Monday, 2 April 2007

From here to there

In an effort to look past the rhetoric coming from both sides, I’d like to begin to consider the Australian transition to nuclear power in a more pragmatic sense.

Let’s assume that each and every anti-nuclear Australian did a complete flop. The doors of public and political opinion are flung open to the idea – even in our own backyards. What else will it take to produce electricity from that first nuclear plant?

(My assumption above in no way erodes expectations that the plant be constructed and operated to highest safety and quality standards, or that the companies building and operating it be denied a favourable business case for their investment.)

A certain amount of prerequisite infrastructure is a must, if for nothing else to persuade electric utilities to invest in the plants. This infrastructure must convincingly reduce business risk to manageable levels.

Just one case in point can be found by comparing the nuclear regulatory infrastructure within Australia to the USA. I selected the USA because it has the most nuclear experience (from the perspective of plant operating years) and they have also learned the lessons of a significant nuclear accident.

First peruse the ARPANSA Act and the subsequent regulations.

Then as a comparison, see Title 10 of the USA Code of Federal Regulations (10CFR). This is how the nuclear industry is regulated in the USA. It is quite large compared to the ARPANSA Act. If you’re brave, here’s a link to the whole thing (15 Mb zip file).

10CFRPart50 deals with domestic licensing of production and utilization facilities (i.e. the requirements to license a commercial nuclear power plant).

If you compare the two, you will find the USA regulations significantly more robust and, in particular, very prescriptive. I’ve heard some very senior nuclear proponents in Australia speak critically of prescriptive nuclear regulation, but I disagree quite strongly with their opinion with respect to nuclear power.

Prescriptive regulations facilitate business confidence. Utilities and their investors must know their success paths to a fair degree of confidence (and hence be able to manage the relevant business risks).

The USA has decades of experience with various commercial reactor designs, has lived through some hard lessons and incorporated both into the current regulations. As we ponder our future energy options in Australia, I would beware of those who presume to know better.


  1. While the USA offers one model for regulation of nuclear power, they're not the only ones.

    Shouldn't we be having a look at, say, the French, Swedish, and Japanese models of nuclear regulation (to pick three countries with successful nuclear power programs, and in Japan's case much more recent construction experience) as well?

  2. Hello Robert & thanks for another comment.

    Yes, I fully agree with you. A comprehensive review would be the logical action to take. I just didn’t have time to go digging through them all myself – so I picked one as an example. Any links to the regulatory programmes in other countries would be greatly appreciated.

    But I still see the value, for commercial nuclear power, of prescriptive regulations vs. those that are more open to interpretation (having been subjected to both throughout my years).

    Because a commercial nuclear power reactor does not appear to satisfy the definitions of a Nuclear Installation (see section 13 of the ARPANSA Act); I don’t believe such a facility is currently licensable in Australia. Therefore, I suspect we will need a regulatory overhaul. These reviews take both time and resources. Then we must work to develop, approve and implement any new regulations required.

    I think such an effort would be a prerequisite to the finalization of siting activities, selecting a supplier etc. I just don’t see any investors jumping into nuclear without being fully aware of the regulatory requirements and risks [but I admit, this is just my opinion based on my personal experience and I certainly may be wrong].

    I’ve touched on resource requirements (competent engineers, specialized lawyers etc.) to complete the above work. This is another example of an infrastructure requirement and I’m working to gather some background information to make a related post on it as well.