South Australia considers international waste facility

10 May 2016

South Australia Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle recommended, in its 344-page report published on 9 May, that South Australia should "further investigate" the feasibility of the storage and disposal of international used nuclear fuel and intermediate-level waste. The commission said South Australia has the attributes and capabilities to manage and dispose of international used nuclear fuel safely, and it would have a significant inter-generational benefit to the community.

The commission recommended that the state government should establish an independent board to set "strategic directions" and undertake community engagement, including preparing a draft framework for the further development of the concept, including initial siting criteria. The report also said nuclear power generation "would not be commercially viable" in South Australia under current market rules, but should be considered as a future low-carbon energy source to contribute to national emissions reduction targets.

In March 2015, the commission was tasked with undertaking an independent and comprehensive investigation into the potential for increasing the state's participation in the nuclear fuel cycle across four areas of activity: exploration and extraction of minerals; the further processing of minerals and manufacture of materials containing radioactive substances; the use of nuclear fuels for electricity generation; and the storage and disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste. The report of the AUD7.2m ($5.3m) investigation was presented to the South Australian government on 6 May by Kevin Scarce, who led the independent commission.

The commission's Tentative Findings were published in February 2016, followed by five weeks of public consultations. During its investigations, the commission invited submissions on the risks and opportunities associated with each activity in the nuclear fuel cycle. Public sessions heard oral evidence from 132 expert witnesses and were streamed live over the internet. The commission also conducted its own research, with visits to fuel cycle facilities in Asia, Canada, Europe, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the USA.

The report makes 12 key recommendations focusing particular attention on the possibility of establishing a facility for the disposal of international used nuclear fuel and intermediate waste. Based on a "cautious and conservative approach", from assessments of used fuel inventories and potential global interest the commission determined that such a facility could generate more than AUD100bn in income in excess of expenditure (including a reserve fund of AUD32bn for facility closure and ongoing monitoring) over the 120-year life of the project.

As social consent will be vital for any repository project to proceed, the commission recommended that the South Australian government should remove legislative constraints to ongoing discussion on such a facility. "The immediate next steps should be undertaken free from any debate about whether expenditure of public money in pursuing this opportunity is contrary to law," the report notes.

With regard to nuclear power, the commission said it would not be commercially viable to develop a nuclear power plant given the current market rules, but noted that as "a low-carbon energy source comparable with other renewable technologies", nuclear may be required in the future. It recommended that the South Australian government should "pursue removal at the federal level of existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation to allow it to contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required".

It also called for the removal at the federal level of prohibitions on the licensing of fuel cycle facilities, although it noted that in a currently oversupplied market the provision of such services would not be commercially viable in the next decade.

Expanded uranium exploration and mining would benefit the state, the commission noted, but found the existing regulatory approvals processes for new uranium mines to be "unnecessarily duplicative at the state and federal levels". The commission recommended simplification of state and federal mining approval requirements for radioactive ores, to deliver a single assessment and approvals process. It also recommended measures to maximise the benefits from expanded uranium exploration and mining, while ensuring full decommissioning and remediation costs for uranium mining projects are secured in advance.

A community engagement process on the report's findings will follow and the government's response to the report be delivered to the South Australian parliament by the end of the year.



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