I never dreamed less than a year after I set out to describe the potential benefits of new reactor technology to power sector emissions, South Australia’s economy and the future of abundant, reliable clean energy on Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor, that we would be in the midst of a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, let alone witnessing a federal senator proposing a business case for a lucrative spent fuel bank and the power plant with which to consume it.
The full proposal has been announced at DecarboniseSA. I’m proud to say I modestly contributed.
With the right impetus and involvement, SA could start banking the foreign spent fuel in a purpose built facility relatively promptly. This would likely be in the form of dry casks containing used fuel assemblies, the safe handling and secure storage of which has been achieved in numerous countries. The fees for this service are potentially very large.
So. Casks on the pad, money in the bank. But what about the next step – the fast reactors that are needed to disposition this material? Not to mention provide zero carbon, potentially zero-cost electricity for the state, and significant employment.
The question is, how long will it take?
At this stage, the answer is it depends on who you ask.
On the one hand the Generation IV Forum considers sodium-cooled fast reactors to be the most promising modern design, with full deployment beginning after 2030. Commissioner Scarce himself was recently quoted as not expecting fast reactors to be available before 2040.
On the other hand, Dr Eric Loewen is the Chief Consulting Engineer for GE Hitachi, and he was asked about this in April at the Columbia School of International Public Affairs.
So again, on schedule… you have to see me the month after I get my licencing. That licencing effort is an unbounded risk, because I can’t tell you the time and the amount of resources we need to get through. …So if you look at what we did as a company in Japan with Advance Boiling Water Reactors – first-of-a-kind technology – we built those in thirty-six months.
As far as the engineer who’d like to build fast reactors in the UK is concerned, the uncertainty comes from the associated licensing process. With that complete, building the units should be as straightforward for his company as were the first ever Advanced Boiling Water Reactors in Japan.
On the gripping hand, Barry Brook is arguably this country’s foremost expert on the IFR, the Argonne fast reactor project that GE Hitachi now offers as PRISM. In Sustainable Technologies and Materials, April 2015, he and his co-authors observe:
It is imperative that we seek to displace our heavy dependence on fossil fuels over the coming decades with sustainable, low-carbon alternative energy sources that can provide reliable, economic baseload electricity and heat, and thereby mitigate the environmental damage of energy production and underpin global energy security and prosperity for a growing population and. So how best to proceed?
Here we argue that without an economically viable closed fuel cycle, there will be no dominant nuclear future. Modern technology is already capable of building fast reactors, but we do not have all problems solved on the fuel cycle side. Given this reality, there is now a pressing need to demonstrate a credible and acceptable way to safely deal with used nuclear fuel in order to clear a socially acceptable pathway for nuclear fission to be a major low-carbon energy source for this century.
The culmination of the Senator’s proposal – building the first standardised commercial fast reactors, which is still a step short of “full deployment” after all – would certainly “provide reliable, economic baseload electricity” for South Australia – as a potentially cost-free byproduct, no less. Yet the value of providing the full scale demonstration of a Generation IV fast reactor which runs on conventional used fuel reaches far further. Like potentially getting us on track to avert major climate disruption far-further.
All of which prompts the next big question: why isn’t another country doing this?
Why not the US? Well that’s relatively easy – the whole regulatory framework is still inflexibly built around conventional pressurised water reactors. Maybe this would be different now if the IFR programme had been saved from needless cancellation in the 90s. The NRC expects to see a customer committed to PRISM commissioning before it begins the certification process for the design.
Canada? A more flexible licencing regime by many accounts, and nuclear waste management money already put aside. But the conflict, if Canada were to pursue SFRs, is apparently between federal spent fuel management regulations and the provision of electricity supply, which is a province-level concern. Moreover, Canadian technology supports a somewhat competing approach in DUPIC.
The UK? Well, PRISM remains a contender for the job of dispositioning Sellafield stockpiles, and a final decision is expected this year after years of waiting. GE Hitachi originally offered to bankroll the reactors themselves. The UK might well be where it happens first, but it hasn’t happened yet.
France? France had her own demonstration fast reactor, Superphénix. It suffered from years of technical issue-prone operation, and for this it is often dismissed as a costly failure. However, translation of articles from the time (1996), which cite various French nuclear experts who were involved, reveal that SuperPhénix was entering full revenue-positive operation just as environmental political pressure succeeded in shutting it down. Progress has been glacial ever since.
This doesn’t necessarily “leave it up to us”. But it does bring the opportunity into sharp focus. In an aggressive scenario, that lucrative recyclable fuel is being loaded into reactors freshly built by Dr Loewen’s team, along with numerous major local contracts, by early next decade. Essentially overnight, much greenhouse gas-emmitting infrastructure is displaced from SA’s grid. Carbon intensity and power prices are slashed.
Despite this technology representing the solution to the traditional concerns of nuclear risks and waste, established opposition has dug in its heels – truth be damned. It’ll “break the grid” they claim, or “it doesn’t exist yet”. What might have happened if Orville and Wilbur Wright had been forced out of the nascent aviation industry because their glider was first-of-a-kind, unproven technology? Commercial flight is now a multi trillion dollar industry and underpins the modern world. Fast reactor technology is dramatically more proven than the first planes were, and will provide an even more fundamental product.
What about SA wind and solar? We hear all the time how renewables will be disruptive – can we get any more disruption than what has been described above? It would also be good to get as dramatic about dropping carbon intensity. Yet renewables are part of this effort, not competitors. Indeed, recent analysis has looked into the integration of renewables and nuclear, together with flexible cogeneration such as desalination. Well, it so happens that South Australia has an idle desal plant. Together with the demonstrated load following capability of fast reactors, and NEM interconnection, a well balanced and low carbon grid seems – even if still a ways off – at least worth seriously thinking about.