South Australian senator believes there’s value in “nuclear waste”

South Australian Sen. Sean Edwards sees economic opportunity for his state by taking advantage of other countries’ irrational fear of radioactive materials.

He wants to turn what some call “waste” into wealth.

He and his staff recognize that there are tens of billions of dollars set aside in government budgets around the world for safe disposal of used fuel. In most countries, however, there is no effective planning that will result in the desired result.

His team of advisors also knows that lightly used fuel contains about 95% of the initial potential energy, which can be recycled into new fuel suitable for advanced reactors.

South_AustraliaSouth Australia is a physically large, geologically stable state with a well-educated population. But it also has a big debt burden, high taxes, insufficient economic activity and expensive electricity.
As part of the effort to address the existing challenges, the SA government has recently established a Royal Commission that will spend the next year looking deeply into the nuclear fuel cycle and the opportunities for South Australia to develop a nuclear energy industry. Here is a quote from the commission’s web site:

The draft terms of reference seek to direct the Royal Commission to inquire into whether there is any potential for expansion of the current level of exploration, extraction or milling of minerals containing radioactive materials in South Australia, and the feasibility of the state becoming involved in:

  • the further processing of minerals, and the processing and manufacture of materials containing radioactive and nuclear substances (but not for, or from, military uses) including con- version, enrichment, fabrication or re-processing in South Australia;

  • the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels; and
  • the management, storage and disposal of non-military nuclear and radioactive waste.

The decision to form the Royal Commission came from the currently ruling Labor Party, while Edwards is a member of the Liberal Party. That suggests that his plan has a chance of gaining bipartisan support, which is a key ingredient in establishing a sustainable industry that will need to thrive through numerous changes in political winds.

The senator is proposing to take on the responsibility for existing and future inventories of used fuel from countries that prefer to pay someone else to take possession of their material and manage it.

The world’s current inventory of used fuel is about 240,000 tonnes and it is growing by about 12,000 tonnes per year. At the U.S. rate of 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour, each tonne of that used fuel would be backed by ~ $400,000 in project funding, excluding accrued interest. That works out to just under $100 billion worth of escrow funds.

South Australia would use some of the money to build facilities to recycle the material into new fuel for advanced reactors.

Those reactors might be sodium cooled fast reactors like the PRISM or an under-development Terrapower design, or perhaps molten salt reactors like those being proposed by Terrestrial Energy, ThorCon, or Transatomic Power. They might even be refined versions of existing light or heavy water reactors.

Sen. Edwards has not been cooking up this idea in a vacuum; he has met with countries that are interested in partnering with South Australia and spoken with the Australian Trade Minister and the Industry Minister.

Geographically small countries and those that only operate a small number of nuclear plants would benefit greatly by partnering and sharing the cost of developing an appropriate way of closing their fuel cycle. They are the most likely early adopters of Edwards’s strategy.

Edwards’s draft plans have received endorsement from Ziggy Switkowski, who provided a review of the possibilities of starting a nuclear industry for the Howard government in 2006. Switkowski’s nuclear industry review was favorable, but plans were shelved with changes in the government and the world economic recession.

He also received support from Ben Heard, a well-known nuclear innovation expert who is also producing energy system models for a PhD thesis. Heard asserts that the outlines of the plan are technically credible.

Edwards believes that a full scale adoption of his ideas could result in such favorable results as replacing the income from about A$4.4 billion worth of current state taxes and providing electricity that is almost too cheap to meter, while also acknowledging that facilities, poles and wires still need to be purchased.

Low cost electricity would be a draw for other industries and enable South Australia to diversify its economy even beyond the myriad atomic enterprises that would be required to effectively recycle the used fuel and put the various constituents to beneficial use.

In response to questions implying that the plan might simply result in South Australia becoming the world’s waste dump, Edwards explained that his vision is to take advantage of valuable material that isn’t waste.

Of course, he would probably prefer for people in the countries that will be shipping their material to South Australia to continue fretting about the difficulty of storing such “dangerous” material.

One interviewer challenged Edwards by saying that he thought most Australians would use “Fukushima” as their trump word (time mark 4:16 in audio file) to halt conversation. Edwards’s response was to remind the interviewer that even on one of its worst days in a long history, nuclear energy is safer that the routine hazards produced by burning coal.

In the press release that his office issued to announce the plan, Edwards also provided the following quote: “Research by climate scientist James Hansen attributes nuclear power with preventing 1.8 million deaths due to air pollution and claims it could save 7 million lives in the next four decades.”

Edwards has been quoted as saying that full implementation of his plan offers the opportunity for South Australia to “generate wealth akin to being the Saudis of the South.”

Edwards’s plan has stimulated discussion among people that are interested in thinking about how his ideas can be implemented and how they can benefit South Australia.

On March 18, the Roo and Ditts for Breakfast radio talk show included a segment where they talked to Ben Heard about the plan and then discussed it a bit more after he departed. You can listen to the relevant audio from that talk show discussion via the player at the bottom of this post.

Note: The above piece is adapted from an article that was first published in the March 12, 2015 issue of Fuel Cycle Week. It is reprinted here with permission.

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