Sunday, 10 June 2007

Australia and the nuclear fuel cycle

We have a considerable number of nuclear related decisions to make in the near future.

First, we can remain - quite simply - a uranium supplier. With their recent decision to kill the antiquated and irrelevant 3-mines policy, Labor has pretty much assured this will be Australia's minimum involvement in the global nuclear fuel cycle.

Or, we could supply the world [or rather those parts of it that we get on well with] with uranium and construct some nuclear power plants ourselves. Others would complete the enrichment and fuel fabrication for us. As we so often allow to happen, we would be purchasing back a finished product principally derived from resources shipped from our shores.

In taking on these options, we would have to develop a high-level [i.e. used fuel] strategy. Several countries, including Japan, the UK, France and Russia reprocess their waste. There are also talks of advanced 'burner' reactors to consume the worst fission byproducts - but these are still in the development stage. Research, however is accelerating. Nevertheless, while recycling/reprocessing technologies greatly reduce the activity and heat burden of the waste, they do not - currently - eliminate it entirely requiring some sort of final repository.

Next, we could develop enrichment technology. As is currently being at least contemplated if not whole heartedly pursued. This decision is a complicated one as it involves due consideration for Australia's domestic and global responsibilities.

As the world shifts its support in favour of nuclear power, concerns over nuclear non-proliferation as well as technology and fuel access by all interested countries must be addressed equitably and in a mutual context. I believe this is the principal selling point for both the GNEP as well as Valdimir Putin's equivalent initiative from within the Russian Federation. A main aspect of these programmes is a multilateral fuel cycle where enrichment, fuel fabrication, fuel utilization, and final disposal may or may not occur within the same country. The multilateral programme advocates and potential participants [sensitive to, for example, Russia's apparent willingness to use fuel as an instrument of economic policy] seek a nuclear fuel bank to ensure the security of fuel availability from multiple participants. If such a programme is not developed, then crises similar to those in North Korea and Iran will continue to occur as countries justify their pursuit of enrichment as a means to energy security. With possible results similar to the [thankfully mostly botched] nuclear detonation in North Korea in late 2006.

Ideally I would love to keep the enrichment process confined to existing nuclear weapons states. But considering all states with demonstrated or suspected nuclear weapons capability USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel [not admitted], North Korea [? debatable], I am not convinced they represent a completely desirable set of contributors to an international nuclear fuel suppliers network - at least from the perspectives from many nations around the world. There are some countries without weapons, but capable of enrichment that may also be considered. These include South Africa who had weapons but gave them up as well as Brazil and possibly others. But still I believe many nations are looking for any international fuel centre to acquire further capacity without sacrificing security. I've already discussed Russia above. France can be economically fickle and the UK - while looking to build more nuclear power plants - has been recently working to back out of the nuclear, commercial infrastructure game.

To provide more confidence, the programmes are looking to broaden their bank of suppliers, while keeping the list of weapons states to a minimum. This is probably why Australia has been invited to join the GNEP and a principal reason our representatives are taking trips to Russia.

All this leads us ultimately back to waste. Countries who supply enriched uranium may [yes I said may] be asked to take the high level waste back. But further than this, we must consider Australia itself - vast, geologically stable with huge, uninhabited stretches of land. This continent is a resource that - if properly managed - could serve a significantly greater good.

Therefore if we wish to engage further in the nuclear fuel cycle, a high level waste repository is one of several desirable prerequisites. Hence the government's pursuit of it.

Keep in mind though that these options/decisions are not firmly tied to each other. For example, Australia could embrace nuclear power without enrichment or, possibly, the need for a final waste repository [if one argues that we may have to accept the waste of others, they must therefore concede that our waste may be accepted elsewhere]. We could enrich without generating nuclear electricity or we could become an international, high level waste repository state without generating power or the pursuit of enrichment.

Because of Australia's positive relationship with the IAEA, history of smooth and compliant inspections etc. We have gained a broad and positive international reputation. I believe this is why we are getting nods from a variety of stakeholders as we go around the world dipping our feet in the proverbial nuclear pool. The key players know us and consider us trustworthy.

Australia's options are - for the moment - completely open.


  1. Given the fact that Australia has the world's largest reserve of Thorium, it only makes sense to pursue a research program with the aim of producing a reactor based on the Thorium fuel cycle.

    One initiative being explored world wide (US, Czech Republic, France, Russia) to develop Thorium technology is based on the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). This reactor design is quite innovative: it uses a mixture of molten Lithium and Beryllium Fluoride salts as the working fluid in the reactor. Added directly to these molten salts is a relatively small amount of Thorium and Uranium-233 Fluoride salts. The resultant salt mixture simultaneously works as a moderator, coolant, and fuel medium.

    As it happens, the technology was first successfully tested in the 1960s, but recent advances in materials, fuel processing, and energy recovery systems, have made the technology very compelling.

    The advantages of such a technology are numerous:

    The reactor system is the only practical way of utilizing the Th-U233 fuel cycle, which unlike the U235-Pu239 fuel cycle, produces almost no transuranic nuclear waste. As a result, the waste products have decay times measured in hundreds of years, as opposed to millions.

    The Th-U233 fuel cycle is unique in that it can be configured to produce more fissile material than it consumes without requiring the fast neutron spectra and exotic coolants that doomed the previous breeder reactors.

    The nuclear materials from the molten salt reactors contain as a byproduct of the reaction U232, which is a strong gamma radiator. This makes the reactor products impossible to redirect for illicit purposes due to the inherent detectability of U232. This property is essential in effort to prevent nuclear proliferation.

    MSRs tend to burn up most of their nuclear waste; this property can be utilized to eliminate excess plutonium waste from other sources if desired.

    The design of MSRs enables the possibility of including a very small on-line fuel reprocessing loop within the reactor structure. This prevents the need of shipping nuclear fuels over long distances to be reprocessed. This also lowers dramatically the operating costs, as the plant may be operated indefinitely without shut-down.

    MSRs have an inherent, strong negative coefficient of reactivity as a function of temperature. This means that there is absolutely no possibility of the runaway thermal event that occurred at Chernobyl, which had a regime in which there was a positive coefficient of reactivity.

    MSRs will be designed with passive safety systems. For example, should the core overheat, a salt plug at the bottom of the reactor would melt, and the working salt mixture would flow into tanks below the reactor. Since the tanks have no graphite moderator, the reaction would become subcritical and immediately stop.
    The molten salt coolant has a very low working pressure, as opposed to water moderated reactors. Thus the single most catastrophic event for a water moderated reactor, namely, a container vessel rupture, would not be a particularly dangerous situation for molten salt reactors. And, due to the low working pressure, such a rupture is much less likely.

    Because the boiling temperature of molten salts is so high (1500 C), MSRs can and will be designed to run at higher temperatures. This makes them much more efficient at converting thermal energy to electrical energy (50% as opposed to 35%). This also enables them to use dry air cooling instead of water cooling. The latter fact is important as this, for the first time, enable reactors to be built far from water cooling sources like lakes or rivers, and therefore further away from population centers.

    MSRs can be designed to be much smaller than conventional reactors due to the low pressure/ high temperature operation. The compact design should significantly reduce the initial capital costs.

    In short, Molten Salt Reactors promise to be inherently safe, efficient and clean, and as such represent a significant departure from present designs. I believe that Australia, with its large Thorium reserves, would benefit immensely from such a technology.

  2. If you're looking for more information about MSRs and thorium, you might find Kirk Sorensen's website interesting.

  3. Ed, I don't know whether you've seen this story.

    The shock-horror stuff about uranium enrichment back in the 1980s is neither here nor there, but the fact that people are seriously looking at uranium enrichment in Australia is a bit puzzling to me.

    Given the political difficulties in establishing such a facility in Australia, what if any major competitive advantage would an Australian facility have over ones located in countries who already have commercial-scale enrichment plants?

    The only thing I can think of is cheap power, but that's dependent on, well, coal-fired power that's likely to get more expensive once an emissions trading scheme is brought in.

  4. Good point Robert. I tried to touch on this very idea in my post.

    The only answer I can come up with is to broaden the participation in the 'suppliers club' in any future multilateral fuel cycle (as in GNEP or what is being proposed by Putin).

    I think for non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) pondering the initiation or expansion of a nuclear power industry, security of supply is a big issue which, like many things nuclear, manifests itself as economic opportunity within Australia.

  5. Why not build an entire nuclear industry at Roxby Downs and close the nuclear cycle by mining and enriching uranium all in one place, burning the nuclear fuel for power and storing the waste in the secure Woomera Prohibited area, transmitting the power to Eastern cities over HCDV power lines? It will yield economies of scale, elimininate proliferation worries, provide a safety barrier against accidents and create surplus power for hydrogen. see for more details