Commission Backs Plan to Store World’s Nuclear Waste in Australian Outback

A nuclear power plant in Australia—a country that harbors the world’s largest resources of uranium but uses no nuclear power—wouldn’t be economical, but building a nuclear storage and disposal facility in the outback to store the world’s nuclear waste could be highly profitable, a state royal commission has found.

The Labor state government of South Australia—the state that produces two-thirds of Australia’s uranium—in February 2015 tasked a royal commission with figuring out the opportunities and risks represented by the state’s nuclear fuel cycle activities.

While a full report is due in May, in draft findings released this February, the commission starkly advised stakeholders against building a new nuclear plant under the existing electricity market structure, saying “it would not be commercially viable… in the foreseeable future.” However, it said, Australia’s power system will need low-carbon power sources to meet future targets, and that might include nuclear power. “It would be wise to plan now to ensure that nuclear power would be available should it be required.”

In a statement, the Australian Energy Council—a coalition of 22 major electricity and downstream natural gas entities—welcomed that finding. “We currently have an oversupplied electricity market and tough investment conditions that make any new generation investment virtually unbankable,” said the council’s head, Matthew Warren. “But conditions change,” he added. “The electricity industry is already undergoing significant change to reduce emissions while adopting new technologies and maintaining an affordable and reliable supply for consumers.”

On the other hand, building an integrated storage and disposal facility to store international used high-level waste and intermediate-level waste would certainly be commercially viable, the commission found. The storage component, which could be operational by the late 2020s, could generate total revenue of more than A$257 billion, with total costs of A$145 billion over 120 years, it said, calling for the establishment of a “state wealth fund” to collect and equitably share profits. The commission made its assessment based on a conservative baseline price for permanent disposal of A$1.75 million per metric ton of heavy metal for used fuel and A$40,000 per cubic meter for intermediate-level waste.

But the commission also noted that while the storage and disposal of international used fuel in a South Australian location would be technically feasible, investigation would be needed to identify prospective sites. The prospect would also need sophisticated planning and “consent-based decision-making,” it said.

Sonal Patel, associate editor