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Strange timing to suggest a LEGO nuclear future for Australia

By Noel Wauchope - posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014


By 2022, could Australia have many "Lego-like" small nuclear reactors in operation, dotted about the nation?

This is being proposed now, not just by the long-term fervent believers in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), but in formal submissions to the coming Energy White Paper. Last month, the Department of Industry's submission to the Energy White Paper pitched Small Modular Reactors as an energy solution for isolated areas in Australia, where there is no access to the electricity grid. The Energy Policy Institute of Australia (EPI) agrees 'suggesting small modular reactors (SMRs) as being particularly suitable for use in mines and towns in remote locations in many parts of Australia.'

The BHP-funded Grattan Institute's submission envisages a string of these little nuclear reactors, connected to the grid, along Australia's Eastern coast.

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Keith Orchison reports on the Grattan Institute submission: "The Abbott government is being told that now is the time to flick the switch to "technology neutral," opening the way for nuclear options". Orchison described the advantages of SMRs as"Lego-like"

But their timing is strange, and the worst thing is to get ahead of the market

In 2014 it is becoming clear that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are not likely to become an operational reality for many decades, and perhaps never.
America was the pioneer of small reactor design in the 1970s. Again recently, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox have been the leaders in designing and developing SMRs. But in 2014 the bottom has fallen out of these projects.

Danny Roderick, President and CEO of Westinghouse, announcing the closure of the SMR plan, said that "it was not the deployment of the technology that posed the biggest problem – it was that there were no customers". "The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market," he added.

Babcock and Wilcox 's CEO Jim Ferland warned (31/3/14) that B & W are cutting back on their expenditure on SMRs, despite the fact that they received up to $225 million in loan grants from the USA government, for the SMR development in Charlotte. Taxpayer associations are concerned, as are the U.S. House and Senate committees. The Charlotte Business Journal reports that: " B&W has been unable to find an investor or investor group to take on a 70 percent to 80 percent share of its joint venture to develop a 180-megawatt reactor to produce electricity... The eventual market for the reactor... appears weaker than initially projected".


So - in USA the outlook for small nuclear reactors is poor.

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But then there is China, isn't there?

The proponents of small thorium nuclear reactors have had a field day, with numerous media articles, such as Chinese going for broke on thorium nuclear power, China to accelerate thorium reactor development. All of these news reports seem to have been derived from an initial article by Stephen Chen in the South China Morning Post - Chinese scientists urged to develop new thorium nuclear reactors by 2024. It should be noted that nowhere in this article does Chen mention "small" reactors. However, Australian proponents of "small" reactors welcomed this article, as the Thorium Small Nuclear Reactor is the top favourite type proposed for Australia, from all 15 possible small designs

So - we're being told that China is racing ahead in the scramble to get these wonderful SMRs. In fact, China has been very much encouraged and helped into this by USA's Department of Energy. Understandable - seeing that for China it is a government project, with no required expectation of it being commercially viable.

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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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