The impossible dream: free electricity sounds too good to be true. It is

A plan to produce free electricity for South Australia by embracing nuclear waste sounds like a wonderful idea. But it won’t work.
11 February 2016

A proposal to establish a global nuclear waste industry in South Australia would fail to secure 90% of the imported waste, leaving an expensive and risky legacy for the state, according to this report.

Summary

South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was established on 19 March 2015 and is due to report on its findings in May 2016. It is inquiring into the risks and opportunities to the economy, environment and community of the expansion or development of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Perhaps the most prominent plan has been the one championed by South Australian Senator Sean Edwards.

He claims to be able to bring tremendous economic prosperity to South Australia, with the almost incredible by - product of providing free electricity to the state, and with money left over to reduce state taxes.

The plan involves being paid to take spent fuel from other countries and store it in Australia. The state can then use that old fuel to power a new generation of reactors, producing tiny quantities of easily handled waste. With money earned from taking troublesome radioactive materials off the hands of countries struggling with stocks of nuclear waste, South Australia can fund next-generation reactors.

The plan sounds perfect. The reality is far from it.

The Edwards plan ignores the cost of shipping the waste to Australia, and relies on technology that has never before been deployed commercially. It hopes that unjustified and unrealistic amounts of money will be paid for the disposal of waste.

Furthermore, although the plan includes the acceptance of 60,000 tonnes of waste, only 4,000 tonnes, at most, would be reprocessed for fuel. The remaining 56,000 tonnes would remain in temporary storage, with no funds left for future generations to deal with the problem.

Even if the world fell into line just as Senator Edwards hopes, the plan fails to consider the obvious question: if Australia can generate free electricity from this spent fuel, wouldn’t other countries want to do the same? The plan makes no allowances for competition.

Even if the countries of origin chose not to implement the miraculous technology proposed for South Australia, other countries could compete with Australia to provide this service. A plan predicated on monopoly profits of over 400 percent is, therefore, unrealistic.

The idea that an expanded nuclear industry in Australia will produce thousands of jobs and generate so much money that South Australians will be provided with free electricity is a wonderful dream. But like so many dreams, it is an impossible one.

The first section of this report outlines the key elements of the Edwards plan.

The second section of the report provides a reality check. It shows that the plan fails to deal with over 90% of the imported waste, and then exposes the chief technological and economic risks in the scheme.

The third section will consider a world in which the assumptions contained in the Edwards plan come true, and explores the possibility that other countries might go on to use the same technologies as Australia.

This paper will analyse the mid-scenario modelled in the Edwards plan – that is, 60,000 tonnes of spent fuel to be taken by Australia, with payments received of $1,370,000 per tonne – and follow the convention of using Australian dollars at their 2015 value, except where otherwise noted. Similarly, costings and claims are taken directly from the Edwards paper, except where otherwise noted.

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Suggested Citation

Dan Gilchrist, 2016, The impossible dream: free electricity sounds too good to be true. It is, The Australia Institute, viewed 30 May 2016, <http://apo.org.au/node/61703>.

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