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Volunteers wanted - to house small modular nuclear reactors in Australia

By Noel Wauchope - posted Monday, 11 December 2017


We knew that the Australian government was looking for volunteers in outback South Australia, to take the radioactive trash from Lucas Heights and some other sites, (and not having an easy time of it). But oh dear– we had no idea that the search for hosting new (untested) nuclear reactors was on too!

Well, The Australian newspaper has just revealed this extraordinary news, in its article "Want a nuclear reactor in your backyard? Step this way" (28/11/17). Yes, it turns out that a Sydney-based company, SMR Nuclear Technology, plans to secure volunteers and a definite site within three years. If all goes well, Australia's Small Modular Reactors will be in operation by 2030.

Only, there are obstacles. Even this enthusiastic article does acknowledge one or two of them. One is the need to get public acceptance of these so far non-existent new nuclear reactors. SMR director Robert Pritchard is quoted as saying that interest in these reactors is widespread. He gives no evidence for this.

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The other is that the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant in Australia is prohibited by both commonwealth and state laws.

But there are issues, and other obstacles that are not addressed on this article. A vital question is: does SMR Nuclear Technology intend to actually build the small reactors in Australia, or more likely, merely assemble them from imported modular parts – a sort of nuclear Lego style operation?

If it is to be the latter, there will surely be a delay of probably decades. Development of SMRs is stalled, in USA due to strict safety regulations, and in UK, due to uncertainties, especially the need for public subsidy. That leaves China, where the nuclear industry is government funded, and even there, development of SMRs is still in its infancy.

As to the former, it is highly improbable that an Australian company would have the necessary expertise, resources, and funding, to design and manufacture nuclear reactors of any size. The overseas companies now planning small reactors are basing their whole enterprise on the export market. Indeed, the whole plan for "modular" nuclear reactors is about mass production and mass marketing of SMRs -to be assembled in overseas countries. That is accepted as the only way for the SMR industry to be commercially successful. Australia looks like a desirable customer for the Chinese industry, the only one that looks as if it might go ahead, at present,

If, somehow, the SMR Technologies' plan is to go ahead, the other obstacles remain.

The critical one is of course economics. The Australian article says that these new nuclear plants "could be the lowest-cost generation available". They throw in a bit of detail on the "levelled cost of nuclear generation - an average of $US60/MWh". It sounds good - but there are so many factors ignored here.

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There are many different designs being developed. No information is given on SMR Nuclear Technology's design. Indeed for all SMRs, a vast amount of information on design is considered commercially sensitive or security-related and is being withheld from the public.

The construction costs per reactor, would of course, be cheaper, than for large nuclear reactors. However, they would have to be constructed en masse, the only way for the developer to sell them commercially. The SMRs would be more affordable than large nuclear reactors, but still not necessarily cost-effective.

SMRs are up against that old reality about economies of scale, which is why the nuclear industry turned to large reactors in the past. For example, a 1,100 MWe plant would cost only about three times as much to build as a 180 MWe version, but would generate six times the power, so the capital cost per kilowatt would be twice as great for the smaller plant (see, eg, the economies of scale formula used by Carelli et al)

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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