SA nuclear waste dump would deliver $257b

Momentum is growing for the construction of a nuclear waste facility in Australia to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel rods and other waste from around the world in a project which would deliver $257 billion in revenue with signs of a bipartisan approach from the major federal political parties on the issue.

Kevin Scarce, a former South Australian governor who spent almost 12 months taking evidence from 128 witnesses, handed down his preliminary findings on Monday from The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission which examined if South Australia should expand from being a uranium miner into enrichment, waste storage and power generation.

The announcement follows four months of community consultation and an expert panel assessment of six shortlisted sites.
The announcement follows four months of community consultation and an expert panel assessment of six shortlisted sites. Photo: Glenn Campbell

He was enthusiastic about the economic benefits of a commercial-scale nuclear waste storage facility which would bring $5 billion in revenue annually for the first 30 years, and would be "highly profitable" because of strong demand from other countries, with more than 390,000 tonnes of spent rods and nuclear waste currently in temporary storage around the world and looking for a permanent home.

But he was lukewarm about the prospects for a nuclear power plant in South Australia because it was not commercially viable at this point, although he said that nuclear power generation needed to be central to the debate about Australia's future energy needs at a national level.

The report comes as Federal Resources and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and the Labor Party's shadow minister for resources, Gary Gray, both back a separate project to find a suitable site for low-level radioactive waste in a process where six potential sites were earmarked late in 2015. The bipartisan approach on that low-level waste project has buoyed hopes of similar support on the much-larger storage facility recommended by Mr Scarce's royal commission.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said there were some "exciting possibilities" for his state in the report, but there would be a methodical process over the next few months, including a final report to be delivered on May 6, before any decisions about which path to head down would be made.


"The costs and benefits will be weighed up," Mr Weatherill said.

Conservative assumptions

Mr Scarce said he had been conservative in his assumptions. "I want to under-promise and over-deliver," he said. Costs had been modelled at $145 billion over a 120-year project life. The extra $5 billion in annual revenue equates to almost one twentieth of South Australia's gross state product of $97 billion.

An integrated storage and nuclear waste disposal facility could be operational by the late 2020s and could meet a global need, beginning with an interim storage facility above-ground to bring in early revenues, before the construction of a large underground storage facility.

Mr Scarce said it was up to the community to decide if the state should proceed but cautioned that if  it was too slow the benefits may be lost to another state or country.

"There's always an opportunity if we dawdle that someone would take the competitive advantage away from us," he said.

Mr Frydenberg said on Monday he welcomed the constructive community participation the royal commission had enabled and it was important to remember Australia had been part of the nuclear fuel cycle for 60 years.

He said the expansion of Australia's nuclear industry would "require significant legislative and regulatory change".

Final report in May

The federal government will wait until the final report is delivered by the royal commissioner on May 6 this year, examine it carefully and consult with the South Australian government before responding.

The proposal for a large-scale storage facility is separate to a process already underway where six potential sites around Australia were chosen late last year by the federal government for a national low-level radio-active waste management facility. Mr Weatherill said both sites could potentially operate in the state.

Mr Weatherill said on Monday his government would be "deliberate and methodical" in assessing further into the process whether the benefits would outweigh the negatives, and if the public ultimately didn't want it, then it wouldn't proceed.

"We'll abide by whatever the process throws up," Mr Weatherill said.

"The critical thing here is we don't rush the process," Mr Weatherill told reporters.

"There's no doubt there's some exciting possibilities for South Australia contained in the report."

Differing views

He urged everyone in the Labor Party both at state and federal level to read it closely as he acknowledged there were differing views on a nuclear industry across the party.

The preliminary report recommended a sovereign wealth fund be set up to invest the proceeds and if 50 per cent of the interest from the fund could be retained, then $445 billion would accumulate over the life of the project.

State Liberal leader Steven Marshall said any decision to expand into a nuclear industry needed to be backed by the community and this was "not going to be the silver bullet" for the high unemployment in the state.

Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Dave Sweeney said on Monday the large-scale storage facility plan was "desperate, dangerous and in direct conflict with Australia's national interest".

The royal commission  found there would be substantial economic benefits from a waste storage facility. It is the project which would deliver South Australia the biggest economic benefit of all nuclear-related proposals, the Scarce report found. 

The Royal Commissioner found that setting up a nuclear power plant now in the state would not be commercially viable under the national electricity market amid projections of "flat future demand" in South Australia as more people used solar and exited the national grid.

Job creation

About 1500 jobs would initially be created and this would rise to 4500 jobs during a construction period of 25 years. The $145 billion in costs included a $32 billion reserve fund to cover whole-of-life maintenance and eventual closure costs.

There are significant quantities of used fuel from nuclear reactors in temporary storage in the Asia-Pacific region and these quantities will grow, the report found.

But Mr Scarce said the timeframes were long. In Finland and Sweden, successful projects had taken more than 30 years to develop. "These are long-term projects," Mr Scarce said.

Mr Scarce said over the life of a nuclear storage facility, a net present value of profits of more than $51 billion had been calculated.

He recommended that such a facility be government-owned and noted that it would require bipartisan support both at a state and federal government level to proceed.

Mr Scarce said the facility would require a dedicated port facility, airport and rail freight line. The project would begin with an above-ground interim storage facility. A separate underground facility with large tunnels and special canisters would be built later.

"This would be world-class infrastructure," Mr Scarce said.

Main findings at a glance

  • An integrated storage and waste facility to house used nuclear fuel from countries around the world would generate total revenue of more than $257 billion with costs of $145 billion over 120 years.
  • There is big demand from other countries that are holding waste in temporary facilities with 390,000 tonnes looking for a home.
  • Setting up a nuclear power plant in South Australia would not be commercially viable now because of the costs of building a plant and the outlook for future electricity demand in the state – but nuclear power should be part of the national discussion about future power generation as the world moves further toward low carbon generation power sources.
  • Becoming involved in uranium processing was not a commercially viable option over the next decade because of an over-supplied global market and significant uncertainties. But fuel leasing, which links uranium processing with its eventual return for disposal, may be commercially attractive.

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