Opening Potential and Closing the Cycle
A new article published in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies by Ben Heard reinforces the case for advanced, closed fuel cycle nuclear energy in Australia.
Specifically, it describes and analyses innovative used nuclear fuel recycling opportunities, in the context of the recent South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s recommendations on potentially profitable nuclear waste stewardship. This is an important step in the bold thinking required if advanced nuclear technology is to fulfil its vital role in mitigating climate change with minimum delay, something which was excluded from the Royal Commission’s terms of reference. As Mr Heard notes in the article,
The analysis undertaken under that process chose a deliberately constrained pathway that neglected to examine opportunities based on advanced nuclear technologies and recycling of used nuclear fuel.
It was a couple of years ago now, over a pint of Coopers in a pub in Adelaide on a warm autumn evening that Mr Heard first described his brainwave to me. “Let me take you down the rabbit hole,” he offered, and explained the basic framework of an idea to have client nations pay Australia — from their existing mandatory nuclear waste funds — to take custody of used nuclear fuel from conventional power plants in an “Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation” (ISFSI), and use that money and material to respectively build and fuel the first generation of Integral Fast Reactors which would progressively displace coal and arm us against climate change.
I was inspired. By the time Mr Heard presented his idea at an event in Perth, I was already reviewing fuel chemistry, researching the background, and consulting authoritative resources. A few months later I had recorded an Ockham’s Razor segment with the help of an awesome and very welcoming Radio National sound team. It would be a while before it aired, and in the meantime the Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle was called in South Australia, coming as a complete surprise and representing an amazing opportunity.
The vision of a new and innovative energy industry was taken up by Liberal senator Sean Edwards, and I was invited to contribute to a survey of existing ISFSIs, and the cohabitating communities which surround them, as part of the formal submission. We were deeply surprised at the sheer number, and the considerable human populations who live near these storage sites without any incident whatsoever.
The proposal was singled out for criticism by traditional rejectors of nuclear energy. Such opponents wilfully misunderstood without regard for the body of knowledge and the professionals who represent it — professionals who are deserving of the same respect accorded to any other legitimate field of science and engineering. In the nuclear discussion equivalent of Godwin’s Law, they tried to connect the IFR’s fuel recycling technology with weapons proliferation, not comprehending that it is in fact the most proven and direct path to the permanent disposal of nuclear arms — a vital distinction demonstrated by related Russian fast reactor technology which even now runs on bomb plutonium and depleted uranium.
Commercial fast reactors have operated around the world for many decades now. The Russians operate commercial fast reactors today and are building a commercial fast reactor today. India is building large commercial scale liquid metal fast reactors today. The United States built and operated in the early days commercial fast reactors. It’s not a question of the readiness or the availability of the technology. The technology is well-proven and universally understood.
~ Thomas Marcille, VP reactor technologies, HOLTEC International
The Royal Commission also consulted with GE Hitachi regarding its PRISM fast reactor, but otherwise concentrated its resources on the evaluation of conventional nuclear options. As mentioned, the economic potential of deep geological disposal of nuclear material (in contrast to utilizing its vast remaining energy content) formed the centrepiece of its findings, but productive investigation of this idea is considerably hamstrung by specific state legislation and the relentless, unscrupulous intervention of malinformed, disengaged, local and interstate activist groups.
As with his Royal Commission submission, Mr Heard’s paper points to a lucrative opportunity for affordable and reliable climate-friendly electricity coupled to regional leadership in conventional nuclear fuel stewardship and recycling. It’s described first and foremost as addressing a need, and this need could not have been made more crystal clear than it was in commentary by the former director of Song Hong Energy regarding Vietnam’s recent decision against pursuing nuclear energy:
Vietnam cannot master technology on the safe disposal of nuclear waste… [hydropower] and thermal power makes up the largest proportion of electricity output in Vietnam. As Vietnam has fully exploited the hydropower potential, it now can rely on thermal power — coal, oil and gas run power plants.
Even if this identified need were sufficiently met by an Australian used fuel management service, the challenge of addressing “science fiction timescales” — the many tens of thousands of years during which radioactive actinide elements in the used fuel require guaranteed shielding and immobilisation — will become a philosophical barrier to commitment by government, industry and broader society. It’s a simple, unfortunate fact that a narrative of horror and absolute rejection surrounds the subject of nuclear waste — often used to justify opposition to nuclear energy in all forms — which will invariably work directly against any education or consultation undertaken by public and private stakeholders. Dramatically reducing this storage timescale to a few centuries (the relevant duration of radioactivity of the principle fission products, cesium-137 and strontium-90), as fueling fast reactors with this material will do, is a primary objective of Mr Heard’s work.
Economic modelling of net present value indicates this will be a profitable enterprise. “The illustrative mid-range scenario delivers NPV of AU$30.9 billion at 4% discount rate,” under the original submission’s assumptions. But this increases considerably under the assumptions subsequently provided by Royal Commission modelling.
On top of solving the long-lived waste challenge and providing an avenue for weapons material dispositioning, such reactors simply won’t require further mining for their fuel. Once commissioned and connected, there is sufficient used fuel and uranium stockpiles to hypothetically power the world for centuries.
As Mr Heard writes,
On the basis of this analysis we argue that commercial development of advanced nuclear reactors, treated as principally a recycling facility paired with an ISFSI, is economically viable immediately. Deploying advanced nuclear reactors for their recycling capabilities represents an innovative approach to both the development and deployment of low-carbon energy technologies and the resolution of long-standing challenges related to used nuclear fuel.
This analysis provides part of the foundation for the potential deployment of technology deemed critical to rapid climate action by researchers Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw, in a previous paper. At the time, publication of their work was accompanied by an open letter to environmental organisations signed by 75 of the world’s pre-eminent conservation scientists, entreating those groups to put aside their traditional antagonism to nuclear energy in light of the climate challenge.
While the role of various renewable energy sources is acknowledged, the signatories stressed that nuclear energy’s potential contribution — particularly that of efficient, advanced fuel-recycling reactors like the IFR — cannot be ignored. An internationally collaborative path forward for this concept was explored in the literature in early 2015 by Brook and co-workers, and was further investigated in the South Australian context by Ben Heard in a subsequent, award-winning paper which solidly illustrated the limits to the contribution of wind and solar energy in the effort to decarbonise the state’s electricity supply. Independently, the submission from Engineers Australia to the Royal Commission specifically highlighted the potential for a feasibility study into fueling local IFR-type power plants with imported used fuel resources.
In 2016, the South Australian government refused to rule out further investigation of the used fuel storage opportunity, despite the various political challenges involved. Ben Heard’s new paper provides fresh reasons to consider a bold and more integrated approach, which will likely address many of the legitimate questions voiced so far, and provide the basis for negotiation and progress. In its official response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations, the government indicated support for the need to:
Collaborate with the Australian Government to commission expert monitoring and reporting on the commercialisation of new nuclear reactor designs that may offer economic value for nuclear power generation.
As a first step in considering the integrated fuel recycling proposal, the government would ideally approach GE Hitachi regarding the proposal mentioned by Dr Eric Loewen during the Royal Commission’s consultation period:
The very first Apollo rocket that was built, they knew it wasn’t going to fly to the moon but they needed to exercise the supply chain early and they needed to measure some big things such as the vibrational frequency. We propose the same thing for PRISM. We would build a facility that would be at scale, that would exercise the supply chain in Australia, it would use the people that would be a part of this project in Australia but it would never function as an operational reactor. We would use water and we would use that, one to help shake down the design as we go through the licensing process, it would make a regulatory body comfortable with the approach and then once the facility is operational then we would have the ability to continue to train operators for when they operate on the PRISM reactor.
The scale of the immediate benefits to South Australia in pursuing this possibility can only be guessed at, but it would undoubtedly show commitment to an endeavour with the demonstrable potential to manage present and future used nuclear fuel, long-term nuclear security and disarmament, and the climate change challenge.