SA Royal Commission into Nuclear Expansion

This webpage will track the progress of the South Australian Royal Commission, established by the South Australian government in February 2015 to examine options to expand the state's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.

Quick links:

SA nuclear Royal Commission is a snow job

Jim Green, 29 April 2016,

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (RC) will release its final report on May 6. It was established to investigate opportunities for SA to expand its role in the nuclear industry beyond uranium mining.

Before his appointment as the Royal Commissioner, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce said little about nuclear issues but what he did say should have excluded him from consideration. Speaking in November 2014 at a Flinders University guest lecture, Scarce acknowledged being an “an advocate for a nuclear industry”. Just four months later, after his appointment as the Royal Commissioner, he said the exact opposite: “I have not been an advocate and never have been an advocate of the nuclear industry.”

Other than generalisations, and his acknowledgement that he is a nuclear advocate, Scarce’s only comment of substance on nuclear issues in his 2014 lecture was to claim that work is “well underway” on a compact fusion reactor “small enough to fit in a truck”, that it “may be less than a decade away” and could produce power “without the risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns.” Had he done just a little research, Scarce would have learnt that Lockheed Martin’s claims about its proposed compact fusion reactor were met with universal scepticism and ridicule by scientists and even by nuclear industry bodies.

So the SA government appointed Scarce as Royal Commissioner despite knowing that he is a nuclear advocate who has uncritically promoted discredited claims by the nuclear industry. Scarce appointed an Expert Advisory Committee. Despite claiming that he was conducting a “balanced” RC, he appointed three nuclear advocates to the Committee and just one critic. The bias is all too apparent and Scarce’s claim to be conducting a balanced inquiry is demonstrably false.

Given the make-up of the RC, it came as no surprise that numerous questionable claims by the nuclear industry were repeated in the RC’s interim report released in February. A detailed critique of the interim report is available online, as is a critique of the RC process.

The RC’s interim report was actually quite downbeat about the economic prospects for a nuclear industry in SA. It notes that the market for uranium conversion and enrichment services is oversupplied and that a spent fuel reprocessing plant would not be commercially viable. The interim report also states that “it would not be commercially viable to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant in South Australia in the foreseeable future.”

In a nutshell, the RC rejected proposals for SA to play any role in the nuclear fuel cycle beyond uranium mining. But that still leaves the option of SA offering to store and dispose of foreign high-level nuclear waste (HLW) and the RC strongly promotes a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of HLW for storage and deep underground disposal.

SA as the world’s nuclear waste dump

The RC insists that a nuclear waste storage and dumping business could be carried out safely. But would it be carried out safely? The RC ought to have considered evidence that can be drawn upon to help answer the question, especially since Kevin Scarce has repeatedly insisted that he is running an evidence-based inquiry.

So what sort of evidence might be considered? The experience of the world’s one and only deep underground nuclear waste dump ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in the U.S. ‒ is clearly relevant. And Australia’s past experience with nuclear waste management is clearly relevant, with the clean-up of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in SA being an important case study.

But the RC completely ignores all this evidence in its interim report. We can only assume that the evidence is ignored because it raises serious doubts about the environmental and public health risks associated with the proposal to import, store and dispose of HLW.

WIPP is a case study of a sharp decline in safety and regulatory standards over a short space of time. A chemical explosion in a nuclear waste barrel in February 2014 was followed by a failure of the filtration system, resulting in 22 workers receiving small doses of radiation and widespread contamination in the underground caverns. WIPP has been shut down for the two years since the accident. Costs associated with the accident are likely to exceed US$500 million. A U.S. government report details the many failings of the operator and the regulator.

At a public meeting in Adelaide Town Hall in February 2016, Scarce said that WIPP was ignored in the RC interim report because it involved different waste forms (long-lived intermediate-level waste) of military origin. In fact, the waste that the RC recommends that SA import is vastly more hazardous than the waste managed at WIPP, so Scarce’s argument is hard to fathom.

Moreover the RC has overlooked the fundamental lesson from the WIPP fiasco – initially high safety and regulatory standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting in the space of just 10–15 years. The RC notes that HLW “requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years”. How can Scarce be confident that high safety and regulatory standards would be maintained over centuries and millennia when WIPP shows that the half-life of human complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting is measured in years or at most decades?

There is no logical reason to believe that the SA government would perform any better than the U.S. government. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that nuclear waste management would be more difficult here given that the U.S. has vastly more nuclear waste management expertise and experience than Australia.

While completely ignoring the world’s one and only existing deep underground nuclear waste dump, the RC talks at length about deep underground repositories under construction in Finland and Sweden. According to the RC’s interim report, those two countries “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” for nuclear waste. But in fact, neither country has completed construction of a repository let alone demonstrated safe operation over any length of time.

Mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA

The RC has also ignored the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA. A radioactive waste repository at Radium Hill, for example, “is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice” according to a 2003 SA government audit. And the ‘clean-up’ of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s was a fiasco:

  • Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.” (See Parkinson’s videos here and here.)
  • Scientist Dale Timmons said the government’s technical report was littered with “gross misinformation”.
  • Dr Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said that the ‘clean-up’ was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups”.
  • Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston (now with ARPANSA) noted that there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project”.

The RC’s interim report claims that “South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel”. But SA has a track record of mismanaging radioactive waste (Radium Hill, Maralinga, etc.) and no experience managing HLW. The RC’s claim that SA has “a mature and stable political, social and economic structure” needs to be considered in the context of the longevity of nuclear waste. Australia has had one profound political revolution in the past 250 years (European invasion) and is on track for 1,200 political revolutions over the 300,000-year lifespan of nuclear waste.


The RC’s interim report presents speculative and implausible figures regarding potential profits from a nuclear waste storage and dumping industry. The Australia Institute crunched the numbers presented in the interim report and wrote a detailed factual rebuttal. Scarce responded on ABC radio on 31 March 2016 by saying that the RC will “take apart” the Australia Institute’s report “piece by piece”. When asked if such an aggressive attitude was appropriate, Scarce said: “I’m a military officer, what would you expect?”

And that says all that anyone needs to know about Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce and his Royal Commission. Critics are taken apart piece by piece, or ignored altogether. On the other hand, Scarce uncritically repeats Lockheed Martin’s discredited claims about its ‘compact fusion reactor’ and the RC’s interim report repeats many other nuclear industry falsehoods. Scarce ignores the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA (Radium Hill, Maralinga etc.) and he ignores the failure of the world’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump while claiming that Sweden and Finland “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” by partially building deep underground dumps.

A year ago the Adelaide Advertiser published a Friends of the Earth letter likening the RC to a circus and Kevin Scarce to a clown. Events over the past year have only confirmed the illegitimacy of the RC. The RC’s bias would be comical if the stakes weren’t so high, particularly for Aboriginal people in the firing line for a HLW dump.

The Aboriginal Congress of South Australia endorsed the following resolution at an August 2015 meeting:

“We, as native title representatives of lands and waters of South Australia, stand firmly in opposition to nuclear developments on our country, including all plans to expand uranium mining, and implement nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our land. We view any further expansion of industry as an imposition on our country, our people, our environment, our culture and our history. We also view it as a blatant disregard for our rights under various legislative instruments, including the founding principles of this state.”

The Aboriginal-led Australian Nuclear Free Alliance is asking organisations in Australia and around the world to endorse a statement opposing the plan to turn SA into the world’s nuclear waste dump. Organisations can endorse the statement online at

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.

Joint environment groups response to Royal Commission's 'Tentative Findings' report

March 2016, by the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia

Click here to download.

Our organisations have expressed deep reservations over the Royal Commission process to date, with particular concern over the Commission's pro-industry terms of reference and the unnecessarily complex nature of the Commission process. Our organisations have a long-standing interest and experience with a range of nuclear industry issues in South Australia and beyond and were disappointed that our repeated requests to directly present and speak on this civil society experience was not accepted by the Commission. We are particularly concerned by this as it appears that key issues raised in our original detailed submission have been ignored in the Commission's tentative findings. We detail these omissions in these comments and urge that the Commission revisit these areas and address them in the final report.

The Tentative Findings report fails to demonstrate that a high-level nuclear waste facility is practical or economic for SA. The report downplays and ignores risks and uncritically presents incredibly optimistic forecasts of economic impacts.

Summary of 'Tentative Findings' of SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

Summary by Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner, Friends of the Earth

To download as a PDF click here:

The 'Tentative Findings' report is posted at:

The deadline for written submissions responding to the interim report is March 18 (see the Royal Commission website for details).

The final report will be published in May 2016.

What does the report say?

In a nutshell, the Royal Commission is negative about almost all of the proposals it is asked to consider – but positive about the proposal to import high-level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants for disposal in South Australia.

Uranium mining

The report states: "An expansion of uranium mining has the potential to be economically beneficial. However, it is not the most significant opportunity."

The report notes there are "significant barriers to the viability of new uranium mine developments in South Australia" including the "current low price of uranium and uncertainty about the timing of any price increases", "the costs of identifying new deposits", etc.

The report praises Australia's "active involvement in strengthening the international safeguards system". However, Australia is actively weakening the nuclear safeguards system. The most recent example is the proposal to sell uranium to India – a country which is actively expanding its weapons arsenal and refuses to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. That proposal has been endorsed by the federal government despite strong criticisms from a who's who of nuclear arms control diplomats and experts including John Carlson (former long serving Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office from 1989 to 2010), Ron Walker (former chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency), and Prof Lawrence Scheinman (former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency). These are veteran players in global nuclear diplomatic and regulatory regimes, not anti-nuclear activists.

Uranium processing stages of the nuclear fuel cycle

The Royal Commission report says: "In an already oversupplied and uncertain market, there would be no opportunity for the commercial development of further uranium processing capabilities in South Australia in the next decade."

It further states: "At present, the market for uranium conversion and enrichment services is oversupplied."

It further states: "However, fuel leasing, which links uranium processing with its eventual return for disposal, is more likely to be commercially attractive, creating additional employment and technology-transfer opportunities."

That finding is contradictory – fuel leasing would involve entry into several markets, such as uranium conversion and enrichment, which are oversupplied and not commercially viable as the Royal Commission itself notes.

On nuclear fuel reprocessing, the report states: "Without nuclear power generation, a used fuel reprocessing facility would not be needed in South Australia, nor would it be commercially viable."

Nuclear power

The Royal Commission's findings regarding nuclear power are very sceptical. The report states: "Taking account of future demand and anticipated costs of nuclear power under the existing electricity market structure, it would not be commercially viable to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant in South Australia in the foreseeable future."

Similarly the report states that "on the present estimate of costs and under current market arrangements, nuclear power would not be commercially viable to supply baseload electricity to the South Australian subregion of the NEM from 2030 (being the earliest date for its possible introduction)". And more bluntly: "it would not be viable".

The report further states: "In Australia, the ability for nuclear power to contribute to emissions reductions before 2030 is affected significantly by the long lead time to make new capacity operational."

The report then throws a small bone to the nuclear power lobby: "However, Australia’s electricity system will require low-carbon generation sources to meet future global emissions reduction targets. Nuclear power may be necessary, along with other low-carbon generation technologies. It would be wise to plan now to ensure that nuclear power would be available should it be required."

Similarly the report states: "The politics concerning global efforts to reduce emissions are fluid. It would be wise to plan now for a contingency in which external pressure is applied to Australia to more rapidly decarbonise. Action taken now to settle policy for the delivery and operation of nuclear power would enable it to potentially contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions. While it is not clear whether nuclear power would be the best choice for Australia beyond 2030, it is important that it not be precluded as an option. ...

There is a major push for a waste-to-fuel plan which would involve importing high level nuclear waste and to converting it into fuel for (non-existent) 'integral fast reactors' (one of a variety of non-existent Generation IV reactors). The push comes from Liberal Party Senator Sean Edwards, nuclear industry consultant Ben Heard and others. The illogical nature of the waste-to-fuel plan is neatly debunked in an important recent report by The Australia Institute, commissioned by Conservation SA.

The Royal Commission could not be clearer on the topic of fast reactors. It states: "Fast reactors or reactors with other innovative designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future. No licensed and commercially proven design is currently operating. Development to that point would require substantial capital investment. Moreover, the electricity generated has not been demonstrated to be cost-competitive with current light water reactor designs."

So the waste-to-fuel fantasies of Senator Edwards and Ben Heard are dead and buried.

The Royal Commission is also sceptical about proposals for 'small modular reactors' or small off-grid reactors. It states: "Off-grid nuclear power also is unlikely to be viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future because of low demand, even assuming optimistic growth of mining activities, and the likely location of that demand."

Nuclear waste

According to the Jacobs MCM report commissioned by the Royal Commission, revenue from the importation of spent fuel (high level nuclear waste) and intermediate level waste would exceed the costs of managing the waste; i.e. it would be profitable.

However the revenue estimates have no basis in reality. There is no comparable overseas model of commercial trade of nuclear waste for disposal. No real idea how many countries might avail themselves of the opportunity to send nuclear waste to Australia for disposal, or how much they might send, or how much they might pay. So there's no way of knowing whether revenue would exceed costs.

The estimated construction costs for a deep underground repository for high level waste are in the tens of billions of dollars. For example the construction cost estimate in France is A$39 billion while in Japan the estimate is A$43 billion.

Of course, there are significant additional costs associated with operating and monitoring repositories. The US governments estimates that to build a repository and operate it for 150 years would cost A$135 billion.

The Jacobs report commissioned by the Royal Commission provides a similar figure. The Jacobs paper estimates costs of $145 billion over 120 years for construction, operation and decommissioning.

But the above timeframes – 150 years in the U.S. report and 120 years in the Royal Commission study – are nothing compared to the lifespan of nuclear waste. It takes 300,000 years for high level waste to decay to the level of the original uranium ore. The Royal Commission report notes that spent nuclear fuel (high level nuclear waste) "requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years."

In the US, the Energy Department's plan aims to safeguard nuclear material for the next 10,000 years. Presumably the argument is that residual radioactivity after 10,000 years is so low that active monitoring is no longer required.

So what might the costs of monitoring waste for a period of 10,000 years be? The Royal Commission is silent on that important question. Thus the Royal Commission's conclusion that importing waste could be profitable has no rational basis given that the cost of managing waste for millennia is not considered.

Finally it should be noted that there is only one deep underground repository for nuclear waste anywhere in the world – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the U.S. state of New Mexico. WIPP was closed in 2014 because of a chemical explosion which ruptured a nuclear waste barrel and resulted in 23 workers being exposed to radiation. Before WIPP opened, the government estimated one radiation release accident every 200,000 years. But there has been one radiation release accident in the first 15 years of operation of WIPP.

The Royal Commission's report is silent about WIPP. It is silent about the Asse repository in Germany, where massive water infiltration has led to the decision to exhume 126,000 barrels of radioactive waste. The report is silent about the fire at a radioactive waste repository in the U.S. state of Nevada last year. And the report is silent about many other problems with the nuclear industry that it should have squarely addressed.

Some expert responses

Prof. Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University, and a member of the Royal Commission's Expert Advisory Committee:

"The crucial finding of the Royal Commission is that community consent would be essential to the successful development of any nuclear fuel cycle activities. It says "Long-term political decision-making, with bipartisan support at both state and federal government levels, would be a prerequisite". It is difficult to see how bipartisan support at both levels would be achieved for South Australia being more deeply involved in the nuclear industry.
"It notes that uranium mining currently contributes relatively little to South Australia. Despite Roxby Downs being one of the largest uranium producers in the world, its royalties are about $4 a year for each South Australian. The Commission sees little prospect of local processing of uranium and correctly observes that nuclear power is not economically feasible. The Switkowski report in 2007 found that significant public subsidies would be needed to make nuclear power economic in Australia.
"The most serious proposal in the Commission’s tentative findings is that SA should consider setting up shop as a destination for radioactive waste from countries like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The Commission believes that this could be a profitable operation, but that belief is based on generous assumptions about the willingness of those countries to pay for the removal of their waste. Independent analysis by The Australia Institute questions those assumptions and concludes the operation would probably not be profitable. The Commission also notes "there are no operating models for the commercial transfer of used fuel for disposal. Any proposal to store and dispose of used fuel in South Australia would require agreements between customer countries and both the federal and state governments". That is a big hurdle, as is the acknowledgement that "any development would require sophisticated planning and consent-based decision-making, acknowledging the particular interests and experiences of regional, remote and Aboriginal communities. 

"So the report gives a red light for nuclear power, a tentative amber light for expanding uranium mining, a red light for further processing of uranium for export, then a very tentative and heavily qualified amber light for the SA State government’s concept of setting up as the destination for east Asia’s radioactive waste."

Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales:

"The Royal Commission’s report acknowledges that nuclear electricity is not commercially viable in South Australia. However, it expresses great enthusiasm for the management and disposal of overseas-produced high-level and intermediate level nuclear wastes in South Australia. It supports a combination of above-ground interim storage of dry casks together with underground ‘permanent’ storage. The rationale for this economically risky scheme is slender, being based on the quantities of wastes held in temporary storage by countries with nuclear power stations. The report is not troubled by the fact that no country, not even the USA, has so far succeeded in building and operating an underground waste dump.
"It fails to address the points raised by the Australia Institute, questioning, for example, why nuclear countries would pay to export their wastes when it may be cheaper to manage them 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."

Professor Jim Falk, Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Wollongong:

"This report should not provide much cause for optimism amongst thoughtful members of Australia’s pro-nuclear lobby. As with the previous Switowski report a decade ago, this report makes clear that nuclear energy generation and further fuel processing including enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing will be uneconomic in Australia without major changes in the Australian and world market."

"Oddly, the report settles on high-level nuclear waste storage as the opportunity for South Australia. This is odd given the decades long process (from as early as 1984) for the Commonwealth in trying to find an acceptable location to store Australia’s existing low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste. This couples with the Commission’s insistence that any extension of nuclear activities should have both bipartisan political support and the consent of the community.

"Prior experience, especially in Australia, and also in many other parts of the world including the USA, reflects long standing and widespread concerns about the safety of storing nuclear wastes completely isolated from the environment for the many centuries required. Given this, 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.""

Joint environment groups submission to Royal Commission

To download the August 2015 joint submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission by Friends of the Earth, Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and the Conservation Council of SA, click here.

Nuclear is the wrong direction for SA: Environment groups enter submission to Royal Commission.

Media Release, 13 August 2015

Three leading environmental organisations - Conservation SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia - have submitted a detailed joint submission to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission which forensically details an extensive series of nuclear myths and false assumptions.

"South Australia's future lies in renewable energy, not nuclear. It's cheaper, safer and quicker to roll out," said Conservation SA Chief Executive Craig Wilkins.

"This week's axing of hundreds of jobs from Olympic Dam should raise huge questions about growth potential in the nuclear industry.

"With renewables, we can be in charge of our own destiny, not dependent on decisions made in corporate boardrooms on the other side of the world," he said.

"Much of the nuclear promotion in SA is premised on the idea of a global nuclear 'renaissance', said lead submission author Dr Jim Green. "In fact, the nuclear renaissance is stone cold dead.

"There are fewer reactors now than there were a decade ago. Nuclear fuel cycle markets for enrichment, conversion and fuel fabrication are oversupplied. And as the continuing job losses at Olympic Dam demonstrate, the uranium market is extremely weak and will remain so for years," he said.

As well as highlighting the contested and constrained status of the current nuclear sector the 248 page report makes a compelling case that the industry's future will be no brighter.

"So-called Generation 3 reactors projects such as the French EPR and Westinghouse AP1000 are in trouble, with multi-year delays and multi-billion dollar cost blowouts," said Dr Green. "So-called Generation 4 reactors are decades away and, as a recent report by the French government concludes, safety claims made by Generation 4 advocates do not stand up to scrutiny."

Many environment, public health and Aboriginal groups have expressed concern that the Royal Commission is being used by the nuclear industry as a Trojan Horse in an attempt to open national and international radioactive waste dumps in SA.

"Australia has yet to find a lasting, responsible solution to domestic radioactive waste so it beggars belief that some are promoting Australia as the solution to the world's nuclear waste problems.

"Proponents of a deep underground nuclear waste dump in Australia have been coy about the fact that the world's only deep underground nuclear dump – in the US state of New Mexico – has been shut down following a February 2014 explosion," Dr Green concluded.

Attachment 1: Two page submission briefing.

Attachment 2: Joint submission to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission by Conservation SA, Australian Conservation Foundation, and Friend's of the Earth, Australia.

A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

December 2015

Written by Dr Jim Green and Dr Philip White on behalf of the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia.

To download the report click here (PDF) or to read online click here.

Royal Commission vs Community Permission: Environment groups assess performance of SA nuclear Royal Commission

Media Release, 17 December 2015

National and state environment groups have today released an assessment of the state Royal Commission into the nuclear industry in SA. The report – commissioned by Conservation SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth Australia – looks at the Commission’s progress since its surprise unveiling by Premier Jay Weatherill ten months ago.

The report raises serious concerns about the Royal Commission, from the unrepresentative and unbalanced composition of the Expert Advisory Committee, conflicts of interest, the Royal Commission's unwillingness to correct factual errors, to a repeated pattern of pro-nuclear claims being uncritically accepted and promoted.

 “The nuclear industry embodies unique, complex and long lasting safety, security, environmental and public health challenges,” said Conservation SA Chief Executive Craig Wilkins. “The sector lacks a secure social license and it is imperative that any consideration of an expansion of the industry is predicated on the highest standards of evidence, rigour, transparency and inclusion. Sadly this report shows these standards are not being reflected in the current Royal Commission.”

The Royal Commission has been criticised by civil society groups including environmental, public health and Aboriginal organisations for its restricted processes and limited information flows.

“Unlike most Royal Commissions this one was not a response to a pressing public issue, but rather it is a calculated political initiative with a pro-nuclear agenda,” said ACF nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney. “As a result the Commission looks less like an objective risk-benefit analysis and more an industry feasibility study. Environment groups and others will continue to closely track this deficient process.”

The Royal Commission is set to make an interim report in February 2016 with a final report due no later than 6 May 2016.

“We are concerned about skewed and inaccurate information and assumptions, especially in relation to nuclear growth and reactor longevity and so-called small modular reactors,” said Friends of the Earth Australia’s Dr Jim Green, a co-author of the report. “The Royal Commission praises the United Arab Emirates for the speed of its nuclear power program without making any mention of the elephant in the room: undemocratic countries can build reactors more quickly than democratic countries. Statements by the Royal Commission regarding the impact of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters are incorrect – and the list goes on.”

The groups have called for an expanded Advisory Committee, increased Aboriginal access to information and decision points and dedicated studies into the potential for growth in SA’s renewable energy sector as important steps to bring some much needed balance into the Commission’s deliberations.

To download the report click here (PDF) or to read online click here.

May 2015: SA Conservation Council detailed briefing paper on the nuclear issues under investigation by the Royal Commission.

Long and summary versions are posted here, or to download the long version (PDF) click here or to download the summary version (PDF) click here. The report covers uranium mining, enrichment, fuel leasing, nuclear power and nuclear waste.

Maralinga victim of nuclear tests protests Weatherill dump bid

Verity Edwards, The Australian, 3 March 2015

A PROMINENT Aboriginal elder who was blinded by the British nuclear testing on the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands in the 1950s and 60s has called on the South Australian government not to consider storing waste in his country.

Yami Lester, who was just 10 when he became ill and lost his sight when the British tested their first bombs at the outback site, has questioned why the South Australian Labor government would consider allowing nuclear waste to be stored at Maralinga after federal governments had spent 43 years cleaning up the region, costing $104 million.

"A few years ago they cleaned up Maralinga from the waste that was left over from the bomb tests ... and now they're going to put more waste back there?" Mr Lester said. "That's not fair because it's Anangu land and they won't be able to use that land. Members from the APY, Maralinga-Tjarutja and Arabunna, Kokatha lands say we don't want nuclear waste on our land."

The Maralinga Tjarutja lands were contaminated after the British exploded seven nuclear bombs 130km east of the Oak Valley township between 1956 and 1963.

Premier Jay Weatherill last month announced that he would hold a royal commission into nuclear energy.

Yesterday, the federal government called for voluntary nominations of sites for a national nuclear waste dump to store intermediate level radioactive waste and dispose of low-level waste.

An independent advisory body will assess the nominated sites against a number of criteria.

Maralinga has been suggested as a potential storage site even though it was handed back to its people in November.

Mr Lester questioned why the state would consider nuclear fuel, saying contamination had been proven to last for decades. He called for greater consultation with his people.

The Premier said Mr Lester's concerns were, "matters for the commissioner".

Labor MP Eddie Hughes, whose electorate covers the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands, said he would oppose any moves to dump waste in the state's north.

Nuclear Royal Commission puts up barriers to community participation

MEDIA RELEASE, 22 May 2015

The SA Nuclear Royal Commission is putting huge barriers in the way of the community to formally participate in the current submission process, with Aboriginal people, people from remote, regional or rural areas, youth, and those with language difficulties particularly affected. 

The Royal Commission is currently calling for public input in response to a series of Issues Papers. However, in the Submissions Guidelines they insist that submissions must be typed (not hand-written), and before lodging, a person has to swear in front of a Justice of the Peace (or equivalent) that it is their work.

“This requirement to find a JP will make it very difficult for many in remote areas, and especially for Aboriginal people of South Australia,” said Karina Lester, Yankunytjatjara Anangu Traditional Owner.

“How many JP’s live on the APY Lands or Maralinga Tjarutja Lands. How far does one have to travel to track down a JP?

“This is very unfair of the Commission to put these requirements in place as this will disengage the community and it will be all too hard to put in a submission.

“All South Australians need to contribute into this Royal Commission and feel that they have been consulted the right way.

“Anangu and the Aboriginal people of South Australia have been the ones directly impacted by the Nuclear Industry in the past.  The Government of SA are not learning from the past and hearing and respecting the voices of those who have lost loved ones, lost their sight, skin infections, cancers, and the list goes on," said Ms Lester. 

A sworn oath in front of a Justice of the Peace to lodge a submission is:
- NOT required under the Royal Commissions Act 1917
- NOT required for equivalent Federal or State Parliamentary inquiries

“Requiring a member of the public to travel to a JP and swear an oath in front of them before they can lodge a submission is a highly unusual, unnecessary and surprising restriction which will stop people getting involved,” said Conservation Council SA Chief Executive Craig Wilkins.

“If they are concerned about fake or spam submissions, all they need is for individuals to self declare and sign a coversheet. To be forced to swear an oath in front of a JP just to have your say is simply not necessary.

“Rather than creating a genuine community conversation as the Premier hoped, barriers like this will directly prevent a large number South Australians from participating and submitting their views. 

"We urge the Commission to change their rules to allow as many South Australians as possible to participate, " he said.

Owners oppose uranium

Adelaide Advertiser, 22 May 2015

TRADITIONAL owners from South Australia have joined forces to express opposition to nuclear expansion in the state.

Aboriginal groups launched a campaign yesterday calling on the SA royal commission into the nuclear industry to recommend against any uranium mining and nuclear projects on their lands. "We call on the Australian population to support us in our campaign to prevent dirty and dangerous nuclear projects being imposed on our lands and our lives and future generations," they said.

Groups represented included Kokatha, Kokatha-Mirning, Arabunna, Adnyamathanha, Yankunytjatjara-Pitjanjatjara, Antikirinya-Yunkunytjatjara, Kuyani, Aranda, Western Aranda and Dieri.

SA nuclear royal commission: Indigenous voices lost because of 'difficult' JP requirement, community leader says

By Nicola Gage, ABC, 22 May 2015

Indigenous voices will not be heard in South Australia's royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle because the process is "too difficult", a prominent Aboriginal woman claims.

The commission is examining the potential for an expansion of SA's role in the nuclear industry, including whether a nuclear power station or nuclear waste dump should be built.

Meetings have been held in Adelaide as well as the state's far north, including in the APY Lands and Coober Pedy.

Karina Lester, whose father Yami was affected by nuclear testing at Maralinga in the 1950s, said residents were told they would need a Justice of the Peace (JP) to sign any submissions before they would be accepted.

She said many communities did not have a JP, making it "very difficult for people".

"For example my father, 27 kilometres west form Marla Bore, (he) doesn't drive, wouldn't have a JP on hand, and would probably need to travel down to Coober Pedy," Ms Lester said.

"But he certainly has a story to tell and certainly would love to have input into the royal commission."

Ms Lester said a number of people at remote meetings did not speak English and she was frustrated because some, including a gathering at the Umoona community, did not include interpreters.

"I think they were a little bit confused," she said.

"They haven't simplified the talk to the community and straight away you will get disengagement when it's a language that's not understood by the general community."

Ms Lester said many Aboriginal people had become disengaged with the process. She wanted oral submissions to be accepted to stop people walking away.

"They have a story, let them tell their story," Ms Lester said.

"The commission needs to now find ways and means of how they can go and gather those stories."

Conservation Council of South Australia chief executive officer Craig Wilkins said there were huge barriers stopping Aboriginal people from participating.

"Requiring a member of the public to travel to a JP and swear an oath in front of them before they can lodge a submission is a highly unusual, unnecessary and a surprising restriction that will stop people getting involved," he said.

"If they are concerned about fake or spam submissions, all they need is for individuals to self declare and sign a coversheet.

"To be forced to swear an oath in front of a JP just to have your say is simply not necessary."

The commission has hired a regional engagement officer to work with Aboriginal communities.

It said it would do everything in its power to ensure indigenous voices were heard.

Commission opening old wounds, community executive says

Yalata chief executive Greg Franks said discussions about the nuclear fuel cycle was opening old wounds for many people affected by the Maralinga nuclear testing.

"Every time issues come up regarding nuclear energy and in particular nuclear bombs, it is still a raw wound with many people in community, particularly the older ones," he said.

Yami, in his 70s, claims to have been blinded from nuclear testing at Maralinga in the 1950s.

"He was out there as a young man or a young boy on country, when the black mist rolled north of where the tests took place," Ms Lester said.

"There was a camp, people started getting very sore in their eyes, people started to get rashes on their skin.

"He lost his sight overtime from those tests so he's now blind and we are reminded everyday on how it's affected the family."

Mr Franks said many Aboriginal people were confused about how to make sure their voices were heard.

"The first language of the community is Pitjantjatjara so the formal structures around having to make submissions, doing things online, formal signoffs by JPs for example, although there is one here in community, they are difficult things to do," he said.

"They're barriers for getting people to provide good feedback."

Nuclear Royal Commission losing further credibility

Media Release, 24 April 2015

Friends of the Earth, Australia has today written to Kevin Scarce, head of the SA government's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, asking him to revisit his decision not to include weapons proliferation risks in the Royal Commission's issues paper dealing with uranium mining.

Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia, said:

"Day by day, the Royal Commission is losing further credibility. Last week, we learned that the expert advisory panel is stacked with three nuclear advocates, with just one token critic. Kevin Scarce's claim to be running a 'balanced Royal Commission' is demonstrably false.

"Now we learn that the Royal Commission wants to ignore weapons proliferation, the single greatest risk associated with uranium mining. The Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission clearly instruct Kevin Scarce to consider the risks associated with uranium mining yet he apparently wants to ignore weapons proliferation, the single greatest risk associated with the industry. He needs to rethink that decision."

The letter sent to Kevin Scarce is copied below.


24 April 2015

Dear Rear Admiral Scarce,

I am writing to ask you to revisit your decision not to include proliferation-related issues and risks (esp. safeguards) in the 13 sets of questions listed in the NFCRC's first Issues Paper.

The Terms of Reference for the NFCRC ask you to consider the "risks and opportunities created by expanding the level of exploration, extraction and milling" of radioactive minerals.

Clearly WMD proliferation is an important risk associated with uranium mining. It is the most serious hazard associated with uranium mining and nuclear power. This problem has long been acknowledged, e.g. the Fox Report (Ranger uranium inquiry) in the 1970s stated: "The nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to an increased risk of nuclear war. This is the most serious hazard associated with the industry."

It might be argued that safeguards and other such matters are federal government responsibilities. However the federal government is failing in its duties in this respect.

Here are two examples:

Firstly, the federal government is proposing a major weakening of safeguards / tracking standards under the Australia−India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, and that will have spill-over effects with other uranium customers countries (and other nuclear/uranium exporting countries will be encouraged to weaken their standards). In its current form the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement has been strongly opposed by, among others, John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) and a member of the NFCRC's expert panel; Ron Walker, former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors; Prof. Lawrence Scheinman, former Assistant Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Princeton University physicist Dr M.V. Ramana; and Australian nuclear arms control expert Crispin Rovere. Previously, former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt has raised concerns.

Secondly, in 2008, ASNO and other government agencies told federal parliament's treaties committee that "strict safeguards" would "ensure" peaceful use of Australian uranium in Russia. When the committee learned that it had been misled and that IAEA safeguards inspections in Russia are very nearly non-existent, it recommended that the agreement should not be ratified until "IAEA inspections are implemented for Russian facilities that will handle" Australian uranium and its byproducts. The federal government ignored/rejected that recommendation (with Opposition support) and ratified the agreement with Russia.

In those and other respects, the federal government is failing in its responsibilities and thus it is irresponsible for state governments to ignore the problems and likewise it would be irresponsible for the NFCRC to ignore the problems and risks. The Terms of Reference ask you to consider the risks associated with uranium mining and thus the NFCRC has a duty to consider the proliferation risks associated with uranium mining.

Safeguards and export policy have traditionally been federal government responsibilities but there is no reason why the SA government could not play a constructive role in strengthening the safeguards system and opposing efforts to weaken the system.

Mr Carlson noted in a submission to the federal treaties committee: "Bipartisan support for, and public acceptance of, uranium exports is based on Australia's safeguards conditions, such as peaceful use obligations and consent rights over reprocessing, high enrichment and retransfers, and the assurance that Australia is able to track our material and determine that our conditions are being met."

Thus the erosion of safeguards standards is not in the interests of the uranium mining industry. The erosion of standards is certainly not in the national interest.

Even before the Australia−India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, there were strong reasons for concern. During his tenure as Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei noted in articles and speeches that the IAEA's safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities", that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted", and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department ".

The NFCRC should examine:

1. The strengths and weaknesses of nuclear safeguards, and practical measures that the SA government could implement to strengthen safeguards.

2. Uranium export policies including:

− Whether or not uranium sales should be permitted to nuclear weapons states generally; nuclear weapons states with no intention of fulfilling their NPT obligations to seriously pursue disarmament; countries refusing to sign or ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and repressive, authoritarian states.

− The gradual erosion of safeguards policy in relation to plutonium separation and stockpiling.

− The indefensible secrecy that shrouds Australia's uranium exports4 and practical measures the SA government could take to lift that veil of secrecy.

If you are not prepared to consider proliferation-related issues in the NFCRC, could you please explain your reasoning and how you reconcile that decision with the requirement in the Terms of Reference for you to consider the risks associated with uranium mining.

Examine SA's shameful nuclear legacy

Jim Green, The Advertiser, 9 Feb 2015

The first test with Premier Jay Weatherill's proposed Royal Commission into nuclear issues comes with his statement that it will be carried out by independent experts. Is that what he really intends? Or does he plan a re-run of the Switkowski commission established by the Howard federal government in 2006? That commission was comprised entirely of "people who want nuclear power by Tuesday" according to comedian John Clarke.

The Premier wants to avoid scrutiny of the uranium mining industry, saying the Royal Commission "will concentrate on the other elements of the fuel cycle − enriching, power and the storing of nuclear waste". But the uranium industry needs serious scrutiny. The environmental legacy needs scrutiny. The Olympic Dam mine's wide-ranging exemptions from environmental, Aboriginal heritage and freedom-of-information laws needs scrutiny.

And the contentious choice of uranium customer countries needs scrutiny − South Australia sells uranium to nuclear weapons states, dictatorships, and countries refusing to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Now the major parties want to sell uranium to India, a country actively expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

If Premier Weatherill believes he has nothing to hide, he will include uranium mining in the Royal Commission's terms of reference.

Uranium enrichment will be included in the terms of reference. The hope is that the pitiful revenue from uranium exports (0.2 per cent of national export revenue) could be boosted by a value-adding enrichment industry. But the Royal Commission will soon learn that there is surplus enrichment capacity globally and it is a non-starter in Australia. Nuclear lobbyists claim that an enrichment plant in Australia would be well placed to supply nuclear power plants in South-East Asia. But there are no nuclear power plants in South-East Asia.

For the past 10 years we've been fed rhetoric about the global nuclear power renaissance − but the number of power reactors has actually declined over the past decade, from 443 to 437. Steve Kidd, who worked for the World Nuclear Association for 17 years, states that the "picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth given the recent trends". Nuclear Engineering International recently reported: "The US nuclear power industry geared up a decade ago for a nuclear renaissance that did not happen and is not likely to happen." The European Commission forecasts that nuclear capacity in the European Union will decline from 131 gigawatts in 2010 to 97 gigawatts in 2025.

Germany's conservative government announced a phase-out of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, with the last reactor to be shut down in 2022. In France, the lower house of Parliament voted last year to cut nuclear's share of power generation from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025. Post-Fukushima, all 48 of Japan's nuclear reactors are shut.

Nuclear power is the one power source subject to a "negative learning curve" − it is becoming increasingly expensive. Capital cost estimates for two planned reactors in the UK range from A$31.1 billion up to the European Commission's estimate of A$47.5 billion.

The nuclear lobby is promoting so-called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that might be suitable where large reactors are impractical. But Thomas Overton, associate editor of POWER magazine, wrote in an article last year: "At the graveyard wherein resides the ‘nuclear renaissance' of the 2000s, a new occupant appears to be moving in: the small modular reactor (SMR). ... Over the past year, the SMR industry has been bumping up against an uncomfortable and not-entirely-unpredictable problem: It appears that no one actually wants to buy one."

Mr Weatherill says "storing of nuclear waste" will be on the Royal Commission's agenda. South Australians fought hard to defeat Canberra's proposal for a national dump for low- to medium-level waste − so an international high-level nuclear waste dump is a non-starter.

The Premier says the Royal Commission will not be used to "look backwards at things that have gone wrong." But failing to learn from the mistakes of the past makes it all the more likely that they will be repeated.

There have been four "clean-ups" of the Maralinga nuclear test site. Just 15 years after the latest "clean up", 19 of the 85 waste burial pits have been subject to erosion or subsidence. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years.

At Radium Hill in the far east of the state, maintenance of 400,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings is required because of ongoing erosion. The contaminated Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex was closed in 1962 and the site still hasn't been cleaned up.

South Australia has a shameful nuclear history and the Royal Commission must be allowed to investigate it.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.

Nuclear Energy Is Dirty, Unsafe And Uneconomic: Environmental Scientist

Mark Diesendorf, 21 Feb 2015, New Matilda

Should the nuclear industry be expanded?

A surprising development in the intermittent nuclear debate has been the announcement by the South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, that the state will hold a Royal Commission into the possible expansion of the state’s uranium mining industry to include nuclear enrichment, storage and energy.

It’s surprising because we don’t need a long and expensive inquiry to see that the nuclear industry offers little potential for future growth in jobs or export income.

At present there is no market for expanding South Australia’s uranium mining and exports. In 2012, BHP Billiton put on hold its expansion plan for the Olympic Dam uranium-copper mine and since then has shed hundreds of jobs. That there is an excess of uranium enrichment capacity in the world is even acknowledged by the World Nuclear Association.

And, as explained below, wind energy is already much less expensive than nuclear and, on current trends, large solar power stations based on photovoltaic modules will also be cheaper within the 15-year period that it would take to plan and build a nuclear power station in Australia.

We should add to the 15 years the indefinite time-period it would take to gain public acceptance.

Looking beyond South Australia to the world, there seem to be three shaky legs upon which proponents attempt to stand their campaign to expand nuclear energy:

1. Nuclear energy has allegedly no or low greenhouse gas emissions.
2. New nuclear reactor technologies are allegedly safer than the present generation of reactors.
3. New and existing reactors are allegedly cheaper than other low-carbon technologies, notably renewable energy.

Let’s examine these claims.
1. Green House Gas emissions

Neither nuclear energy nor most renewable technologies emit carbon dioxide during operation. However, to do a meaningful comparison, we must compare the whole life-cycles from mining the raw materials to managing the wastes. In a peer-reviewed journal paper published in 2008, nuclear physicist and nuclear energy supporter Manfred Lenzen compared life-cycle emissions from nuclear, wind and natural gas power stations.

For nuclear energy based on mining high-grade uranium ore, he found average emissions of 60 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh) of electricity generation, for wind 10–20 g/kWh and for gas 500–600 g/kWh. Now comes the part that most nuclear proponents try to ignore or misrepresent.

The world has only a few decades of high-grade uranium ore reserves left. As the ore-grade inevitably declines, the fossil fuel used to mine and mill uranium increases and so do the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

Lenzen calculates the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions when low-grade uranium ore is used to be 131 g/kWh. This is unacceptable in terms of climate science, especially taking into account that Lenzen’s analysis favoured nuclear energy by assuming that mountains of radioactive uranium mine waste are left to blow in the wind for thousands of years.

2. New reactor technologies

Could the proposed new generation of reactor technologies reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the nuclear life-cycle. The so-called Generation IV technologies are the fast breeder reactor, the integral fast reactor, the thorium reactor and the small modular reactor. All are likely to be even more expensive than conventional reactors.

Because the fast breeder and integral fast reactors can ‘breed’ more nuclear fuel, in the form of plutonium-239, than they consume, their use could significantly reduce uranium mining and hence the carbon dioxide emissions from mining and milling. But they are even more complex, dangerous, conducive to proliferation and expensive than the conventional nuclear reactor.

Despite several decades of pilot and demonstration plants, these technologies have not been successfully commercialised and may never be.

Nuclear proponents try to justify the integral fast reactor and the thorium reactor on the fallacious grounds that they cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons explosives. However, if not used according to instructions by governments that control it, the integral fast reactor can actually make it easier to extract weapons-grade plutonium and hence make bombs.

Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, but to be useful as a nuclear fuel, thorium has to be converted to uranium-233, which can be fissioned either in a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb, as the USA has demonstrated.

The small modular reactor (SMR) has been a dream of the nuclear industry for decades, which hopes that mass production could make its electricity cheaper than from existing large reactors.

However, offsetting this is the latter’s economy of scale. The Union of Concerned Scientists has serious safety and security concerns about SMRs.

3. Nuclear economics

Nuclear proponents often publish highly optimistic projections of the future cost of energy from nuclear reactors. However, past and present experience suggests that such projections have little basis in reality.

Apart from the ‘new’ reactors mentioned above, which are not commercially available and hence cannot be costed credibly, the much-touted current power reactors under construction (none is operating) are classified as Generation III+.

Two Generation III+ reactors are under construction in Europe, two in the USA and several in China. In Finland, Olkiluoto-3 is nearly a decade behind schedule and nearly three times budgeted cost; in France, Flamanville-3 is five years behind schedule and double budgeted cost; in Georgia USA, Vogtie is three years behind schedule.

The proposed new Hinkley C in the UK will receive a guaranteed inflation-linked price for electricity over 35 years, commencing at 9.25 p/kWh (about 18 AU c/kWh), double the typical wholesale price of electricity in the UK and over three times Australia’s; it will also receive huge loan guarantees and insurance backed by the British taxpayer.

To these costs we must add the huge subsidies to nuclear energy for research and development, uranium enrichment, waste management, decommissioning of power stations, under-insurance, recovery of stranded assets from electricity consumers and loan guarantees.

These dwarf the modest, declining subsidies to renewables.

On insurance the Japan Center for Economic Research estimated that the partial costs of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster are in the range US$71–250 billion. Yet TEPCO, the operator, was only required to cover US$1.5 billion for liability protection for the costs of a radiation leak - even this pittance excluded earthquake and tsunami.

For comparison, wind energy is around 8–10 c/kWh in excellent sites in Australia and about half this at some sites in the USA. SunEdison has contracted to supply electricity from a large solar power station in Chile in 2016 for the record low price of US 9 c/kWh. Both solar and wind are still becoming cheaper as their markets grow.

Summing up

The case to expand the nuclear industry in South Australia and the world is weak. It stands neither on its life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions, nor increased safety, nor economy. New nuclear technologies under construction are far over budget and over time. Future nuclear technologies are not close to being commercially available.

These and other nuclear issues are discussed in more detail in Chapter 6 of my book Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change.

Uncritical acceptance of the claims of nuclear proponents would set back safer, cleaner, faster and cheaper methods of mitigating climate change.

Dr Mark Diesendorf is Associate Professor and Deputy Director within the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of NSW.

We’ve already had the nuclear debate: why do it again?

11 February 2015

Ian Lowe − Emeritus Professor, School of Science at Griffith University

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill made the curious announcement on Sunday that there will be a Royal Commission to examine the state’s future role in the nuclear industry. There has been bipartisan support in South Australia for the state being a major uranium exporter, but no support for any involvement beyond that.

The inquiry will be led by former governor Kevin Scarce. Scarce has previously expressed support for a renewed debate on nuclear energy.

However, we have already had several inquiries into nuclear expansion. The new Royal Commission risks re-treading the same old ground and uncovering nothing new.

The cost of nuclear

In 2006 prime minister John Howard held an inquiry into the nuclear industry when his studied inaction on climate change became an obvious political liability. Howard appointed a clearly pro-nuclear group to make the case for greater Australian involvement in the industry.

Though the committee led by Ziggy Switkowski were strong supporters of the nuclear option, they were also scientifically qualified and able to assess the technical evidence. They concluded that it would take significant government subsidies to expand Australia’s role in the nuclear industry.

This was not a surprising conclusion.

For decades there has been glib talk about uranium enrichment in Australia, but these schemes have always foundered – partly for lack of a social licence, partly because of the dubious economics. As Dr Alan Roberts of Monash University observed at a forum we both spoke at in the 1980s, wherever uranium is enriched, the tax-payers are impoverished.

Waste and weapons

Australia’s role in the nuclear industry was thoroughly canvassed nearly 40 years ago in the Fox Report, the outcome of the inquiry into the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory.

It concluded that exporting uranium contributed to two serious problems, the production of radioactive waste and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Forty years later, those issues remain unresolved.

Thousands of tonnes of spent fuel rods and radioactive waste are held near nuclear power stations and weapons facilities around the world, with no agreement on long-term storage.

While that is primarily a technical problem that could in principle be solved if enough resources are committed to it, weapons proliferation is a political problem that does not appear to have a solution.

So exporting uranium is still making the world a dirtier and more dangerous place for short-term commercial gain.

Do we need another review?

Given that those conclusions are still valid and that a technically qualified committee revisited the question of further Australian involvement in the nuclear industry only a few years ago, what is the point of a Royal Commission?

Some observers such as ABC political reporter Nick Harmsen see the process as another attempt to persuade South Australians to accept radioactive waste, importing a whole new raft of environmental problems.

In principle, there is a process for public involvement in establishing the terms of reference, but the timescale for that exercise suggests it is a complete charade. The web site gives only until next Monday, a bare week after Weatherill’s announcement, for public comment on the terms of reference.

Also, there has been no announcement of any independent scientific or environmental expertise to guide former governor Kevin Scarce.

The critical issue is how the proposed further involvement in the nuclear industry fits with the agreed commitment to Ecologically Sustainable Development, adopted by Council of Australian Government as long ago as 1992. The reason most environmentalists oppose nuclear energy is that they see it as creating serious environmental problems (radioactive tailings, accidents in nuclear power stations like Fukushima, managing radioactive waste) - all hazards to ecological communities as well as humans.

South Australia leads the mainland states in its harnessing of solar and wind energy. Together they supplied more than one-third of the state’s electricity for the whole of last year and all of the state’s power for one working day in September. The Port Augusta community is campaigning for a solar thermal power station to replace their antiquated coal-fired facility.

Any objective assessment of the state’s needs in the context of a commitment to sustainable development will favour going forward by expanding the proven capacity of clean renewables, rather than gambling on unproven nuclear fantasies.

South Australia's nuclear true believers have got their inquiry. It can't become free PR

Dave Sweeney, 10 February 2015

The announcement this week of a Royal Commission into the nuclear industry in South Australia has raised both stakes and eyebrows around the nation.

Many South Australian politicians have been enamoured with the economic allure of nuclear power. After all, the world’s biggest mining company sits atop the world’s largest uranium deposit at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine, 500km north of Adelaide. But opening the door to talk of uranium enrichment, domestic nuclear power and international nuclear waste is a major escalation in radioactive rhetoric.

The move comes in stark contrast to the current run of play in relation to the domestic and international status of the nuclear industry.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns have seen popular acceptance of nuclear power recede – in Japan over 50 reactors remain mothballed or idle, while conservative politicians in Germany are leading the charge to end nuclear power supply by 2022. The sector is flatlining in the US and even France is looking to cut the atom’s share of the French energy sector by 25% over the next decade. China, and to a lesser extent India, remain the only bright spots in the pro-nuclear firmament but even these are contested and eclipsed by plans for growth in renewables.

Closer to home, the uranium market has been hard hit by the economic fallout from Fukushima. This is apt given that in October 2011 it was formally confirmed that Australian origin uranium was actually fuelling the Fukushima complex at the time of the meltdowns. Since then, both the price and production rates have both been in freefall. In 2014 Australia produced and exported the least uranium it has for the past 16 years, and at the end of last month BHP announced cuts to a further 300 positions at Olympic Dam.

These are difficult days for the nuclear sector – and an unlikely time for a Royal Commission into options for further advancing an atomic agenda.

South Australia is in tough and uncertain economic times caused by a trifecta of industry withdrawals, including the shelving of a long planned $25bn expansion at Olympic Dam, the loss of jobs in the car industry and the prospect of seeing massive defence contracts move offshore. Amid this volatility the sustained lobbying efforts of a group of nuclear true believers is finding a platform.

A company called South Australian Nuclear Power Systems Pty Ltd has been lobbying the South Australian and federal government to remove the significant legal and political roadblocks to advance nuclear power in the state. The group is headed by former News International director Bruce Hundertmark and includes veteran American nuclear spruiker Richard Cherry, a former executive of the secretive General Atomics that operates South Australia’s Beverley uranium mine; Ian Kowalick, the former head of Premier and Cabinet; and professors Tom Wigley and Stephen Lincoln from the University of Adelaide, home to a chorus of atomic fellow travellers.

Adding to this push has been the repeated promotion of the money to be made by storing the world’s radioactive waste. Senior executives of the World Nuclear Association have joined with former prime minister Bob Hawke, Warren Mundine and others to talk up the dollar signs while covering up the danger signs. Their approach ignores South Australians, particularly Indigenous South Australians’ sustained and successful efforts to oppose radioactive waste dumping in their country.

There is another reason for the current nuclear push – part mischievous, part sincere and all in response to one of humanity’s existential challenges – climate change. It’s understandable why some people jump to nuclear as a potential solution to the climate crisis – some may surmise that desperate times call for desperate measures. The need to move to a low carbon energy future is clear, but the best way to do this is not by adopting nuclear: a high cost, high risk energy system that provides an existential threat of its own while draining vital resources from the renewable energy sector.

In many areas, South Australia leads the nation in relation to renewable energy. The state is blessed with high value solar, wind and geothermal resources. It makes scant sense to throw scarce dollars and resources exploring the controversial and contaminating nuclear industry when the renewable sector is the world’s fastest growing energy market and already produces more electricity each day than the world’s risky reactor fleet does.

All of which brings us to a fledgling Royal Commission and the politics and positioning that it will generate. It is pivotal that the initiative is not allowed to become a promotional platform for the over-resourced and under-performing nuclear industry. There is a need to examine the domestic and international impacts and implications of Australia’s involvement with the global nuclear trade. In September 2011, the UN secretary general urged Australia to undertake a dedicated cost-benefit analysis of the human health and environmental impacts of uranium mining in response to the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis – a recommendation studiously ignored by every Australian government and uranium producer.

Any Royal Commission needs to be evidence based, rigorous and independent. It needs clear and comprehensive terms of reference and must address the legacies of the past and the performance of the present before examining the often exaggerated promises of the future. Anything less will see the continuing shrinkage of the social license of a trade that splits communities as well as atoms.

South Australia Out Of Step With Global Trends On Nuclear Energy: Environmentalists

Dave Sweeney and Jim Green, 14 Feb 2015

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s surprise announcement of a Royal Commission to examine opening the door to an expanded nuclear industry in South Australia is out of step with the trend of the global nuclear trade, risks undermining the reality and potential of the state’s renewable energy sector and increases pressure on South Australia to host an international radioactive waste dump.

The timing is odd, coming against a backdrop of a further 300 job cuts at BHP’s Olympic Dam uranium mine and the news that in 2014 Australia ripped and shipped less uranium – the fuel stock for all things nuclear – than for any of the past 16 years.

The Australian nuclear industry is experiencing hard times. Since the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011 productivity and profits have been in freefall and uranium proposals in the NT, SA and WA have been shelved or halted.

The sector has been hard hit by the market fallout of Fukushima – particularly relevant at home since it was confirmed in October 2014 that the uranium inside the failed complex at the time of the meltdowns was sourced from Australian yellow cake.

Internationally, the tide is running against the nuclear sector with reactor numbers declining and market share shrinking. In Japan, all 48 reactors remain shut down in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and some will never restart.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians in Germany are leading the charge to de-nuclearise the nations’ electricity by 2022, the sector is flat-lining in the US and even France is planning to cut the atoms share of the French energy sector by 25 per cent over the next decade.

China remains the only significant exception to the trend in the pro-nuclear firmament, but is also planning for growth in renewables and action to address the global need to retire much of the aging reactor fleet in the coming decades.

South Australia is in tough and uncertain economic times, caused by a trifecta of failure or uncertainty surrounding the shelving of a long planned $A25 billion expansion at Olympic Dam, the loss of jobs in the car industry and the prospect of seeing massive defence contracts move off-shore. And amid this volatility the sustained lobbying efforts of a group of nuclear true believers is finding a platform.

Adding to this push has been the repeated promotion of the money to be made by storing the world’s radioactive waste. Senior executives of the World Nuclear Association have joined with former PM Bob Hawke, Warren Mundine and others to talk up the dollar signs while covering up the danger signs – and all the while ignoring South Australians, particularly Aboriginal South Australian’s, sustained and successful efforts to oppose radioactive waste dumping in their country.

Given the SA Premier has stated that he thinks building a nuclear power plant in SA is the “least likely” outcome of the Royal Commission, it is fair to assume the bigger agenda here is to soften the ground for a high level nuclear waste dump.

This comes after decades of attempting to impose a waste dump on Aboriginal land in both South Australia under the Hawke/Howard governments, and more recently in the NT at Muckaty station.

Given the history of failed dump proposals in SA and the NT, and the divisive strategy associated with those proposals, do nuclear proponents really imagine winning support from Indigenous people for a high-level nuclear waste dump?

As Professor John Veevers from Macquarie University wrote in the Australian Geologist in August 1999, an international high-level nuclear waste dump would pose serious public health and environmental risks: “Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk.”

Most of the areas set to be considered by the Commission, including the claimed economic benefits of uranium enrichment and the competiveness of nuclear power, are fanciful and unlikely to survive even modest independent scrutiny. However, one driver involves a response to an issue that deserves and demands urgent attention – climate change.

The need to move to a low carbon energy future is clear, but the best way to do this is not by adopting the high cost, high risk nuclear option that provides an existential threat of its own due to the repeatedly-demonstrated link between the ‘peaceful atom’ and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In many areas South Australia leads the nation in relation to renewable energy and the state is blessed with high value solar, wind and geo-thermal resources. It makes little sense to throw scarce dollars and resources to exploring the controversial and contaminating nuclear industry when the renewable sector is the world’s fastest growing energy market, and already produces more electricity than nuclear power each day.

The decision to divert finite economic and political capital and energy to exploring the false promise of nuclear power comes at the opportunity cost of consolidating and growing South Australia’s proven renewable performance - an area where SA’s skilled but increasingly stranded manufacturing sector could be re-tooled and literally renewed to become a world leader in the world’s energy future.

There is a legitimate and real need to examine the domestic and international impacts and implications of Australia’s involvement with the global nuclear trade. In September 2011, in response to Fukushima, the UN Secretary General urged Australia to undertake a dedicated cost-benefit analysis of the human health and environmental impacts of uranium mining – Australia’s primary point of engagement with the global nuclear trade.

This clear recommendation has been studiously ignored by every Australian government and uranium producer, despite sustained civil society calls. The nuclear industry starts with uranium and so should this Royal Commission’s deliberations.

The Royal Commission needs to be evidence-based, rigorous and independent. Its terms of reference, due to be released in late March, need to be comprehensive and must address the past legacies and present performance of the industry in order to expose the often exaggerated promises of the future.

Anything less runs the right Royal risk of using public funds to provide a promotional platform for the over-resourced and under-performing nuclear industry.

Dave Sweeney is the nuclear free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation. Jim Green is national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth Australia

U-turn to nowhere: Nuclear's dire outlook

Jim Green, Climate Spectator, 28 Jan 2015

Global nuclear power capacity increased slightly in 2014 according to the World Nuclear Association:

– Five new reactors (4.76 gigawatts) began supplying electricity and three were permanently shut down.

– There are now 437 'operable' reactors (377.7 GW) compared with 435 reactors (375.3 GW) a year ago. Thus the number of reactors increased by two (0.5%) and nuclear generating capacity increased by 2.4 GW (0.6%). For comparison, around 100 GW of solar and wind power capacity were built in 2014, up from 74 GW in 2013.

– Construction started on just three reactors during 2014. A total of 70 reactors (74 GW) are under construction.

Thus a long-standing pattern of stagnation continues. Global nuclear capacity grew by 10.6% in the two decades from 1995-2014, and just 2.6% in the decade from 2005-2014.

The pattern of stagnation is likely to persist. Steve Kidd, a nuclear consultant who worked for the World Nuclear Association for 17 years, wrote in a May 2014 article: "Upper scenarios showing rapid nuclear growth in many countries including plants starting up in new countries now look very unlikely, certainly before the late 2020s. If there is to be a nuclear renaissance, it is now much more likely to happen later, and with a new generation of reactors. On the other hand, predictions that another major accident would shut down nuclear in lots of countries have been negated by the experience of Fukushima. Although there remain some uncertainties, the outlying upper and lower cases are much less credible than before."

Despite 20 years of stagnation, the World Nuclear Association remains upbeat. Its latest reportThe World Nuclear Supply Chain: Outlook 2030, envisages the start-up of 266 new reactors by 2030. The figure is implausible.

Nuclear Energy Insider was more sober and reflective in an end-of-year review published in December: "As we embark on a new year, there are distinct challenges and opportunities on the horizon for the nuclear power industry. Many industry experts believe that technology like Small Nuclear Reactors (SMR) represent a strong future for nuclear. Yet, rapidly growing renewable energy sources, a bountiful and inexpensive supply of natural gas and oil, and the aging population of existing nuclear power plants represent challenges that the industry must address moving forward."

Steve Kidd is still more downbeat: "Even with rapid nuclear growth in China, nuclear's share in world electricity is declining. The industry is doing little more than hoping that politicians and financiers eventually see sense and back huge nuclear building programmes. On current trends, this is looking more and more unlikely. The high and rising nuclear share in climate-friendly scenarios is false hope, with little in the real outlook giving them any substance. Far more likely is the situation posited in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report ... Although this report is produced by anti-nuclear activists, its picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth given the recent trends."

Kidd's comments on renewables are also worth quoting: "The nuclear industry giving credence to climate change from fossil fuels has simply led to a stronger renewables industry. Nuclear seems to be 'too difficult' and gets sidelined − as it has within the entire process since the original Kyoto accords. And now renewables, often thought of as useful complements to nuclear, begin to threaten it in power markets when there is abundant power from renewables when the wind blows and the sun shines."

Kidd proposes reducing nuclear costs by simplifying and standardising current reactor designs. Meanwhile, as the International Energy Agency's World Economic Outlook 2014 report noted, nuclear growth will be "concentrated in markets where electricity is supplied at regulated prices, utilities have state backing or governments act to facilitate private investment." Conversely, "nuclear power faces major challenges in competitive markets where there are significant market and regulatory risks, and public acceptance remains a critical issue worldwide."

4 countries supposedly driving a nuclear renaissance

Let's briefly consider countries where the number of power reactors might increase or decrease by 10 or more over the next 15-20 years. Generally, it is striking how much uncertainty there is about the nuclear programs in these countries. China is one of the few exceptions. China has 22 operable reactors, 27 reactors under construction and 64 planned. Significant, rapid growth can be expected unless China's nuclear program is derailed by a major accident or a serious act of sabotage or terrorism.

In the other three countries supposedly driving a nuclear renaissance − Russia, South Korea and India − growth is likely to be modest and slow.

Russia has 34 operating reactors, nine reactors under construction and 31 planned. A pattern of slow growth is likely. As for Russia's ambitious nuclear export program, Kidd noted in October 2014 that it "is reasonable to suggest that it is highly unlikely that Russia will succeed in carrying out even half of the projects in which it claims to be closely involved".

South Korea has 23 operating reactors, five under construction and eight planned. Earlier plans for rapid nuclear expansion in South Korea have been derailed by the Fukushima disaster, a major scandal over forged safety documents, and a hacking attack on Korea Hydro's computer network.

India has 21 operating reactors, six under construction and 22 planned. But India's nuclear program is in a "deep freeze" according to a November 2014 article in the Hindustan Times. Likewise, India Today reported on January 8: "The Indian nuclear programme is on the brink of distress. For the past four years, no major tender has gone through − a period that was, ironically, supposed to mark the beginning of an Indian nuclear renaissance in the aftermath of the landmark India-US civil nuclear deal."

A November 2014 article in The Hindu newspaper notes that three factors have put a break on India's reactor-import plans: "the exorbitant price of French- and US-origin reactors, the accident-liability issue, and grass-roots opposition to the planned multi-reactor complexes." In addition, unresolved disagreements regarding safeguards and non-proliferation assurances are delaying US and European investment in India's nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia last year announced plans to build 16 reactors by 2032. Already, the timeline has been pushed back from 2032 to 2040. As with any country embarking on a nuclear power program for the first time, Saudi Arabia faces daunting logistical and workforce issues. Numerous nuclear suppliers are lining up to supply Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program but political obstacles could easily emerge, not least because Saudi officials (and royalty) have repeatedly said that the Kingdom will build nuclear weapons if Iran's nuclear program is not constrained.

South Africa's on-again off-again nuclear power program is on again with plans for 9.6 GW of nuclear capacity in addition to the two operating reactors at Koeberg. In 2007, state energy utility Eskom approved a plan for 20 GW of new nuclear capacity. Areva's EPR and Westinghouse's AP1000 were short-listed and bids were submitted. But in 2008 Eskom announced that it would not proceed with either of the bids due to lack of finance.

Thus the latest plan for 9.6 GW of new nuclear capacity in South Africa is being treated with scepticism. Academic Professor Steve Thomas noted in a July 2014 report: "Overall, a renewed call for tenders (or perhaps bilateral negotiations with a preferred bidder) is likely to produce the same result as 2008: a very high price for an unproven technology that will only be financeable if the South African public, either in the form of electricity consumers or as taxpayers, is prepared to give open ended guarantees."

Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman is also sceptical: "Given that the intended power purchase firm is state-owned Eskom, which is perpetually broke due to government resistance to rate increases, the entire exercise seems implausible at this scale ... Almost no one believes that as long as Zuma is in power that anything remotely resembling an orderly procurement process is likely to take place."

Nuclear negawatts

Now to briefly consider those countries where a significant decline of nuclear power is possible or likely over the next 15-20 years.

Patterns of stagnation or slow decline in north America and western Europe can safely be predicted. Kidd wrote in May 2014 that uranium demand (and nuclear power capacity) "will almost certainly fall in the key markets in Western Europe and North America" in the period to 2030. In January 2014, the European Commission forecast that EU nuclear generating capacity of 131 GW in 2010 will decline to 97 GW in 2025.

The United States has 99 operable reactors. Five reactors are under construction, "with little prospect for more" according to Decisions to shut down just as many reactors have been taken in the past few years, with the shut down of Vermont Yankee on December 29 the latest of these closures. As the Financial Times noted last year, two decisions that really rattled the industry were the closures of Dominion Resources' Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin and Entergy's Vermont Yankee − both were operating and licensed to keep operating into the 2030s, but became uneconomic to keep in operation.

The US Energy Information Administration estimated in April 2014 that 10.8 GW of nuclear capacity − around 10% of total US nuclear capacity − could be shut down by the end of the decade.

The most that the US nuclear industry can hope for is stagnation underpinned by new legislative and regulatory measures favouring nuclear power along with multi-billion dollar government handouts.

The situation is broadly similar in the UK − the nuclear power industry there is scrambling just to stand still.

France's lower house of Parliament voted in October 2014 to cut nuclear's share of electricity generation from 75% to 50% by 2025, to cap nuclear capacity at 63.2 GW, and to pursue a renewables target of 40% by 2030 with various new measures to promote the growth of renewables. The Senate will vote on the legislation early this year. However there will be many twists and turns in French energy policy. Energy Minister Segolene Royal said on January 13 that France should build a new generation of reactors, and she noted that the October 2014 energy transition bill did not include a 40-year age limit for power reactors as ecologists wanted.

Germany's government is systematically pursuing its policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2023. That said, nothing is certain: the nuclear phase-out policy of the social-democrat/greens coalition government in the early 2000s was later overturned by a conservative government.

Japan's 48 operable reactors are all shut down. A reasonable estimate is that three-quarters (36/48) of the reactors will restart in the next few years. Before the Fukushima disaster, Tokyo planned to add another 15-20 reactors to the fleet of 55 giving a total of 70-75 reactors. Thus, Japan's nuclear power industry will be around half the size it might have been if not for the Fukushima disaster.

The elephant in the room − ageing reactors

The problem of ageing reactors came into focus in 2014 − and will remain in focus for decades to come with the average age of the world's power reactors now 29 years and steadily increasing.

Problems with ageing reactors include:

  • an increased risk of accidents (and associated problems such as generally inadequate accident liability arrangements);
  • an increased rate of unplanned reactors outages (at one point last year, less than half of the UK's nuclear capacity was available due to multiple outages);
  • costly refurbishments;
  • debates over appropriate safety standards for reactors designed decades ago; and
  • the uncertainties and costs associated with reactor decommissioning and long-term nuclear waste management.

Greenpeace highlighted the problems associated with ageing reactors with the release of a detailed report last year, and emphasised the point by breaking into six ageing European nuclear plants on March 5, 2014.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its World Energy Outlook 2014 report: "A wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors is approaching: almost 200 of the 434 reactors operating at the end of 2013 are retired in the period to 2040, with the vast majority in the European Union, the United States, Russia and Japan."

IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said: "Worldwide, we do not have much experience and I am afraid we are not well-prepared in terms of policies and funds which are devoted to decommissioning. A major concern for all of us is how we are going to deal with this massive surge in retirements in nuclear power plants."

The World Energy Outlook 2014 report estimates the cost of decommissioning reactors to be more than $US100 billion up to 2040, adding that "considerable uncertainties remain about these costs, reflecting the relatively limited experience to date in dismantling and decontaminating reactors and restoring sites for other uses."

The IEA's head of power generation analysis, Marco Baroni, said that even excluding waste disposal costs, the final cost could be as much as twice as high as the $100 billion estimate, and that decommissioning costs per reactor can vary by a factor of four.

Baroni said the issue was not the decommissioning cost per reactor but "whether enough funds have been set aside to provide for it." Evidence of inadequate decommissioning funds is mounting. To give just one example, Entergy estimates a cost of $US1.24 billion to decommission Vermont Yankee, but the company's decommissioning trust fund for the plant − $US670 million − is barely half that amount.

Michael Mariotte, president of the US Nuclear Information and Resource Service, noted in a recent article: "Entergy, for example, has only about half the needed money in its decommissioning fund (and even so still found it cheaper to close the reactor than keep it running); repeat that across the country with multiple and larger reactors and the shortfalls could be stunning. Expect heated battles in the coming years as nuclear utilities try to push the costs of the decommissioning fund shortfalls onto ratepayers."

The nuclear industry has a simple solution to the problem of old reactors: new reactors. But the battles over ageing and decommissioned reactors − and the raiding of taxpayers' pockets to cover shortfalls − will make it that much more difficult to convince politicians and the public to support new reactors.

Nuclear non-starter: Oversupplied, losing money and without a constituency

Jim Green, Climate Spectator, 16 Feb 2015

As discussed in Climate Spectator recently, some nuclear insiders and lobbyists are starting to confront the reality that the global pattern of nuclear power stagnation is likely to continue. With the number of 'operable' power reactors declining from 443 to 437 over the past decade, the rhetoric about a nuclear renaissance is becoming hard to sustain.

Similar opinions about the uranium industry are becoming increasingly common. Energy consultants Julian Steyn and Thomas Meade wrote in Nuclear Engineering International last October: "The uranium market is characterised by oversupply, which is forecast to continue through most the current decade. The oversupply situation has been exacerbated by the greater-than-initially-expected decline in demand following Fukushima as well as the increase in primary supply during the same period. Existing production capacity and output from mines under development could cause total supply to exceed demand through the year 2020."

And in November 2014, investment strategist Christopher Ecclestone from Hallgarten & Company wrote: "There has indeed been a nuclear winter verging on an Ice Age over the last few years with bad news heaped upon bad news within the context of a pretty dismal financing situation for mining all around. ... The yellow mineral had made fools and liars of many in recent years, including ourselves."

Still, there is some hype around uranium, some of it based on implausible projections of nuclear growth. But even those prone to hype are mostly arguing that the uranium industry has to pick up because it couldn't get any worse. Thus uranium mining executive Jim Paterson wrote in December: "I believe it is an absolutely stunning time to be an investor in our business. But not stunning like how you feel after being punched in the nose repeatedly for almost four years, as participants in our industry have been. Rather, the valuations of the companies in the uranium sector are so deeply discounted, while the decade's long runway to demand growth is so clearly marked in front of us, that the opportunity for future gains is stunning."

Jim Paterson emphasises China's "staggering" nuclear power growth plans. But according to Australian investment bank Macquarie, there are "serious question marks" about China's uranium requirements: "China is clearly the most positive story globally when it comes to nuclear-power-capacity expansion. The concern, however, is that China has already procured a substantial amount of uranium well in excess of what it has consumed and that this advance purchasing might limit its need to enter the market to source material over the next few years."

Macquarie believes that China has enough uranium stockpiled to meet domestic demand for about seven years at forecast 2020 consumption rates − which is around three times greater than the current consumption rate.

China is not the only country with large stockpiles. Raymond James analyst David Sadowski said in March 2014 that "many utilities are sitting on near-record piles" of uranium. RBC Capital Markets analysts said in June 2014 that worldwide supply currently exceeds demand, and that it does not expect the uranium industry's situation to improve until at least 2021 because of accumulated inventories.

Japan is estimated to have stockpiles of around 100 million pounds of uranium oxide. To put that in perspective, world uranium requirements last year amounted to around 171 million pounds. It will likely take a decade − perhaps two − before Japan's stockpile is consumed given the protracted nature of the reactor restart process in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. None of Japan's 48 reactors is operating, and even if they were all operating it would take five years to consume 100 million pounds of uranium oxide.

Secondary uranium sources

Some uranium miners hope that dwindling secondary supply sources − in particular, the end of the US-Russia Megatons to Megawatts program − will breathe life into the uranium industry. But the Megatons to Megawatts program − downblending surplus highly enriched uranium from US and Russian weapons for use as low-enriched reactor fuel − ended a year ago and has had little or no impact.

Another significant factor is that there is surplus uranium enrichment capacity. Moreover, energy-intensive gaseous diffusion plants have been replaced with centrifuge plants that are cheaper to run. Thus there is an incentive to use enrichment plants to squeeze more uranium-235 (and thus reactor fuel) from a given volume of uranium ore (called underfeeding) and to process depleted uranium tails that were previously stored as waste.

Indeed some of the same enrichment plants that were used for the Megatons to Megawatts program are now being used for underfeeding and tails re-enrichment as David Sadowski noted in August 2014: "[T]he end of the Megatons to Megawatts high-enriched uranium (HEU) deal was long anticipated to usher in a new period of higher uranium prices. But the same plants that were used to down-blend those warheads can now be used for underfeeding and tails re-enrichment. In this way, the Russian HEU-derived source of supply that provided about 24 million pounds to the market did not disappear completely; the supply level was just cut roughly in half."

Australia's uranium industry

Australia's uranium industry is in a sick and sorry state. Production of 5000 tonnes in 2014 was the lowest for 16 years. The industry generates less than 0.2 per cent of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02 per cent of jobs in Australia (about 1200 jobs).

The Ranger open-cut mine in the NT has been mined out and the planned Ranger 3 Deeps underground mine is subject to doubt and delay. Energy Resources of Australia has posted losses for each of the past five years, totalling $500 million. The uranium industry in the NT may come to an end when the last of the Ranger ore stockpile is milled in two years time.

In South Australia, the planned expansion of the Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine was cancelled in 2012, and hundreds of workers have been retrenched by BHP Billiton since then. The Honeymoon mine has been put into care-and-maintenance. Beverley Four Mile started production last year, at the same time as the nearby Beverley mine was put into care-and-maintenance. Instead of the usual fanfare, The Advertiser reported: "South Australia's newest mine will lose money and won't create any jobs."

The SA Royal Commission and uranium enrichment

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced a Royal Commission on February 8 to investigate options to expand the state's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle beyond uranium mining. There is some hope that a value-adding enrichment industry could compensate for the weakened uranium mining industry.

But the 2006 Switkowski report found that there was no realistic prospect of an enrichment industry in Australia, due to overcapacity at enrichment plants around the world. The SA Royal Commission will reach the same conclusion. Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted in Nuclear Engineering International in July 2014 that "the world enrichment market is heavily over-supplied".

There are other reasons to be concerned about uranium enrichment ... though it hardly matters given that it is an economic non-starter. Australia's involvement in enrichment R&D began in 1965 with the 'Whistle Project' in the basement of Building 21 at Lucas Heights, then run by the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. Those in the know were supposed to whistle as they walked past Building 21 and say nothing about the enrichment R&D. Why the secrecy? Because enrichment provides a direct path to nuclear weapons.

Forty years later, John Howard was likening uranium enrichment to value-adding to the wool industry. Perhaps Lucas Heights also had a secret program to knit woollen garments? Or perhaps not.

The enrichment R&D was publicly revealed in the Atomic Energy Commission's 1967-68 Annual Report and plodded along until it was terminated in the mid-1980s. Nuclear power was growing steadily from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, yet Australia didn't come close to establishing an enrichment industry. It's hardly likely to happen when nuclear power capacity is stagnant, when the enrichment market is heavily over-supplied, when there is growing international momentum to curb the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies (enrichment and reprocessing), and when the atomic bomb lobby is far smaller and weaker than it was in the mid-1960s.

Clutching at straws, enrichment lobbyists argue that an Australian enrichment industry could supply nuclear power reactors in Southeast Asia. That argument would carry more weight if there were any power reactors in Southeast Asia.