Conservation Council and emeritus professor at Griffith University referred to a recent report from the Australia Institute, which questions the assumptions the commissioners findings are based upon and finds that the storage of high-level radioactive waste from countries like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea would probably not be profitable.

In very much the same way, Dr Mark Diesendorf, associate professor and deputy director of UNSW's Institute of Environmental Studies refers to the Australia Institute report, saying the commissioner failed to raise points made in that report, including why nuclear countries would pay to export their waste when it may be cheaper to manage it at home. "The economic analysis justifying this scheme is a single 2016 study, most of whose assumptions are not stated in the Commission's report. The Commission discusses the alleged benefits of this scheme, while failing to acknowledge the economic risks of Australia managing high-level wastes for hundreds of thousands of years by means of unproven technologies and social institutions."

Associate Professor Reza Hashemi-Nezhad, a nuclear physicist from the University of Sydney and Australia's only expert in the field of Accelerator Driven Nuclear Reactors which uses thorium as fuel, rejects a key finding of the commissioner that there is international consensus about geological disposal being the best technical solution for the disposal of used fuel.

"If it is so, why after about 70 years is there still continuous debate about the viability and safety of geological disposal".

Unsurprisingly, he then goes on to promote the establishment of a nuclear incineration facility based on thorium fueled accelerator driven systems (TFADS), which is contrary to the commissioner's finding that "Energy generation technologies that use thorium as a fuel component are not presently commercial, nor expected to be in the foreseeable future.

Other experts with various backgrounds have neither problems with the commissioner's conclusions nor with the evidence these draw upon.

Here as one example: Associate Professor Nigel Marks from Curtin University, an expert in radioactive waste, welcomed the report, saying that all four findings were "spot-on". He says: "Kudos to the Weatherill government for facing down the fear-mongers and looking to the future for South Australia." He also points out that Australia has accquired considerable expertise in nuclear storage technology through ANSTO's Synroc program. (It may be mentioned that A-Professor Marks has an employment history with ANSTO).

I agree with Professor Lowe, who says that at present it seems difficult to see how lasting political, and importantly broad community consensus can be achieved in support of such a major and far reaching endeavour. This is irrespective of how favourable the general conditions for it may be, and how much some parts of the community will trump up the potential economic benefits for the state.

It is also going to be a test whether the community can come together and put all facts, one by one, on the table to then work towards a decision all can live with.

Australia has grappled more than most countries in developing a coherent climate change mitigation strategy, with people refusing to get across the usual carved out trenches (some will say we still haven't got one). Yet on climate change the scientists were at least more or less one voice in their advice (while conveniently ignored).

However, here we have a topic that is equally emotionally loaded, with experts divided on even the basic facts - looks like a tough ride to me but maybe one worth having.

A complete list of expert comments and further information on the Royal Commission's 'Tentative Findings' is provided by the Australian Science Media Centre and can be accessed here; The Australia Institute report The impossible dream' can be accessed here
The image shows the top 10 countries ranked in the 2014-2015 WEF Global Competitiveness Index and the 2015 Global Innovation Index; shaded are the countries that also spend the most on foreign aid relative to their gross national income, according to a report recently released by the OECD on the 29 members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC).
Data and graph drawn from: WEF Global Competitiveness Index 2014-15 report; Global Innovation Index, and the OECD DAC 2016 report.