Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review
Dr Switkowski’s speech to the National Press Club, 21 November 2006
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.
Nuclear is a highly emotive word which attracts a variety of views across the community.
Public discussion is often based on perceptions rather than facts, and those perceptions sometimes relate to views shaped by events some decades ago.
But in the last year or so the nuclear debate has moved quickly.
In 2004, the Australian Government’s Energy White Paper outlined a set of principles for Australia’s energy future.
These are: that there be reliable access to competitively priced energy, that the value of energy resources is optimised, and that environmental issues are well managed.
The Energy White Paper identified nuclear energy then as a reserve technology for Australia.
Since our Nuclear Review began in June this year, a number of things have happened in relation to nuclear energy.
These include the UK Energy Review report which reopened that country’s consideration of nuclear as part of their energy future.
There was the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook which described an energy future including more energy efficiency, more renewables, and more nuclear power.
In some countries there is even talk about a ‘nuclear renaissance’.
And, of course, the larger issue of climate change has become the frame of reference within which any discussion of energy strategy must now take place.
Today I am here to present the draft findings of the Prime Ministerial Taskforce on uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy.
This is the result of an intense five months of inquiry into all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle – from uranium mining and export, through value adding, including conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication, the possible role of nuclear power in generating electricity in Australia, and, of course, the management of radioactive waste.
As well as considering the economic aspects of nuclear energy, the Review examines social, environmental, greenhouse, health, safety and proliferation issues, including the need for specialized R+D and education.
This report is intended to provide a factual base to encourage informed discussion by the community.
The draft report is being released today and we are seeking further public comments by 12th December.
This is to ensure that the final report fully addresses all community issues, and can be delivered to the Prime Minister by the end of the year, as per the Terms of Reference.
Let me describe the process the Taskforce went through in forming our views.
In addition to myself, the Taskforce had five other members with backgrounds in nuclear science, health and safety, environmental protection, engineering and economics – Professor George Dracoulis, Dr Arthur Johnston, Professor Peter Johnston, Professor Warwick McKibbin, and Mr Martin Thomas.
Plus a strong secretariat made up of representatives from across government.
We received over 230 public submissions from a wide range of organisations and individuals.
We consulted with a range of people and organisations in Australia and overseas.
We visited nuclear facilities including the three current uranium mines in Australia, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities, nuclear power plants and waste repositories overseas.
As part of these overseas consultations we went to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, sites of the two biggest accidents in the history of the nuclear industry.
Many people have strong feelings on nuclear issues, and community acceptance is an integral part of a country’s involvement in the industry.
In Finland we saw ‘best practice’ community consultation in relation to their new reactor at Olkilouto.
In Finland they also believe that communities accepting facilities which benefit an entire country should be compensated for this.
Let me now turn to the findings set out in the report.
Many countries are revisiting nuclear energy in response to energy security and cost issues.
For instance in Europe, high energy prices and problems with gas supplies from Russia focused attention on the need to have assured energy supplies.
In the US, they have taken a strategic decision to reduce their reliance on Middle East oil.
Does Australia need nuclear energy for energy security reasons?
No, since we have vast reserves of fossil fuels and renewable sources.
Nor are our current electricity prices any cause for intervention – they are amongst the lowest in the world.
But Australia does need to seriously consider nuclear as one of our future low emission energy technology options.
Australia has long enjoyed the benefit of low electricity prices in the world – we have the fourth lowest electricity costs in the OECD.
This is due to our abundance of low cost coal and gas which are the fuels producing 90% of Australia’s electricity and 34% of our greenhouse gases (193 million tonnes).
It is worth noting that all electricity generation technologies produce waste in addition to greenhouse gases.
And some technologies such as wind that have low waste evoke strong community views based on their visual impact.
This report compares wastes on a life cycle basis across technologies.
For instance, coal fired generation produces fly ash, gas produces sulphurous compounds, solar produces chemical waste, and nuclear produces radioactive waste.
We found that on a life cycle basis, the volumes of waste are smallest for nuclear and solar.
In many countries nuclear power is competitive with other forms of electricity generation.
Given Australia’s access to low cost coal and gas, the panel found Australian nuclear electricity would be 20 to 50% more expensive than current electricity from fossil fuels.
The high upfront costs of regulatory approvals and capital investment (amounting to $A2-3 billion for a 1GWe reactor) drive this unfavourable comparison.
However, when the pollution costs of fossil fuels, including greenhouse gases, are taken into account, nuclear and other low emissions technologies become cost competitive.
Depending upon the nature of any carbon cost included in an emissions trading framework, or the forecast cost of low emission technologies, principally carbon capture and storage, the costs of nuclear electricity in the 2020s when first available could be the lowest cost alternative for Australia if overseas experience is a reasonable guide.
Depending on the level of any price on carbon, there may be a need for some early support for nuclear to offset the early development costs for the regulatory framework and the development of the construction, engineering skills.
It is now more than 50 years since the first civilian nuclear reactor was commissioned exclusively for electricity generation.
According to the IEA, nuclear energy is used widely around the world, with more than 440 nuclear reactors currently operating in 31 countries, representing 15% of global electricity production.
Nuclear energy is used extensively in high income OECD countries, representing 22% of their electricity generation.
At one extreme, France has nearly 80% nuclear electricity and exports power equal to more than one-third of Australia’s annual electricity production into the European grid.
Interestingly, nuclear’s global share continues to decline slowly because coal-fired capacity is increasing faster than nuclear.
This trend will continue for some time yet as developing economies proportionately invest more in use of fossil fuels.
The International Energy Agency in its recently released World Energy Outlook 2006, found that “the world is facing twin energy-related threats: that of not having adequate and secure supplies of energy at affordable prices, and that of environmental harm caused by consuming too much of it”.
This accurately describes Australia’s challenge:
our prosperity and the strength of our economy causing demand for electricity to more than double by 2050, yet we need to manage our pollution and emissions so that their levels are lower in 50 years than they are today.
The IEA urges governments to adopt an energy future that is more sustainable compared to current trends.
It outlines a scenario for this alternative future which includes improved energy efficiency and increased use of nuclear power and renewables.
Our panel considered one possible future scenario for Australia which saw a fast deployment of nuclear reactors beginning in 2020 and leading to a national network of 25 nuclear reactors by 2050.
At that point, about a third of Australia’s electricity would be nuclear-sourced, and greenhouse gas emissions would be 18% lower than business-as-usual.
On the issue of carbon pricing, last week the Australian Government announced the establishment of a joint government-business task force to look at what form an emissions trading system might take in the years ahead, both in Australia and globally.
If there were an explicit cost for pollution, including greenhouse gases, or targets embodied in an emissions trading scheme, then this would have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of low emission technologies and renewables.
The Review believes that renewable technologies, including solar and wind, will become an increasing part of Australia’s energy future but cannot alone provide the continuous electricity supply needed on the large scale required by our industrial plants, office buildings and residential homes.
For several decades into the future, Australia will need fossil fuels and possibly nuclear energy to provide reliable base load power at a reasonable cost.
In such circumstances, it is very appropriate for this country to focus considerable effort upon reducing the greenhouse emissions from fossil fuel use as a matter of national priority.
In many countries we are seeing a renewed interest in nuclear power.
For instance, the United States, which currently has around 20% nuclear power, has announced a range of measures to encourage development of nuclear plants for energy security and environmental reasons.
The United Kingdom too, with 20% nuclear power use, is also revisiting its nuclear plans and streamlining regulation for investors.
Japan and South Korea, with 28% and 37% nuclear respectively, have plans to increase this to 40% in future.
Clearly those countries have concluded that the risks associated with nuclear power can be managed – and we agree.
We all know about the tragic accident at Chernobyl 20 years ago.
This has had a lasting impact.
I’ve seen the aftermath of Chernobyl.
The enormous social disruption and human cost can not be overstated.
No one wants to see this tragedy repeated.
I and my Panel have also been to Three Mile Island in the US where the damage was contained within the reactor and no radiation leakage or injury occurred.
These two accidents took the wind out of the nuclear industry’s sails.
The nuclear industry went back to the drawing board after these accidents.
The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) developed more rigorous safety standards.
New reactor designs were developed with advanced safety and proliferation-resistant features.
Nuclear power plants now have some of the lowest incident and accident rates compared with other electricity generation technologies.
Some submissions to this Review expressed concerns about radiation safety.
However, the Review concluded that radiation risks associated with nuclear power stations, and indeed the nuclear fuel cycle as a whole, are very low.
Similarly, we have found that non-greenhouse environmental impacts of the nuclear fuel cycle, including air pollution, land use and water use, are either comparable to, or much lower than, conventional fossil fuel and renewables.
Contrary to some claims that we might run out of uranium, reserves are not a constraint on nuclear power.
The length of time which current known uranium reserves will last at predicted consumption rates is about 50 to100 years – and these estimates will be extended by new nuclear energy technologies which will increase uranium use efficiency.
In addition, further uranium reserves will undoubtedly be found in future.
Let me now to turn to the other areas of the report.
On uranium mining, the Review found that Australia has very high standards for uranium mining to protect the environment, safety and health of workers and the public.
We visited each of the three operating uranium mines in Australia, and found that each is a quite different type of operation.
At the massive Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine, we went underground and experienced the high standards of safety for working conditions.
We got an appreciation for the immense scale of the proposed expansion under consideration by BHP Billiton.
In contrast to the scale at Olympic Dam, we saw the low impact operations at the Beverley in-situ leach mine.
From the air you can hardly see the operation other than the processing area and living quarters.
It is similar to an onshore petroleum operation with a number of low profile wells dotted over the lease area.
At the Ranger mine, against the impressive backdrop of Kakadu National Park, we saw the open cut operations.
We also observed the management of water on the lease site in a high rainfall area and the challenges in ensuring that no contaminated water leaves the site.
We discussed plans for rehabilitation when the mine ceases in 2008, although milling there has recently been extended to 2020.
Providing these high standards are maintained, the panel can see no reason not to expand uranium mining in Australia.
However, uranium mining is a serious business and the need to maintain strict standards was emphasised by uranium companies and government regulators.
No diversion from this can be tolerated.
Australia has 38% of the world’s low cost uranium resources.
In a time of increasing global demand for uranium there is an opportunity for Australia to increase production and exports.
The Review found that Australia could double uranium export revenues by the end of this decade.
However, there are a number of impediments to expanding uranium exports.
These are: skill shortages, restrictive policies on land access, regulation and transport.
The Review found that Australian uranium is exported under strict safeguards controls which are linked into the international safeguards regime.
Increasing exports of Australian uranium would not increase the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Actual cases of proliferation have involved illegal supply networks, secret nuclear facilities and undeclared enrichment plants.
They have not involved the diversion of declared materials from safeguarded facilities such as nuclear power plants.
On value adding, the Review found that the downstream steps of uranium conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication could, under certain simplifying assumptions, add a further A$1.8 billion of value to Australia’s uranium.
However, the challenges of engaging in value adding in Australia are significant.
There are commercial, technological and geopolitical barriers to entering into these areas at the current time.
The technology for enrichment is tightly held by a small number of companies which are currently adding modern centrifuge plants.
Thus there appears little need for new capacity in these processes for some time.
On the other hand, the forecast dramatic rate of growth of nuclear power in the Asian region may eventually support investment in a regional enrichment plant.
Enrichment is a proliferation-sensitive technology and the subject of international scrutiny.
Australia has a strong non-proliferation record and all fuel cycle activities are covered by Australia’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
Other than normal commercial considerations, any decision to get into value-adding at the enrichment stage would further require a careful assessment of security implications for Australia and the management of international perceptions.
That being said, in the panel’s view, these issues are not insurmountable.
Reprocessing of spent fuel appears to not be commercially attractive at this time.
On radioactive waste, we found that this can be safely managed and several countries are well advanced in developing engineered underground repositories for high level waste.
The first repositories in Europe will commence operation around 2020.
We visited one of these developmental sites in Finland.
In the United States we visited the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada where significant testing and scrutiny have been underway for nearly twenty years.
Experience from Yucca Mountain shows the need for a clear decision making path by governments.
It also shows the need for widespread communication with local communities.
We visited the national underground laboratory in eastern France which is investigating the feasibility of a radioactive waste repository for long-lived high level waste.
This laboratory is located in the French farmlands surrounded by vineyards.
If Australia is to have nuclear energy domestically, we would become responsible for our waste.
Host geological formations are selected on the basis of long term stability, capacity to accommodate the waste disposal facility and ability to prevent or severely attenuate any long term radioactivity releases.
On this basis, Australia has a number of geologically suitable areas for deep disposal of spent fuel rods and high level radioactive waste.
In line with best practice overseas, decommissioning costs for nuclear energy would need to be included in the price of nuclear electricity.
Best practice decommissioning includes a deduction from nuclear energy revenues throughout the operating life of a plant to accumulate sufficient funds for decommissioning of the plant and managing radioactive waste long term.
OECD member country estimates suggest that decommissioning costs range between 15 and 20 per cent of initial construction.
These are amortised over the plant life, now typically 60 years.
Australia needs to meet growing energy demand while decreasing emissions significantly.
In order to do this, we need to consider all energy generation options seriously, including nuclear energy.
The national strategy is likely to be a portfolio approach including fossil fuels with a range of low emissions technologies in addition to energy efficiency measures.
Without nuclear energy, the cost of achieving emission reductions would be much higher.
That is, we would need to deploy more costly and less certain technologies for any given level of emission reduction.
If Australia does decide that nuclear energy will be part of the future, then reactors could be operating as early as 2016, although 2020 is more probable.
But first we need to have an open and public discussion based on facts and analysis.
This report is intended to provide a stepping stone towards such a discussion.
If Australia does decide to get more involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly nuclear power and value adding downstream processing, then we would need to do a number of things.
Firstly, an appropriate regulatory structure would need to be established, including a predictable licensing regime.
Based on best practice overseas, this may be a single national regulator overseeing all nuclear activities.
Secondly, skilled staff would be needed for the new industries and for the regulatory body.
Thirdly, Australia would need to invest in nuclear research and development, education and training across a range of fields to develop technical know how.
There are opportunities to benefit from collaboration with institutions and organisations overseas.
Finally, the national settings for energy strategy would need to ensure a level playing field for infrastructure decisions be they for fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable investments.
There has been a lot of interest in this review and I thank all those individuals and organisations that have made submissions and made time to make their views known to the panel.
Based on the submissions and our consultations, we have compiled a draft report which I am releasing today for public comment.
Once we have received comments on the draft report, we will complete the final report and deliver to the Prime Minister by the end of this year, as per the terms of reference.
It will then be up to the Australian community to progress the debate on the issues raised in the Review.