South Australia tiptoes towards nuclear future

With South Australia’s nuclear future to be investigated in a Royal Commission, Australian Mining provides an overview of the state’s uranium sector.

In early February, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said the establishment of a Royal Commission would create the foundations for a considered and informed discussion with the community around the state’s nuclear potential.

 “The Royal Commission will be the first of its kind in the nation and will explore the opportunities and risks of South Australia’s involvement in the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Weatherill said.

The draft terms of the reference for the Royal Commission are focused on nuclear power generation, uranium enrichment and waste storage. 

Weatherill said much of the debate around the industry was poorly informed and the commission aimed to “establish the facts” and allow for an ­informed debate.

“What we want to do is take mass opinion, and through a process of raising awareness through the provision of information and facts … people can come up with a settled public judgment,” he said.

“It needs to be a mature debate, it will be a robust debate.”

Weatherill openly admits that like many Australians, he was once opposed to nuclear power.

However the Premier says potential employment, investment opportunities and the chance to tackle climate change have worked to sway his opinion.

“I have in the past been ­opposed to nuclear power, all elements of it,” he said.

“I now have an open mind. “When the facts change, people should change their minds.”

Former governor Kevin Scarce will head the Royal Commission, and last week released the first discussion paper, and announced an advisory panel.

Commissioner Scarce said the Expert Advisory Committee had been engaged to provide high-level expert advice to him and the Commission’s staff for the duration of the Royal Commission.

“The members of this Committee have been chosen to ensure that the Commission receives a broad range of advice and reflects the diversity of views that the community holds,” he said.

“The membership of the Committee comprises both proponents and opponents of the nuclear fuel cycle, and I believe this type of diverse contribution will ultimately allow the Royal Commission to develop a comprehensive final report.”

The panel is made up of: Visiting professor at University College London, Dr Timothy Stone; Professor of Environmental Sustainability, Barry Brook from Tasmania; past president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Science at Griffith University, Ian Lowe; South Australia's chief scientist, Dr Leanna Read; and Mr John Carlson, a former director general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO).

“I want this Royal Commission to be a far reaching inquiry into the nuclear fuel cycle, investigating the associated risks and opportunities,” Scarce said.

“I am seeking to engage in a conversation with the South Australian community, speak to people, hear their lived experience and obtain the views of those who wish to have a say on this important matter.”

To this end, the first public forum was held in Mount Gambier on Monday 20 April, marking the formal start of a 12 month state-wide community engagement program.

In May Scarce will visit Aboriginal lands in the far north of South Australia as part of his consultation process.

Scarce said the commission would also visit countries including Finland, Japan, and the United Kingdom to investigate how the nuclear industry operates.

The deadline for the Commission’s report is May 6, 2016.

Uranium in SA

With SA home to one of the largest uranium deposits in the world, it makes sense for the state see how far it can take the industry.

The current estimate of uranium mineral resources in South Australia is 1,371 kilotonnes uranium (kt U) representing 80 per cent of those in Australia.

Unlike most sates in Australia, SA has allowed the mining and production of uranium for more than 25 years.

There are currently four uranium mines operating in the state, including BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam which produces around 4008.7 tonnes of uranium a year.

Currently, 249 exploration licences are issued in South Australia which relate to uranium either exclusively, or in addition to, other commodities (about 30 per cent of the total number of licences issued in the State).

Forty-seven companies – some Australian and others international – participate in the exploration for uranium.

The total expenditure associated with exploration for uranium in South Australia was $4.8 million in 2013-14.

Demand for uranium

International demand for uranium is driven by its use in electricity generation. The major demand is from the United States of America, the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, Canada, Ukraine, India and Taiwan.

 There are currently 395 nuclear power stations operating worldwide, with a total generating capacity of 339 gigawatts (GW). In addition there are 43 reactors (with a generating capacity of 40 GW) currently shut down in Japan, awaiting possible restart.

According to the World Nuclear Association, a further 66 reactors (generating capacity of 65 GW) are under construction while some 165 reactors, totalling 185 GW of generating capacity, are planned.

Demand for yellowcake is set to outstrip supply from 2016, and with an expected shortfall of 60,000 tonnes of U30expected by 2018.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects electricity generation from nuclear power worldwide to more than double from 2,620 billion kilowatt hours in 2010 to 5,492 billion kilowatt hours in 2040.

The OECD, Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency have together concluded:

World reactor–related uranium requirements by the year 2035 (assuming a tails assay of 0.25 per cent) are projected to increase to a total of between 72,200 tonnes uranium per annum in the low case and 121,100 tonnes uranium per annum in the high case, representing increases of about 20 per cent and 105 per cent, respectively, compared with 2013 requirements.

Toro Energy’s managing director Dr.Vanessa Guthrie said with this kind of demand, it was  imperative that Australia stabilises its uranium policy platform so that the country is considered as the “go to” supply source globally.

Opinion divided

With the controversy surrounding the nuclear industry and its potential risks, the reaction to SA’s Royal Commission has been largely mixed.

The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy (SACOME) welcomed the move, and said it was keen to ensure public debate remains mature and scientific using up to date information.

Jason Kuchel, Chief Executive of SACOME said there is currently a boom in nuclear power underway in neighbouring Asian countries and it is important that South Australians understand the true opportunities on its doorstep.

 “Countries with high populations have massive energy demands and often a lack of available land to house the large footprint required by solar and other renewable technologies,” Kuchel said.

“When construction, operation and decommissioning costs are taken into account, the cost of electricity from nuclear is comparable to other low carbon sources and in some cases the cheapest option.”

Recent polling by the Advertiser, and SACOME in 2013 discovered that South Australians are open to the whole nuclear fuel cycle chain, Kuchel said.

“SACOME’s survey found that 63% supported nuclear to assist in mitigating climate change, and 62% supported further job opportunities in the uranium industry.”

“We hope all parties interested in contributing to this important discussion do so in a logical, scientific and open manner, rather than holding onto outdated fears and irrational doubts.”

Meanwhile, the Minerals Council of Australia says uranium has the potential to be the next billion dollar export industry for Australia.

“Currently, Australia’s uranium industry generates around $620 million per year in export income and approximately 4,000 jobs – just based on capturing 11% of the global uranium market,” the council’s executive director for uranium Daniel  ZAVATTIERO said.

“However, the potential for further growth is substantial as Australia possesses 32% of the world’s uranium resources.  If realised, uranium exports would be closer to $2 billion per year and potentially generating 10,000 jobs.

“Australia has 90 known uranium deposits and the industry contributed more than $6.5 billion to the Australian economy over the past decade.”

However, others argue against a move to nuclear power, citing safety and storage I issues as the main impediments.

Nuclear free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, Dave Sweeney says with the price and production of uranium in a free fall since the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, the Royal Commission comes at an “unlikely time”.

“South Australia is in tough and uncertain economic times caused by a trifecta of industry withdrawals, including the shelving of a long planned $25bn expansion at Olympic Dam, the loss of jobs in the car industry and the prospect of seeing massive defence contracts move offshore. Amid this volatility the sustained lobbying efforts of a group of nuclear true believers is finding a platform,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney says he does not want to see the commission become a promotional platform for the nuclear industry.

“Any Royal Commission needs to be evidence based, rigorous and independent. It needs clear and comprehensive terms of reference and must address the legacies of the past and the performance of the present before examining the often exaggerated promises of the future.”

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