Thursday, February 12, 2015

Australia and Nuclear Power:

Does Change Lie Ahead?

One of the most striking news items in the last few days has been the announcement by Jay Weatherill, the Premier of South Australia, that South Australia should consider the use of nuclear power.

This announcement is notable because Australia has remained consistently against using nuclear power over the years.  They have kept this stance even though their heavy use of coal gives them the dubious status of having the highest carbon emissions per capita of any country in the world, and even though they have one of the highest amounts of uranium reserves.  They also, I should note, have a solid nuclear research program and have operated a research reactor for many years.

It is difficult to know where this initiative might lead.  Weatherill is the first to say this isn't a decision, it is the opening of an inquiry, and it is only right that the inquiry be conducted as broadly and openly as possible.

I wondered whether public opinion might be changing.  One article has a survey (still underway as of this writing) that looks like it is showing 2/3 of the respondents in favor of nuclear power, but that survey is not restricted to Australian citizens.

The reopening of the question of nuclear power may, in part, be sparked by the interest in small reactors.  Some of the articles have quoted Weatherill as saying that the economics may not be right for reactors in Australia, but then those statements seem to be qualified by other statements that developments such as small reactors could change the economics.

Other comments seem to indicate the Australians may want to look at other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, including high-level waste disposal and developing an enrichment capability to "add value" to the ore they sell.  The articles so far have not addressed any issues or concerns about such options, including expected reactions of the local population, or concerns the U.S. and other countries have about the expansion of enrichment capabilities.

Therefore, on all fronts, the statements from South Australia leave a lot of unanswered questions--how seriously the government intends to explore this issue, what the public reaction is likely to be, and just what is on the table.


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