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Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
Prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia

EDWARDS, Professor Lyndon, National Director, Australian Generation IV International Forum Research, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

LARSSON, Mr Carl-Magnus, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency

McINTOSH, Mr Steven, Senior Manager, Government and International Affairs, Office of the Chief Executive Officer, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

PATERSON, Dr Adrian (Adi), Chief Executive Officer, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

SCOTT, Mr James, Chief Regulatory Office, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency


CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority. Could we start with some opening statements from both ANSTO and ARPANSA. There's no preference from our end as to who goes first.

Ms Larsson : Thank you to the committee for the invitation to appear. I will make a few introductory remarks. ARPANSA is the Australian government's primary authority on radiation protection and nuclear safety. As the CEO of ARPANSA I am charged with responsibility under the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act, the ARPANSA Act, for protecting the Australian people and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation. That is through understanding risks, best-practice regulation, research, policy, services and partnerships and engaging with the community. Specifically, this includes regulation of the nuclear installations that are operated by the Commonwealth.

The aim of the regulatory activities, as for all other activities that we carry out at ARPANSA, is the protection of the health and safety of the workers, the public and the environment independent of any promoting interests. Our focus is also on the safety and security of the regulated facilities, with the aim of reducing the likelihood of accidents and mitigating their consequences, should they occur. We apply international best practice in our regulatory decision-making and we participate in the development and implementation of the international framework for safety together with our international partners. We also fulfil Australia's reporting obligations under certain international instruments such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. We are also the national competent authority on the assistance and early notification conventions for radiological and nuclear emergencies.

I would like to point out that, as the independent Commonwealth regulator, ARPANSA does not have a role in the policy decisions governing any potential expansion of nuclear facilities, including nuclear power. Our remit is the protection of the health and safety of people and the environment. We consider transparency and accountability to be fundamental drivers for credibility, efficiency and effectiveness of the regulatory framework. I would like to draw the committee's attention to the fact that in November 2018 ARPANSA hosted an international peer review of Australia's regulatory framework and its effectiveness against the safety standards developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This was the culmination of several years of work that we carried out at ARPANSA and that also involved all the states and territories. The review report was published on our website in February of this year. Anyone can reach it and look at it there. We are now, together with our jurisdictional partners, implementing the actions required to respond to the findings of this review. I note that ARPANSA's activities are relevant to at least terms of reference a, b and c of the inquiry, those being:

a. waste management, transport and storage,

b. health and safety,

c. environmental impacts,

We would be very pleased to take any questions the committee may have. Thank you.

Dr Paterson : I'll make some opening remarks. We wish to thank the committee for the invitation to appear today. I was pleased to meet with members yesterday on your visit to Lucas Heights campus, and I trust it was valuable and enlightening. I understand that this inquiry is concerned with the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia. Before turning to answer your questions on what these prerequisites may be, let me first state that nuclear power continues to be an important source for the global energy supply. As of Tuesday there were 450 nuclear power reactors in service across 30 countries and Taiwan, with a combined generating capacity of some 400 gigawatt hours of electricity, representing over 10 per cent of the world's electricity supply. Last year nine reactors were connected to grids, three were permanently shut down and construction commenced on five. Growth is shifting from the Western Hemisphere to Asia, which is home to 35 of the 55 reactors under construction and 58 of the 68 reactors that have been connected to grids since 2005. I note that the inquiry has a set of terms of reference—which I won't repeat, but we are able to give commentary on some of those. In some we would be restrained, in the sense that we work under the operation of being a government agency and are subject to the constraints that exist in that regard.

Under the ANSTO Act, ANSTO plays a vital role in providing expertise and technical advice to the Australian government on all matters related to nuclear science, nuclear technology and engineering. ANSTO also plays a critical role in contributing to and informing policymaking in these areas. As such, we are able to provide the committee with information and factual advice related to the abovementioned terms of reference in the international setting. While ANSTO is agnostic about whether Australia might in future adopt or consider the adoption of nuclear power, we are an intelligent observer of international developments in nuclear power and other peaceful uses of nuclear science and nuclear technology through our representation of the Australian government in the International Atomic Energy Agency, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency forums and the Generation IV International Forum collaboration on research and development of generation for nuclear energy systems, and we have Professor Edwards with us in that respect.

Australia's nuclear expertise and capability within our region is recognised as the sole de facto permanent representative of the South-East Asia and Pacific region on the IAEA's 35-member board of governors, which gives Australia a strong voice on the ongoing discussions on nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear safety and the applications of nuclear. We welcome discussion today.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Paterson. Thank you, Dr Larsson. It was the committee's pleasure to visit ANSTO yesterday. It makes you proud to be Australian when you know the quality and the lead role played by your organisation, and, of course, ARPANSA has a role to play, too, in nuclear research and science. Thank you for hosting us, and congratulations. I might start with you, Dr Paterson, and your team from ANSTO. Let me start with the differences between small modular reactors and older generation plants. What are the key differences? Then, also, how will generation IV nuclear technology be different from nuclear energy of the past?

Dr Paterson : Thank you very much. I'll start with the differences between the generations of nuclear reactors. Most of the nuclear reactors operating in the world today that produce power were produced in a wave of building around the energy crisis in the seventies and subsequent to that. That wave of building was related to what we call generation II facilities. They were predicated on the ability to make power and to manage the risks by using a combination of safety systems in the reactors and emergency planning to support the failure for that to be achieved.

In generation III, there was an understanding that safety standards had to increase and improve and that public concerns in relation to the fuel cycle as a whole had to be more firmly addressed, so generation III plants which are currently being constructed and generation III+ plants which are being constructed today have significantly improved safety cases. But I think, in all cases, they still have off-site emergency planning; therefore, the basis of achieving a social licence with these large-scale plants is a very challenging and ongoing discussion in many parts of the world.

What we're seeing now is a move away from large plants of the scale of about a gigawatt or greater to a series of plants that are called small modular reactors. The small modular reactors themselves really fall into two classes. There are larger small modular reactors, which have what we call passive safety, where the safety case is still dependent on human intervention and where the safety systems do give a much longer period than with large reactors before response is necessary. But things like on-site electricity supplies and various other features of existing reactors are nevertheless required.

There's a subset of small modular reactors that are under development around the world which are based on a more rigorous safety case, which is called passive safety. It's an oversimplification, and I really don't want to oversimplify a complex matter, but the principle of passive safety is that, basically, the laws of physics and how fluids move and how cooling can be effected are the primary drivers of the safety case. You are not dependent on human intervention in order to achieve the safety objective and the safety envelope of passively safe small modular reactors. There are classes of reactors that are sometimes termed 'nuclear batteries', which are small, passively safe reactors that could be deployed in communities. A country like Canada is very actively developing these at the moment, and there are a number of potential designs that are going through the regulatory system in Canada at present.

On the slightly larger scale but still passively safe, an example of a small modular reactor would be the work that is being done in Oregon and Idaho to build a series of 10 reactors that would all be independent and have independent turbines but would operate in concert to produce about 600 megawatts of electricity. In that setting, the value proposition that the proponents of these types of reactors put forward is that, because one reactor can be fuelled sequentially right through the life of that 10-reactor system, it is always on; it is not subject to being shut down across its full capacity. This is obviously an advantage in terms of reliability of supply into a grid, and that's the value proposition that is being constructed. These are still reactors that are based mainly around this type of reactor—pressurised water technology—and most of the proponents of these reactors are seeking safety cases where the emergency planning stops at the fence of the facility. There have been some indications that that may be achievable, but it's too early to say whether that will be the case, for example, in the US jurisdiction. So it is a fairly dynamic time for the discussion about the utility of these reactors, and, in that sense, we do study these different designs and keep track of them in order to be an intelligent interlocutor with other parts of governments so that government can be aware of these changes. There's a long way to go for final licensing or registration of these designs, but the prospective planning is now of the order of a decade to a decade and a half for a number of these designs to be realised.

Once you move beyond generation III and III+, there is a group of designs which comes out of really what was generation I of nuclear developments, where a wide variety of different technologies were looked at. Out of that very wide variety of designs, about six have been down selected for further work. A group of nuclear power countries gathered together into the Generation IV International Forum to look at these designs, and they do not propose any of those designs and they are not responsible in any way for building any of those designs. Because there's not intent to approve or build in discussion and in a bipartisan way, Australia acceded to the treaty arrangements that have allowed Australia to join the Generation IV International Forum as the first non-nuclear power country. You have to be technically sufficiently sophisticated to do that. It's not a club of interested observers; it's a technical development of conceptual frameworks for these reactors for the future. Australia, following scientific study tours by members of the Generation IV International Forum was indeed accepted on the basis that capabilities exist across the country in our regulatory frameworks and mainly because of the technically capacities that we can deploy in the Lucas Heights environment. Professor Lyndon Edwards, who was very involved in those discussions, has joined us today and heads up our work with the Generation IV International Forum. I hope that's a usefully summary.

CHAIR: What's our focus and contribution in that forum, Professor Edwards?

Prof. Edwards : The main contribution that Australia is making actually goes to some of the points you were making—that is, it's about materials engineering in terms of actually making the reactors safer and also seeing how we can use advanced manufacturing to reduce the time and cost of deployment. There have been a lot of changes. People know about 3D printing and things like that. One of the issues I'd like to add to Dr Switkowski's comments is: one of the costs of nuclear is the supply chain. So what the nuclear industry is starting to look at is to diversify the supply chain in order to bring costs down. This is not a short-term thing. Gen IV is about making reactors to be deployed in the 2030s. But, in terms of the reactors Australia has chosen, we're supporting two reactors: the very high temperature reactor and the molten salt reactor. The very high temperature reactor is probably the highest technology readiness level, or TRL, in that there are a couple being constructed in China at the moment. As part of the generation forum, I will be visiting those in October. They've actually started co-commissioning those plans. The molten salt reactor is probably the lowest TRL but it's got a fantastic series of opportunities, particularly in terms of safety. Those two reactors are particularly suitable for Australia because, when they're actually built, particularly if you build them of a size of about 150 megawatts thermal or 100 electric, you can make them so they're completely inherently safe, not just passively safe. Some people like the term 'walkaway safe'—that is, even if you just leave them on and you do nothing then there is enough capacity and cooling to the air to actually keep it going. And also they cannot melt down because one of them is the molten salt and the other one is TRISO fuel that doesn't melt until 2,000 degrees, so, in principle, they are small, they are inherently safe—completely safe from a total physics point of view—and they model it. You put them together. They have great potential for Australia in the future. Whether we want to deploy them is another question. Obviously my job I feel is to provide a technological solution for Australia and the world that we can use if those decisions are made.

CHAIR: You mentioned there the cooling mechanism.

Prof. Edwards : Yes.

CHAIR: So, by default, it doesn't rely on water?

Prof. Edwards : No. With these particular high-temperature reactors, in order to get from passively safe to inherently safe, you have got to have a system. The size is actually controlled by physics because the final heatsink is actually air cooling—heating up air—that can be limited by the size of the reactor. So, somewhat bizarrely, these reactors by default end up as SMRs in an inherently safe condition rather than being designed that way.

Mr JOSH WILSON: I will ask a question to ARPANSA first of all. If Australia were to take a different approach to nuclear energy, how extensive would the structural and regulatory change and the safety monitoring architecture need to be? How would you compare where we are at and where ARPANSA is at to the kinds of agency capability in other jurisdictions that do have nuclear power?

Mr Larsson : I think that Australia has a lot of the building blocks already in place but there is a question of adjusting them and also a question of scaling. The regulatory environment as it is now is that nuclear installations as defined in the ARPANSA act are only being operated by the Commonwealth. If a nuclear power option were to be pursued, that would be owned and operated by the Commonwealth and then the ARPANSA act would still have the reach and the application. If there were to be other models where, for instance, private investment would come in then that would not necessarily be covered by the ARPANSA act and it would also lead to a discussion about the division of responsibilities of regulatory bodies between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, depending on where one of these facilities in that case would be located.

Looking at other countries with a federated constitution like Australia's, when they have embarked on a nuclear program they have made a choice to establish a federal regulator for all nuclear installations. So today we have federal regulation for all the nuclear installations, but all the nuclear installations are owned and operated by the Commonwealth, so that would be something that the regulator would have to consider. Changes would in that case have to be made to the ARPANSA act if we were to think about non-Commonwealth operated entities. Obviously, as the committee surely is fully aware, there are prohibitions in the ARPANSA act and in the EPBC Act but it is a much broader look at the regulatory structure that is needed in order to accommodate a nuclear power program.

If we go to the ARPANSA act and we assume that a nuclear power program would be regulated under the ARPANSA act, the ARPANSA act actually has most of the components that would be necessary for the regulatory framework to be applied to nuclear power as well. There would be some changes that I would certainly advocate. If we were to move to a nuclear power program, it's a commitment for a very long time. Dr Switkowski referred to 15 years just to establish the first power plant. I wouldn't argue with that. It could potentially be somewhat shorter than that, but it could also potentially be much longer. We are then talking about operations for several decades and we are talking about waste management that goes beyond that. There could also be several generations. If we are talking about modular reactors, this can be something that is actually expanded in time. So we are talking about a commitment that is in the order of 100 years, and it could be even longer than that before you have, from the beginning to the end, created it to a great perspective. It could be 100 years and possibly longer.

I think that the legal framework needs to accommodate the life cycle management of these facilities, including the waste management in the end. This is, as you know, an issue that is contentious. The international experience points to many problems in the establishment of such facilities. We have also had that experience in Australia for radioactive waste, which is much less qualified, so to speak, than what we are talking about here. The life cycle perspective would be one element and the other thing would be a funding mechanism for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle—that is, the decommissioning of the facilities, the spent fuel and radioactive waste management. That would have to be considered. Those are essentially the elements of the legislation that I would like to see attention paid to.

If we made the experiment that a regulator such as ARPANSA would take this work on, we would certainly have the expertise that could accommodate the nuclear program as we have it now, which is essentially the facilities at Lucas Heights, but there would be the need for scaling up and there would be the need for recruitment into new competencies that currently ARPANSA doesn't have, because we don't need them, because we don't have a nuclear power program. It's a question of scaling more than fundamental change in the structure. It's a discussion about scale, and the fundamental elements are there.

Mr JOSH WILSON: I know that ARPANSA did some oceanic radiation monitoring in the aftermath of Fukushima. Radiation was detected in the ocean at Darwin. The report talked about the longevity of ocean-borne radiation. The expectation was that, within four or five years, you would see that kind of oceanic radiation at negligible levels. Has that monitoring been followed up?

Mr Larsson : The monitoring is continuing. We had some indications. However, they were not confirmed in subsequent measurements, so we haven't actually been able to verify any presence of radioactive substances in the ocean that originated from Fukushima. The lead time or the transport time would be very long and there is limited exchange of water bodies or atmosphere between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Our detector stations located in Darwin for airborne activity recorded an increase in airborne activity in the weeks after Fukushima at very, very low levels, which was expected. It went through different backtracking, including the atmospheric movements of radionuclides and so on. It could be verified that it actually originated from Fukushima. That was noble gas detection in Darwin. That disappeared after a few more weeks. Obviously, now we don't expect to see anything. There are still some discharges taking place in Fukushima. That is being diluted in the body of the ocean. That essentially means that the levels of added radioactivity are, from a health perspective, totally negligible.

Mr JOSH WILSON: Is it fair to say that with accidents like Fukushima it's never the case that accidents like that are contemplated and anticipated in the way that they occur, because if they were they wouldn't happen? On that basis that, from an organisation with a monitoring and safety remit, it would be dangerous and foolhardy if any part of the Australian thinking apparatus ever took the view that these kinds of technologies are inherently safe and incapable of producing those kinds of accidents?

Mr Larsson : I think that understanding safety always begins with understanding that accidents can occur. If accidents couldn't occur then we wouldn't need to consider safety at all. There is always a possibility for accidents to occur. There are two aspects to that. The first is the technological one. We just heard about the passive safety features that we can have in the SMR design essentially being the laws of physics that would make sure that the excess heat is being dissipated, because the major problem here is being able to dissipate the excess heat. So that's one element. You've got the technological element of it.

The other thing that I don't think that you should ever, ever neglect is the human element. If we take Fukushima as one example—and there are officials in Japan who repeatedly refer to the Fukushima accident as a 'man-made disaster'. The thinking behind the man-made disaster is that the way the regulatory system, the way that the operating system, was set-up was not fully conducive to critical thinking of what can go wrong. It led to a feeling of complacency. The reliance on the technical safety could have been of a nature that reduced the focus on: have we identified all the factors that can happen? Have we considered, and what are, the contributions? What are the consequences if they happen? And that eventually led to the fact that the occurrence and the consequence of a tsunami of that magnitude was underestimated.

I have full respect for all the discussions that are going on on the passive safety features of a reactor the size that we are talking about here. But the fact that can never be neglected or forgotten is the human factor.

Mr JOSH WILSON: One final question—I absolutely endorse what the chair said about ANSTO. I, and I think all members of the committee, really appreciated that visit. It is an impressive facility.

On the safety point, even a reactor and an operation like ANSTO in a country like Australia, with all of the technology and thoughtfulness that we bring to bear, is still a place where accidents happen and accidents continue to happen. As a result of accidents over the last 18 months or two years there was a review that found that there were some systemic problems and safety issues and complacency, even in an organisation like ANSTO which currently doesn't operate nuclear power generation.

Mr Larsson : Yes. That is the observation that we have made as well. Of course, this is something that has been a subject of discussion between myself and Dr Paterson on multiple occasions. I think it illustrates a point that I was just making about the human factors and the attention that always needs to be given to the importance of human factors—to have that mindset that safety always comes first in everything that you do. It's a difficult thing to maintain; it's a difficult thing to have in focus when you're involved in the production of a certain material or certain products and so on, but it's something that can never be forgotten.

There are also the regulatory aspects of that, and we have—I believe as good regulatory practice—also done a little bit of reflection on our results. Could there have been things that we could have done as a regulator that would have prevented this—probably not prevented but at least reduced the likelihood for things like that to occur? One of the things that we have identified and that we probably need to pay more attention to in future—and make sure that our licence holders do—is safety assessments, because the safety assessment leads to estimates of risk. Those risks are essentially built up of two components. One is the likelihood that an event occurs; the other is the consequence if the event occurs. If you can aggregate those, then you can get the risk value. The risk value can be very low if the event is very, very unlikely, even though the consequence might be high. The message that we are communicating to our licence holders is that, for those events, it's actually not the likelihood that is the interesting factor; it's the consequence if it happens, because the likelihood is very uncertain and the likelihood is very much influenced by the human factors we were just talking about. I think that is one of the lessons that we have learnt, and we have also placed conditions on ANSTO to review their whole mechanism and methodology for the safety assessments; that is happening now.

CHAIR: The assumption that there is always a possibility of either technological or man-made risk is one well put, and I'm sure it will be accepted. My question is: would that assumption apply to other sources of energy?

Mr Larsson : Surely they apply to any source of energy. We have a history with the offshore industry, for instance, where you can definitely see the potential for accidents and the very severe consequences of such accidents that have happened in Australia and in multiple locations worldwide. It applies to mining, if we are talking about coal and so on. So the risk assessment and the drive to reduce the likelihood and, also, to reduce the consequences, should those occur, would be something that is applicable to any energy generation.

CHAIR: Specific to the incidents at ANSTO, to which the deputy chair referred, and understanding the formula—for lack of a better word—of likelihood times consequence to give you some sort of a weighted impact risk, how do those incidents rate?

Mr Larsson : In terms of the severity of the incidents?


Mr Larsson : Probably the best comparator we have here is what was introduced after the Chernobyl accident, which is called the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, or INES scale. It's a rating from zero up to seven, and seven would be the kinds of severe accidents that we had in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The first one, in August 2017, was rated as level 3 on this scale, which is a 'serious incident'; that's the terminology for it. That means that you have an exposure, of a worker in this particular case, which leads to radiation symptoms—the so-called tissue reactions, which this worker got. It could be a level 4 if similar things were to occur, but that would be a higher number of people exposed. This was rated as level 3. The more recent one was level 2. Level 2 is exposure of a worker above the statutory dose limit. Of two and three, though, I must say three is very unusual. I know that ANSTO takes this very seriously as well. To my knowledge, in 2017 the level 3 accident was the only one that was reported in the world. So it has to be taken seriously, and we are working with ANSTO in order to address whatever issues we see.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mrs ARCHER: I would like to follow on from that question. I acknowledge that of course it's very serious and must be taken very seriously, but I think that, from looking more broadly outside of this industry, it's a consideration that exists across a whole range of industries. I have some concern that, when we talk about safety in relation to the nuclear industry, there's a higher bar set in some ways. I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Professor Edwards and I'd be interested in your views, Professor Edwards, with regard to this particular area. There is balancing the seriousness of the risk, but there is also balancing that across other industries—I think aviation was the example he gave yesterday.

Prof. Edwards : The point I was making, which of course is not directly connected to this incident, was about the way we perceive risk in terms of life in particular. I've spent my life working in the aerospace and nuclear industry, and we all accept that in the aviation industry accidents happen. We accept that risk all of the time when we fly. We also accept that every accident makes the industry safer. That means that, when we fly, we accept the risk. Incidents have gone down. Deaths have gone down. It's got better and better. Philosophically, for the nuclear industry, it's presented the other way around: every accident seems to make nuclear less safe, when actually it makes it safer. This is how continuous improvement happens. This is how we get better and better at what we do.

Mrs ARCHER: Thank you. The other question I'm interested in goes to something Dr Larsson said earlier about scaling up. I'm interested in both agencies' perspective of what skills, capability and knowledge may need to develop to prepare for a future nuclear power industry in Australia.

Mr Larsson : I will start from the regulatory perspective. First of all, let's talk about ARPANSA. ARPANSA has in the order of 20 inspectors who could look at all the regulated facilities that we operate under licences issued by ARPANSA. Among those there is significant nuclear expertise. ARPANSA also has what we sometimes refer to as scientific branches that have competence in such areas as dosimetry, emergency management and response, dispersion modelling and exposure modelling, and all of these things that are important mechanisms for radiation protection and nuclear safety. I think the main expansions that we're scaling up, as we were saying, for ARPANSA would be the materials science and some of the environmental science would be necessary for making informed assessments of the safety of the designs that are being proposed and also for the siting aspects and long-term operational aspects. There is also going for the full life cycle if we talk about management of high-level waste. These are all areas that can be expanded.

One thing that we do talk about often when we talk about SMRs—and, for that matter, actually, also about the conventional large-scale reactors—is design certification. This means that there could already be an approved design that could have been taken through all the national regulatory system by a regulator that operates in a system with an advanced safety culture, or it could have been internationally approved. They would be things that could be attenuating the need to scale up, but the need to scale up would still be there.

Mrs ARCHER: Do you think that capacity currently exists in Australia, or would there need to be some work around skills development and education?

Dr Larsson : I'd say there is a lot of skills development work that needs to be done, because, if we are talking about a hundred years, as I was saying before, or possibly beyond, even if we were to source the expertise that is needed from what is currently available in Australia, it needs to be sustained over a long time, and that cannot happen unless there is support from the educational sector and probably some incentives to get started with that and also to scale up what we already have available there. The other thing I would say is that we are talking here about a 15-year lead time. Let's say a decision were to be taken today. We are talking about a long lead time here, and that gives us an opportunity to develop the competence within Australia, to recruit and also, if necessary, to recruit from overseas. But, currently, we don't have it, in the sense that we could today just scale it up and tomorrow we would operate a scaled-up regulatory agency. I don't see that.

Mrs ARCHER: So there would need to be a framework going forward.

Dr Larsson : Yes.

Mrs ARCHER: From ANSTO's point of view, what might be required to actually operate a plant? I know we met a young engineer yesterday who I think you said had been recruited but then had had some further, more specific development at ANSTO.

Dr Paterson : First of all, in relation to safety, I want to absolutely concur with what Carl-Magnus has said: it is important to use every incident to refine and then sometimes substantively change how you think about safety. I think that eliminating the cross-product of two different things and really concentrating on consequence as something that has to be understood in its own right has been really beneficial. I also believe that we have a regulatory framework which is based on international reflection and best practice. It's a knowledge based system rather than a rules based system. I think all of the rules based systems tend to have rigidities, whereas a knowledge based system is based on learning and acquiring knowledge. So I would say that our regulatory construct is both robust and flexible, and that's a prerequisite, I think, to being successful in expanding a nuclear footprint in any country.

In that context, from a skills perspective, my view is that we have deliberately, over the last decade at ANSTO, expanded what I would call deep nuclear engineering capabilities. A decade ago, we had come off the construction of the OPAL reactor and we had essentially what I would call engineering procurement capabilities. We were an intelligent buyer, but we weren't necessarily an intelligent actor in our own capacity to design and so on. We've built that up over the last period. So I think it's reasonable to say that, with our limited footprint, we have been able to create between about 50 and 70 competent nuclear design engineers in a decade, and that is simply with the footprint that we currently have. But you have to do it deliberately. There has to be a plan and one has to work on it, and I believe that it would make sense if there were a framework that anticipated that nuclear might be adopted in Australia. Both at the state level and at the Commonwealth level, a conscious development of relationships with the most likely potential actors in our market setting would make sense, because there's nothing like the experience of being in the build of a nuclear facility or being in a nuclear test facility and understanding those things.

I think the challenge over the hundred years is also to anticipate the extent of the change in the acceptance of the nuclear industry of things like automation, digitisation, artificial intelligence and so on. The nuclear industry globally has been a late adopter. But more recently we've seen changes where, for example, the types of simplified engineering design capabilities that you can use with printing versus forging will bring the costs down over time.

The other particular feature of small modular reactors which I think will be highly attractive to Australia is that, instead of relying on four or five global suppliers who've got massive forges that make the really large parts for the big reactors, you expand the supply chain footprint, depending on the size of the reactors that you're talking about, to of the order of 100 to 150 companies. Some of those are companies that have already got significant footprints in Australia, and so the fly-in fly-out model which has become pervasive is also available in terms of importing skills during the construction phase, but then they go and build in other jurisdictions after that. So the type of investment in a small modular reactor world and the type of intensity of knowledge-building that characterises very long-term investments, perhaps of a defence nature, are mitigated somewhat in the small modular reactor environment. The other benefit of that is that Australian companies within what I'd call a soft industrial strategy would accumulate those advantages much better than in the old, massive-scale plants.

There are many advantages to being in the nuclear supply chain in the increasingly nuclearising region that we live in. I think the big lesson, reflecting on what Dr Switkowski said today, is that the universal law of low cost in nuclear is indeed the supply chain. The second one is legal framework. Legal framework and supply chain have a disproportionate impact on cost. There are now two case studies—one in South Korea, where we have seen supply chain learning effects in the cost of plants produced in South Korea. That's a bit of a change. They were the first country in a relatively small fleet to demonstrate learning and to show that they were able to transfer that to another jurisdiction. That's a positive, I think, for the future.

The other feature of the supply chain model is if the legal framework in which nuclear is being constructed sees that supply chain very much like the aerospace supply chain. We used to believe, as countries, that you had to have your own ability to make aircraft in order for them to be safe. That's still the predominant paradigm of nuclear regulation—that each country regulates itself. If these small modular reactors become pervasive, I can see an increased learning between the regulatory agencies and the supply chain actors that, over time, will globalise this industry. We know that that has already happened with aircraft, which have probably got a bigger safety risk for the average person flying. Globalisation, which was once considered a threat, has been the thing that has saved us from unsafety. I believe that, as small modular reactors are seen as a global footprint phenomenon, the learning between countries' supply chain intensity will reduce those costs, and, with the base-load reliability they supply, we will be less dependent on the intermittent sources of supply that characterise us today with the highest costs of electricity in the world.

Mr BURNS: I would reiterate the chair's remarks about how impressive the visit yesterday at ANSTO was. To see so many Australians dealing with problems that are far beyond my capabilities was genuinely impressive, so thank you very much. The big differences between ANSTO's current capabilities and what it would look like on the scale to generate nuclear energy are obviously around the use of water and the waste et cetera. Perhaps, Dr Paterson, you could give the committee an overview of the use of water currently by the OPAL reactor—how much water is being used, how much more water would be required. I understand that obviously some of the SMRs have different designs, but given it's a little bit off, using current technology, what sort of usage of water would that mean? The other thing I'm interested in is the current journey that ANSTO is going on in storing waste and, when you scale that up, what the big challenges are.

Dr Paterson : First of all, in terms of water utilisation we'll provide a formal note in relation to the actual amount. At the moment we rely on Sydney Water for the ongoing utilisation of water in the reactor. That's particularly related to the cycle that we operate, which is about a monthly cycle, and at different points of the cycle you're using more water or less water. All of the water in the reactor pool that you would have seen is highly purified water, which is mainly circulated through the facility. It's the secondary cooling water that is the Sydney water. So you've got a contained water environment, which is pretty stable and very pure, and the secondary cooling is the one that utilises the water. We are looking to see if we can do a greater recycle on that. That's a very obvious thing to do now because water is a scarce resource in this regard.

From my knowledge of the gas based designs that Professor Edwards was talking about, water doesn't become a requirement. In fact, one of the reasons the Chinese are developing them is for desert regions, in fact, so that you don't have a water requirement for the gas reactors—less of a requirement. If you take a country like Jordan, for example, it will take some conventional water cooled designs of reactors and will look at dry cooling. There's a penalty in how much electricity you can produce, because it's more expensive to use dry cooling. But most of the small modular reactors, if one thinks of regional and rural Australia and lack of water, can be retrofitted to dry cooling types of environments with limited water circuits. So I think water is not the challenge that it was with very large reactors that needed large amounts of dedicated water.

From that resource management point of view, it's my view that one of the benefits of nuclear power over its life cycle is it still, with solar panels and with wind, has the lowest overall ecological footprint in terms of its very small sites, and therefore you are not using up very large areas of land in order to have them. In terms of the environmental footprint, it's fairly similar, from all of the studies that I've seen, to the intermittent renewables. So that's the context in which we see that happening.

Mr BURNS: And the waste—

Dr Paterson : I beg your pardon, the waste. Nuclear waste is rightly a public concern and rightly something that has to be done correctly. As to the frameworks that we have in place to deal with the waste of our current operations, we send spent fuel to France. It's reprocessed there. The re-usable parts of that spent fuel are then recycled into French fuel. The residual waste products are brought back in containers, and for the life of the OPAL reactor—did you see the container on the site? There will be another two of those for the total life cycle of the OPAL reactor that will come back at different periods, and, depending on whether we extend the life, possibly three. So the total intermediate-level waste directly from the reactor is well understood, relatively low volume. We would be working with the regulator into the future to take what is a stored waste and find a final disposal pathway. That should be a policy imperative for Australia—that we do pursue final disposal of intermediate-level waste.

In terms of the actual production of most of our waste today, it's very often things like gowns and gloves that have been contaminated in the normal operations, which are then put into drums, and you're really storing drums of what looks very much like medical waste. There are well-understood and well-bounded solutions for low-level waste transport and for low-level waste disposal. The regulatory environment is set by ARPANSA, and the contextual and engineering environment would have to meet those standards. The overall footprint for nuclear waste, relative to existing waste streams, is tiny. It obviously has to be managed carefully. I believe that work done on new modes of intermediate-level waste storage in Australia would have good outcomes, but we don't yet have the full cycle of understanding of the final disposal of intermediate-level waste, which is something that the regulator and I both believe and have an absolutely aligned view on—that it's important to provide assurance to the Australian public that work is happening around that and that that work has an endpoint where there will be a final disposal pathway.

CHAIR: I think that is time. Thank you to both ANSTO and ARPANSA. We recognise the role that you both play in operating and regulating Australia's current nuclear science and research. We thank you for your service and the high esteem in which that's held internationally. We also thank you for attending today. ANSTO, at least, have been asked for additional information with respect to water. Could you please forward that to the secretariat. The committee may have additional questions for either organisation as we move forward. If so we will send them to you via the secretariat. You are encouraged to lodge a written submission, if you please, to the inquiry. You will be sent a copy of the transcript from today and will have the opportunity to request corrections to the transcript where any errors are seen. The committee will now suspend for morning tea.

Proceedings suspended from 11:01 to 11 : 17