The technology has come a long way, making nuclear energy safer, portable and reliable

Scott Morrison in his recent national energy address given symbolically at the Tomago aluminium smelter in NSW that is beset by energy costs enunciated three guiding objectives for energy policy, including ensuring “a resilient energy system through a balanced mix of technologies.

The growing consensus is that Australia eventually will ditch its largest and most reliable source of energy, coal, on which it has depended for 100 years or more. We’ll need base load energy sources if we’re to maintain living standards. Yet the only logical replacement for coal is nuclear, which offers emission-free and reliable base load capacity. It is used in 31 countries and supplies 11 per cent of the world’s electricity (15% in Canada, 20 percent in the US, 70 percent in France) with 13 countries building capacity.

Nuclear technology has changed dramatically during the past decade, a point acknowledged by the Member for Fairfax, Ted O’Brien, who chaired last year’s parliamentary committee inquiring into the possibility of using nuclear power, but ignored by its opponents.

The two most dramatic advances have been in waste disposal and the development of small modular reactors. The waste issue has been the greatest barrier in Australia to consideration of nuclear and the excuse used by most opponents to silence supporters. Finland, which has four nuclear reactors and is building a fifth to replace its coal-fired generation, has solved the waste issue while proving a good example for Australia in dealing with this issue.

Finnish waste management company Posiva announced a significant building services agreement as part of a series of contracts already concluded relating to the construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility on Finland’s west coast.

Using a version of the vitrification technology developed in France and refined in other parts of the world including Australia with its Synroc technology- the waste will be incorporated into borosilicate, a glass impervious to water, the problematic mobilizing agent that must be thwarted. It will then be encased in metal canisters and deposited deep underground in granite bedrock that has been free of tectonic movement for millions of years and is forecast to remain stable for many millions of years to come.

Posiva has already received in-principle approval from the Finnish parliament and a construction licence from the government. The local community of about 10,000, which has been extensively consulted, supports it. The way is clear for completing the construction, securing an operating licence and commissioning the repository by 2023.

The Finns are confident that it will prove to the world once and for all that high-level nuclear waste can be handled safely and permanently.

The world is moving quickly towards development of small modular reactors. Defined as having a capacity of less than 300 megawatts- but some as small as 5 MW- these reactors are built in factories to standard designs and can be placed in line to provide larger capacities.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just issued NuScale Power, the leading American company in the field, with a final safety evaluation report, the first for an American SMR. Four Canadian provinces have joined in support for the development of SMRs.

A few months ago Russia commissioned a floating nuclear power plant that carries two 35 MW reactors. It is now connected to the grid.

China is building its version of an SMR in Hainan province. The chief engineer of China’s State Power Investment Corporation told the World Nuclear Association’s annual conference this month: “We also use modular construction, with a shorter construction period, and this has enhanced economic performance.

The chief executive of GE Hitachi, one of the leading providers of advanced reactors, said at that conference the flexibility of SMRs means they will be able to support a variety of activities beyond electricity generation, providing cost competitive and environmentally friendly power for uses such as hydrogen production, desalination, district heating and industrial use.

SMRs would be ideal for us. They are readily transportable and ideal for regional areas. They can be placed quickly in sites where coal fired plants have been decommissioned, connecting to the existing grid and replacing the base load capacity. But Australia sits paralysed, with no base load options for the future, while the nuclear world moves on apace.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has put nuclear on a “watching brief in his “technology roadmap. At least he hasn’t ruled it out.

John Maynard Keanes gave Australians a rationale for a rethinking on nuclear with that famous remark: When the facts change, I change my mind.

Reference

Tony Grey was the founder and chief executive of Pancontinental Mining Ltd, which discovered the Jabiluka uranium orebody. He was also chairman of the Uranium Institute, now named the World Nuclear Association.