The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission is scheduled to report its findings in early May. Among the 785 submissions received were many bold ideas. Ben Heard discusses an opportunity for South Australia
Nuclear technology has advantages as a reliable, scalable clean energy source. It also has challenges, limitations and shortcomings. So when the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was announced, I did not support pursuing every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle. While South Australia must move away from ‘playing small’ we must also be canny and strategic. When we find the right opportunities, we must pursue them. Together with Senator Sean Edwards, we found an opportunity to earn tens of billions of dollars for South Australia while turning waste into clean energy that we give away to the market. How is this possible? We looked for where our advantages meet market needs. In South Australia we have several advantages. We are trusted and respected around our region and the globe and our institutions are strong. We are situated in the strongest region of global nuclear growth. Most importantly, we have a clean slate in nuclear energy deployment, but an established nuclear regulator, safeguards office and science and technology organisation. That’s a near-perfect balance for jump-starting nuclear innovation. Calling on those advantages, we proposed to establish an above-ground, interim storage facility for used nuclear fuel. This would focus on serving the unmet needs of Asian neighbours, with revenues in the tens of billions of dollars that can be earned in the relatively near-term. However, social acceptance of that process, alone, may be low. So, we explored the prompt reinvestment of those revenues in the commercialisation of a fuel recycling facility that can be paired with advanced nuclear reactors. The idea is based on the commercialisation-ready PRISM reactor from ISSUE 02 RESOURCING SA Autumn 2016
GE-Hitachi. Together, these technologies enable clean electricity generation from approximately 95 percent of the remaining material in a used fuel rod. The resultant waste is tiny in volume and lasts just 300 years. This approach overcomes crucial hurdles. Deployed as part of a store-and-recycle proposal, the PRISM reactor makes outstanding commercial sense even at high, first-of-a-kind costs. Our modelling suggests we could build two PRISM reactors (at 622 MWe total) and earn present value of $28 billion. We further assessed the construction of six PRISM units (1866 MWe total) operated with free electricity (ie $0 per MWh, wholesale). Under these conditions our mid-range scenario still returned $18 billion in present value. In both cases, enough fuel would be acquired to power the State’s economy for centuries. Naturally this study has limitations, however it is the most comprehensive and robust effort of its kind. The case for further, determined investigation by the government is compelling. Other nuclear innovators would be attracted by the implementation of this project. Canadian company Terrestrial Energy is developing the inherently safe, liquid-fuelled Integral Molten Salt Reactor. This could use our recycling facility as a fuel source. This organisation expressed strong interest in manufacturing and research and development opportunities in South Australia through its
submission to the Royal Commission. This proposal resolves many traditional objections to nuclear energy. We won’t be making nuclear waste: we will be recycling it. We will be making electricity, reliably, with no mined fuel, no greenhouse emissions and barely any waste. There are no compelling environmental objections, it’s a great solution to a longstanding challenge. We won’t be wracked with debt. This could be achieved through drawing pre-existing international budgets to South Australia with our unique service offering. The introduction of more than 1800 MWe of reliable generation would rebalance electricity in South Australia from overreliance on imports and variable generators (like wind and solar) and back towards price and generation stability within our own borders. In so many ways, we would be looking after our own future. By recognising our advantages and acting with calculated boldness, South Australia can be at the start of something very big and very good – for us, the region and the world. Most of the submissions received are available on line at nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/submissions including Ben’s research (Transforming our economy. Cleaning our energy. Sustaining our future – key word search: Edwards)
Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate Consulting, a climate change and sustainability consulting firm. In 2011 Ben delivered a presentation Nuclear Power: From Opponent to Proponent to a strong response and has since become one of Australia’s most prominent nuclear advocates, presenting his work at state, national and international conferences. Ben has written on nuclear power extensively, is a PhD candidate on nuclear energy at the University of Adelaide, and is on the International Advisory Board for Terrestrial Energy.