Nuclear is not a dirty word

Nuclear is not a dirty word

By 2030, dozens of small modular nuclear reactors will be dotted around Australia, according to chairman of Engineers Australia’s Nuclear Engineering Panel and SMR Nuclear Technology’s technical director Tony Irwin.

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ustralia relies on standalone off-grid power supply for important regional and remote industrial projects, such as mining. While parts of the industry are turning to solar to reduce a costly reliance on diesel, Tony is among a strong support base for nuclear energy – specifically small modular reactors (SMRs), which he says could be a game changer.

With the search for low emissions technology ramping up internationally, Australia’s heavy reliance on brown coal, black coal and gas is in question. As one of the world’s highest producers of emissions from electricity generation per MWh, Tony says Australian government and industry needs to introduce nuclear into the future energy mix if it is to reduce emissions in a meaningful way.

Considering the Energy Green Paper’s notes SMRs are highly suited to regional and remote areas, it seems the Federal Government – to some extent – agrees.

“Nuclear is on the table. The government is considering all technologies and nuclear is definitely included,” Tony tells ES&D.

“There will need to be some legal changes but, once the final energy white paper comes out, we should have a process outlined on how we can move forward.

“If you’ve seen the figures in the Australian Energy Technology Assessment, nuclear energy comes out as the lowest cost base-load emissions technology. So long-term, it’s a good bet. It’s another option, and it’s definitely part of Australia’s future diverse energy mix.”

Tony, who spent 30 years in the UK operating large-scale nuclear plants before joining the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, said small modular reactors have a natural safety and would readily survive a Fukushima-style tragedy.

“The big issue with nuclear is safety. SMRs are particularly good because they are small and it’s a lot easier to cool them and keep them safe. You can use natural safety, like gravity and natural convection to keep them cool, so you don’t have to keep external supplies of water and electricity, which was the big problem in Fukishima,” he said.

“These sort of reactors are walk-away safe. They don’t need an operator to do anything for several days, they don’t need additional water supplies, it’s all contained. The entire reactor is also underground, so it’s protected from external hazards and even terrorist involvement.

“Unlike the big nuclear reactors, which use fuel for 50 years with waste disposed in deep geological depositaries, SMRs are designed to manage all fuel on-site for 20-30 years before moving into deep depository. In the US researchers are looking into burning that fuel in a fast reactor system, which would avoid the problem of storing it for the long-term. So there are plenty of options for safe waste disposal in the future.”

Because SMRs are, by nature, much more compact, developers are faced with more manageable capital costs initially than with big nuclear projects. They are also factory built, so they come complete onsite, ready to plug-in.

“They cost about $5 million per MW installed, with a typical plant about
100 MW, so that equates to an outlay of half a billion dollars in today’s terms,” he said, acknowledging SMRs are commensurate with other energy generation technologies.

In fact, the Australian Energy Technology Assessment conducted by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics found nuclear is the lowest cost base-load low emissions technology a little more than 12 months ago.

Pointing to South Australia’s Olympic Dam as a prime example, Tony said there are several remote sites and sites at the edge of the grid that need energy support; sites that without SMRs will demand a lot of gas and a lot more transmission lines.

“The time-scale looks good for Olympic Dam. They’ve put their expansion plans for an additional 650MW on hold, but by 2020 I imagine they will be looking at going ahead,” he says.

In fact, at the All-Energy Australia event last November, Tony said Australia should be in a position to build small nuclear power stations in just five years – a time when Australia will be looking for new electricity generation and open to the possibilities of small nuclear plants.

“There is a big race on at the moment to be the first to market. There are three manufacturers in the US, and competition in South Korea, Argentina and, of course, China. China is getting very powerful in nuclear power and developments,” Tony says, stressing now is the time for Australia to get the ball rolling.

“Nuclear is a low emissions technology. It’s the only one that’s really base-load, apart from hydro and that’s limited in Australia. So you have a base-load, high capacity factor, low emissions technology, very suitable for Australian development – it’s ideal.”