Comment—Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review draft report

On 14 December 2006, the Australian Academy of Science made the following submission to the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review (UMPNER) taskforce secretariat based in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.


The Australian Academy of Science provided a submission on 18 August 2006 in relation to the Nuclear Energy Review. This submission relates to the draft released on 21 November 2006.

The UMPNER draft report, entitled ‘Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy — opportunities for Australia?’ lays out a number of options for future nuclear technology in Australia. The Academy of Science’s Nuclear Affairs Committee has made detailed enquiries into issues of mining, the environment, electricity generation, health and safety, non-proliferation and the education and training aspects required for Australia to access opportunities, commercial and political, arising from its uranium deposits.

The Academy of Science in its submission of 22 February 1993 to the McKinnon inquiry recommended that it strongly supported the replacement of the HIFAR reactor at the forefront of current medium flux beam performance. The Academy considered that this could be justified on the grounds of:

  • National interest;
  • Strength and integration of strategic research-industry links, which will promote technological development and transfer; and
  • Maintenance and renewal of internationally recognised Australian basic and strategic research.

These general grounds remain relevant today, particularly because the initial steps of the new reactor have had a good start.

The UMPNER report and recently released House of Representatives study on uranium mining suggests the next steps of a coherent policy. It should be noted that there are important positive and negative potential outcomes for the national interest operating at each level of technology analysed by the report. These relate to the further mining of uranium, its enrichment, metallurgical processing, eventual operation of power reactors in Australia and the acceptance of high-level waste and its reprocessing. As in 1994, possible outcomes are the integration of strategic research-industry links and maintenance of an internationally recognised and trusted position in the field of nuclear energy. Perhaps most crucially, the point was made that it is essential the public awareness of this policy be developed.

In relation to the key findings of the nuclear energy review

The key review findings appear robust and the Academy wishes to draw attention to some of the points made:

  1. Skills shortages and government policies restricting the growth of the industry and the need to urgently address these are an important matter the Academy could pursue. A submission from AINSE1 strongly suggests that there should be a review of the skill needs and educational outreach in connection with any nuclear program. But even if there were to be no nuclear program, an extension of education in the nuclear science area would be in Australia's national interest for strategic interest for considerable developments that will take place in the Asia-Pacific region.
  2. The rationalisation of uranium mining is treated in great detail in one of the chapters and the recommendations seem sensible from the perspective of maintenance of high standards throughout the industry. This would be an essential component of any strategy for nuclear energy in Australia — and indeed for the sale of uranium ore — so that the public can be assured operations are being carried out in the most safe and publicly sensitive way.
  3. The question of whether there would be an advantage for Australia to enter the fuel fabrication and enrichment business is extensively discussed in the report. The clear difficulties for Australia to enter this area for added value to its uranium are associated with the great expertise held elsewhere by a single corporation and the regional political implications. These matters need to be considered carefully and publicly discussed.
    • It may be that this option is not open to Australia but it should be explored because it would enhance Australia's technological and industrial position in the nuclear area. It should be part of any educational program so that there is wide understanding in academic and industrial circles of what is involved and what will be involved in other countries where these processes are being undertaken.
    • The report is quite frank about the extra cost of nuclear energy. This major economic point, associated with the initial investment needed to build nuclear power stations, is of considerable importance. The linking of a nuclear-generated electricity source with major infrastructure may be one way to rationalise the initial cost so that there is a long-term plan for baseload nuclear power use in Australia.

Specific comments

Some specific comments can be made in connection with the individual chapters of the report.

Chapter 2—Uranium mining and export

The contribution of nuclear energy to world energy in the longer term has been discussed in various papers such as that by Nathan Lewis (2004).2 It is foreseen that nuclear energy will be a significant component — but nowhere near as large as that of coal — by 2100. Nevertheless, Australian resources in uranium, along with Canada, amount to about 50 per cent of the world supply so it seems inevitable that Australia will sell more uranium to meet world needs.

Chapter 3—Conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication

This would be a major part of an extended Australian entry into the uranium-based fuel cycle and the process of "nuclear leasing" already extensively discussed in Australia. This option of completing the whole process of the supply of fuel and the eventual reception of radioactive waste produced with Australian-based uranium is a very sensitive area, not only because it would involve Australia becoming a nation that undertakes enrichment — and there have been sensitivities in respect to our neighbours in that respect — but also because of the strong international position in these areas for at least the next 10 years until new facilities are needed. The Academy's position on this should be one that advocates extensive discussion of the net value to Australia both in economic and social and political terms.

Chapter 4—Electricity generation

For nuclear electricity, the 20-50 per cent extra cost over coal-fired power sounds like a realistic figure. This needs more research to ensure that the full costs, including initial establishment of the reactor system, as well as the costs associated with the production of materials to build the reactors and waste storage/treatment have been added to the calculations.

Chapter 5—Radioactive waste and spent fuel management

This is an area, like the supply of uranium ore, where Australia might well be seen to have an immediate role. The Academy has expertise in Australian geological structures that may be suitable for nuclear waste storage and these will need to be brought to bear along with complementary information from other Academies on the social and political aspects of long-term storage.

Another aspect of the handling of radioactive waste relates to research on "spallation destruction" and fast-reactor burning of actinide and transuranic wastes after reprocessing. Both of these processes are under active study overseas. The first, involving transmutation by proton bombardment, is part of a major program (J-PARC) sponsored by the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority and the KEK (High Energy Nuclear Institute). Other studies in that area are being pursued in the United States and France. The reactor option also is under consideration. If it were possible to significantly reduce the 100-year lifetime — the objective of the Japanese program — this would be an important political and indeed, public awareness point toward acceptability of nuclear power. Australia should be in contact with these programs. The report’s emphasis on Australia maintaining its international linkages in the nuclear area is therefore quite important in this respect, as well as other technological matters related to the nuclear fuel cycle.

Chapter 6 and 9—Health and safety and regulation

The Academy should strongly endorse the recommendations embraced in the dot points associated with Chapter 6 of the UMPNER report. The development of a unified and authoritative health and safety operation in Australia on the basis of the already existing experience should be a high priority. This should be so even if we do not have a nuclear reactor producing power in Australia for 20 years. The lead time for developing public awareness and indeed public confidence in nuclear regulation needs to be studied; and separate investigation is needed into appropriately phased arrangements in the development of nuclear licensing in the health and safety authority.

The issue of regulation is separate from but embraces general health and safety provisions. There is a crucial need for an informed and internationally competent regulatory authority at arms length from government.

Chapter 8—Non- proliferation

This is a key chapter in relation to the adoption of an extensive nuclear technology in Australia. If Australia were to go into full nuclear leasing the measures adopted at the level of the Australian Government and in bilateral and multilateral agreements - should be strict and binding. It is not simply a matter of security in Australia - which the report addresses but the confidence of other nations with respect to Australia's dealings and intentions in the nuclear area.

Chapter 10—Research, development and education

These are areas which Australia should build on, given the strong investment in the OPAL reactor's infrastructure. The "building" should have a forthright international dimension. It would be a great mistake if, by having our own facilities, we cut back on our international connections. Sustaining existing links and developing new ones will be one of the best guarantees of the flow of knowledge internationally. The provision of international access to Australian facilities will be cost-effective in making long-term collaborations and will display our openness in nuclear matters.

Conclusion

The Academy considers it important that discussion should be transparent and cover all aspects of the nuclear energy cycle. The Academy advocates strong support for basic research in nuclear science in Australia to ensure that Australian scientists are alert to new opportunities and are well poised to develop and adopt emerging technologies. In view of the long-term timescale for development of a nuclear energy industry, it is appropriate to invest in development of skills and expertise in this area.

Footnotes

© 2018 Australian Academy of Science

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