Should Australia decide to price carbon emissions at a level where power producers begin to shift significantly away from fossil fuels, nuclear power will become economically competitive in Australia. Assuming this shift begins within the next five years and Australia does opt for nuclear power, we will construct an established Gen-III/III+ design, imported from a long time ally.
For the same reason the HIFAR research reactor was imported fifty-some years ago (British DIDO design), the OPAL reactor was imported about ten years ago (INVAP / Argentina) and ANSTO's PETNET design was imported more recently. Australia does not have large-scale nuclear (NSSS, and nuclear A&E) design capability. Such capabilities are developed over decades. It could be done in Australia (or most other countries for that matter), but if energy supply and emissions reductions are the goal - such development is not on the optimised path.
However, Australia has recently and repeatedly demonstrated our ability to manage and implement large-ish nuclear projects with regard to project implementation and independent regulatory oversight. We have also demonstrated our ability to safely, reliably and efficiently operate and maintain nuclear facilities.
When nuclear power is cost competitive with other generation options, our uniquely Australian political challenges will remain. Opting for a design that has been built and operated several times in different countries provides a necessary degree of assurance against politically motivated claims of unknown costs, safety risks, or questions about operational reliability. Attempting to develop an unproven design here would expose would be investors to the associated unknowns of schedule delays, cost overruns or performance uncertainties. It is for this reason that nuclear design endeavours are usually scaled up through a series of increasingly larger demonstration projects.
An established design also brings with it prior regulatory approvals. This is not to imply a guarantee of Australian approval, but does provide added confidence in the review process.
Why an ally?
Consider the political baggage if Australia selected a Russian reactor design. Add to this the history of Russia using energy security as an instrument of foreign policy (every reactor requires a secure supply of highly technical spare parts for decades).
Furthermore, regulatory review and approval experience with a given design in the USA, Canada, the UK, Japan, Korea, etc. could reassure potential investors of our ability to adequately manage project implementation risks (i.e. schedule and cost control).
First, I've listed it as "III/III+" because the line between the two can be blurred depending on where you look. The designs I refer to include (not meant to be exhaustive and listed alphabetically by company):
- AECL - CANDU-6
- AREVA - EPR
- Atomstroyexport - AES92 (VVER-V392)
- KHNP - APR-1400
- MHI - APWR
- Westinghouse - AP-1000.
Some are operating today, others are being built and the rest are being marketed. The list may grow as other companies / countries enter the international nuclear power plant supply market (AECL's ACR-1000, B&W's mPower, China's CAP-1000, etc.); but these GenIII/III+ newcomers will take some time to pass the 'established' test and therefore are beyond the scope of this post.
Next, as I've explained above, the design must be established. I fully support advanced nuclear research and development. I believe Australia should waste no time increasing its involvement in such efforts. However, the scope of this post is directed and the near-term displacement of fossil energy generation. And therefore, established, shovel-ready designs are required.
With respect to fast / Gen-IV reactors; the OECD produced an excellent report - Nuclear Development Strategic and Policy Issues Raised by the Transition from Thermal to Fast Nuclear Systems (88 pages, ISBN 9789264060654). In this report and several others, 2040 is projected as an estimated time frame of fast reactor deployment. The report details other challenges such as prerequisite infrastructure requirements that make Australia seem unlikely as a location for early Gen-IV deployment.
Gen-IV's likely time-line strengthens Australia's case for Gen-III/III+.