Saturday, 1 September 2007

GNEP - Nuclear grade clubbing

According to recent news, Australia may be either entering directly into a bilateral agreement with the US (and other countries), formally enlisting in GNEP, or both.

The United States is claiming that Australia's role wold be research oriented. I have no problem with this claim. I believe all the chatter about waste is purely political - and being fanned heavily by Labor for their own gains.

Unless Canberra is full of complete idiots on both sides of the political aisle, the Coalition and Labour both clearly understand that 1) if Australia did accept high level waste from other countries, they could virtually name their price (and subsequently reprocess it and sell it on as reactor fuel - but I digress), but 2) agreeing to this without a lengthy public outreach programme including some very broad education of the general public - would be political suicide.

If you have a look around, you will discover that the US is signing bilateral nuclear agreements with just about every country with a research reactor. Others are dong it as well - including Australia. I believe, with respect to research, the US appears to be playing catch-up following several decades of little support for nuclear power technologies. Australia has a demonstrated research capability, very relevant capability in fact. Just consider how General Electric is capitalising on Australian ingenuity. Personally, one of the most disappointing lines on the page is:

GE has the exclusive rights to develop, commercialize and launch this third-generation uranium enrichment technology on a global basis.

Yet another example of others gaining from Australian innovation. Sure it's great to proudly proclaim "... that's Australian!". But to be blunt - proclamations don't pay the mortgage. It is not too difficult to imagine a day when Australian uranium is shipped to the US, enriched at a GE facility and then shipped back to Australia in the form of fresh fuel [and we don't need power reactors to savor this technological embarrassment, it's quite possible the OPAL reactor fuel could one day take this route. I am fairly certain Argentina gets its enriched fuel from the USA].

I mentioned other agreements. Canada is on the [nuclear] move. Comparisons between Australia and Canada can be quite entertaining. Similar size [33-Million to our 21-Million], loyal servants of Her Majesty, loving and hating America simultaneously, etc. Oh, and I almost forgot - a considerable quantity of the world's Uranium. One notable difference is that Canada not only embraced the nuclear fuel cycle over 5 decades ago, but Canadian engineers designed a unique breed of reactor [the CANDU] that has helped power Canada and more than a few other countries for quite some time now.

This past week the Canadian Province of Ontario announced a bold initiative [find even more here] that appears to be quite serious about mitigating Canada's contribution to climate change - which in case you are wondering is [on a per capita basis] about equal to the US and a little more than 90% of what we spew into the atmosphere here in Australia. Note the plan involves a blended array of strategies, including Nuclear, that will eliminate coal by 2014, not long after Australia plans to have developed our carbon trading strategy [just a bit embarrassing, no?].

And there's more. Canada, with not only a demonstrated research background, but a damn respectable industrial track record to boot, has also been 'invited' to join the GNEP. Here's what The Times Colonist had to say,
The initiative came to light in Canada in May 2006, when Prime Minister John Howard of Australia -- like Canada, a major world supplier of uranium -- visited Ottawa and voiced interest in the U.S. proposal, but also concerns about its possible effect on the mining and export industries.

At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: "Australia and Canada, as the two major uranium producers in the world, have considerable interest in whatever the United States and the international community have in mind in terms of future uranium development, production and marketing."

He added that he and Howard had "agreed we're going to collaborate very closely together to make sure Australian and Canadian interests are closely protected while the Americans and others discuss the future of that industry."
At least they're being pragmatic about it. No sugar-coating speeches about research. They want to ensure their interests as a supplier of Uranium are protected. And I am confident that Australia's interest in GNEP are the same - as reported in Canada, if not here in Australia. Because, let's face it, mining jobs and healthy exports do pay the mortgage.

As you can probably tell, I have a great deal of respect for the Canadian nuclear programme. They are lean and mean, excellent planners [with the versatile NRU still fully utilised at 50 years old] and even better decision makers. With about 10% of the US population they have managed to essentially equal their technical capability with respect to nuclear power and surpassed them in closely related fields. The USA, for example imports 100% of their Molybdenum-99 [used to make Technetium-99m, the most utilised diagnostic radiopharmaceutical on the planet] and a LOT of that comes from Canada. And before you click that comment link to tell us all about their Maple reactors, take a look around your own glass house.

Canadians also have an interesting approach to increasing enrolment in nuclear engineering programmes.

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