Australian Outback-generated ‘closed-cycle’ nuclear power offers a safe, climate-friendly solution to Asia’s energy needs.
‘Closed cycle’ means quarantining the entire nuclear chain — from uranium mining to spent fuel burial — at a single, isolated, secure, safeguarded place.
When a nuclear accident occurs (an inevitability), the affected area can be evacuated, sealed and abandoned. This safeguards cities, a consideration neglected with Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Outback Australia is nearly three quarters the size of China. It has a population density of less than three people per square kilometer.
Parts of coastal China (such Fujian and Zhejiang), soon to be covered with dozens of nuclear plants have population densities of 500+ people per square kilometer.
Even the most devastating commercial nuclear accident in the unsettled remoteness of Australia’s Outback would pose no risk to wider humanity or the global economy.
The time is right for a mature discussion of ‘closed cycle,‘ Outback-generated nuclear power in Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Energy Minister Martin Ferguson and former Australian government nuclear research scientist Ziggy Switkowski all now sing praise of nuclear power.
Serendipitously, the ideal Australian Outback location is now available: the uninhabited, underutilised, now-open-for-business Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA).
If 50 nuclear reactors were all built at Woomera, they could singlehandedly catalyse a large-scale, Australian Outback ‘closed cycle’ nuclear industry.
This would create the critical mass to attract additional proposed nuclear plants now being actively considered for highly-populated areas of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore.
All by itself, the WPA is larger than South Korea, Greece or the US state of Ohio. It’s also surrounded by the nearly equally empty — but much larger — South Australia.
South Australia is twice the size of Thailand, three times the size of Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines. It’s seven-plus times larger than China’s Guangdong, Fujian or Shejiang provinces, where the bulk of China’s nuclear power plants will soon be built in highly-populated areas.
When the next nuclear accident occurs (on historical trends, around 2030) , it will almost certainly occur in China (due to China’s aggressive nuclear capacity buildout).
When it does, the the results will be devastating. In addition to creating a Chinese humanitarian disaster, it could also plunge the global economy into chaos given the pivotal role industrial China now plays in global supply chains.
Australian Outback ‘closed cycle’ nuclear power avoids this risk to populated areas. This represents an economic good with a net present value impossible-to-overstate.
The ‘now open for business’ WPA is tailor-made for the job.
Uranium mining already occurs there: at Prominent Hill and Olympic Dam, just outside the WPA’s eastern boundary. Separately, the eastern WPA’s Billa Kalina has been identified is one of the safest geological formations worldwide for storing unlimited nuclear waste for unlimited amounts of time.3
In the WPA’s remote southwest Maralinga, nuclear weapons were tested in the late 1950s and early 1960s4 — indicating nuclear pedigree.
With upstream uranium mining and downstream waste storage available in one place, the intermediate steps (enrichment and nuclear power) can easily be added — creating huge vertical (i.e. the nuclear production and waste-handling chain) and horizontal (electricity output) economies of scale.
All by itself, the numbers it suggests singlehandedly creates the business case for a high-voltage direct current power link from Australia to China.
Serendipitously, the global leader in HVDC technology — State Grid Corp. of China — now owns part of South Australian electricity distributor Electranet, perhaps with something along these lines in mind.
Earlier this year, for instance, State Grid’s chairman Liu Zhenya proposed building Arctic Ocean wind farms to generate energy delivered to China over HVDC as part of Zhenya’s vision of an emerging ‘Global Internet of Energy.’
Elsewhere in Asia, State Grid is operating and upgrading the Philippine electricity grid under a 25-year contract.
Put into this larger context, ‘closed cycle’ nuclear energy from Australia’s Outback partially or wholly exported to China looks an ideal fit.
Such a Pan-Asian low-emission energy ‘Silk Road’ could be funded by China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which Australia reportedly now plans to join.5 With State Grid as primary contractor and Australia as nuclear host, the arrangement would utilize the ‘comparative advantage’ of both countries.
Assuming multi-decade, trouble-free generation of ‘closed cycle’ nuclear at Woomera from, say, 2020-2060, the industry will have won sufficient public confidence to locate the subsequent generation of nuclear power plants closer to Asia’s cities — perhaps around 2060-2070 or so.
In addition to safeguarding population areas from nuclear accident risk, closing the nuclear cycle eliminates the ‘nuclear miles’ that dangerous material must travel. This in turn eliminates proliferation and terrorism risk.
In China uranium must now be imported, shipped to enrichment plants, shipped to nuclear plants, with waste then shipped for either reprocessing or burial. This all adds scope for mistakes, accidents or theft.
Naturally, China has learned from nuclear technology and operational mistakes made elsewhere. But that offers limited assurance. China also learned from international experience in building high-speed rail system, but that didn’t prevent a tragic accident from happening in China with the new technology.
Concentrating the nuclear industry in one place also better utilizes scarce global nuclear talent, significantly eroded by decades of controversy. The industry now faces deep skills shortages as young professionals sensibly avoid entering the industry.
Creating a closed-cycle nuclear power industry on a former government military installation also ensures security and can eliminate nuclear proliferation and/or theft of nuclear materials that can be used to make bombs.
It can also gain the industry a needed ‘social license’ and the confidence of the public
China plans to build 150,00MW of nuclear capacity by 2050, adding nearly a third to existing global capacity.
In Australia, even the worst, large-scale radiation release would need to travel multiples of the distances of Fukushima or Chernobyl’s radiation clouds to reach significantly-populated areas.
This guarantees public safety. That will increase public confidence. It removes a huge contingent financial risk from government in the form of a private sector nuclear disaster.9
In a ‘worst case’ nuclear accident scenario, the WPA can be evacuated, locked at the service town of Pimba out and abandoned for centuries — even millenia.
Nowhere else in Asia offers this ultimate safeguard.