Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
09/10/2019
Prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia

GRAHAM, Dr John, Private capacity

HIGSON, Dr Donald, Private capacity

KEMP, Miss Bronwyn, Private capacity

LAIRD, Mr Robert, Private capacity

MURPHY, Mr Barry, Private capacity

[15:35]

CHAIR: I now resume the hearing and welcome witnesses. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Higson : I am the secretary of the Nuclear Engineering Panel of Engineers Australia and I am a past secretary of the Australasian Radiation Protection Society.

Mr Laird : I have some experience in solar and wind and also microhydro.

CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as a proceeding of the House. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite each of you to make an opening statement. Given there is a good group here, could you keep your statements to no more than three minutes.

Mr Murphy : Thanks, Mr Chairman and members of the committee, for this opportunity. I presume you've seen my CV, so I won't go over that. It's mainly in the oil and related industries and other industries associated with electricity, rail, airports and a few other things. I've developed a keen interest in the whole question of climate change and what we might have to do about it. But my approach is to talk about it, in the first instance, as climate 'forcing', which I believe is a word that is not used as often as perhaps it should be. 'Are we forcing the climate?' is the question that I start with. Let me very quickly summarise, in a few words, what I think should happen in the short and medium term.

It's not a short-term problem for Australia or for the world. But I think we should accept that global climate forcing is causing adverse global climate change. Secondly, we should forge a bipartisan political agreement on policy and planning for clean-energy generation in Australia and take that to the community, and I stress the term 'bipartisan political agreement'. Without that, I think we're wasting our time. We should plan to see installation, in time, of a few things: firstly—the minimum necessary—24-hour-a-day, 365, low-carbon, base-load, all-weather nuclear power, preferably in its modern, flexible modular forms, which you've all heard about, plus a manageable quantity of variable intermittent renewable power, plus the necessary equivalent firming power, now and in the future. They're all needed, in my view. But the first step must be to lift the ban on using nuclear energy to generate electricity in this country. Thank you.

Dr Higson : My particular outlook on life has been: why not nuclear? It is clear to me that the pursuit of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power generation has so far led to an energy crisis in Australia, which could have been avoided if nuclear power had been included in the energy mix. But this is prohibited by legislation that I see as having no justification. Objections to nuclear on the grounds of safety and waste disposal do not stand up to critical examination. Removal of this prohibition, therefore, would be the first prerequisite for nuclear energy in Australia. The second prerequisite is that, apart from being allowed to regulate nuclear power generation, ARPANSA—the Australian regulatory authority—must develop the capability and the regulatory infrastructure to do this, and it's not going to happen overnight. Finally, the government may need to provide loan guarantees to encourage investment.

Dr Graham : My position is as a retired consultant physician who has greatly valued having radioisotopes available—a lot produced at ANSTO and Lucas Heights—for both diagnosis and treatment. I'm familiar with that aspect of radioactivity. I'm all for lifting the ban—and it would have to be bipartisan—on nuclear energy in this country, especially on just thinking about and developing nuclear science. If we don't get onto nuclear science in secondary schools and universities in particular—I can see developing faculties of nuclear science at all the universities, if necessary, as a critical thing—how can we possibly think about installing a nuclear reactor, be it a big one or a little one, 10 years from now? We won't have anyone who knows anything about it. So we've got to get the science into the intellects of Australians now. If you're a naval officer and in a submarine, and we decide we are going to go with nuclear submarines, you're ahead of the eight ball. We can't be behind the eight ball on getting the science going. The science won't be able to be put in place as an education component of Australia until we lift the nuclear ban. It's like saying, 'You can study it, but you will never be able to use that science,' and that would be a silly thing to put in place right now.

As a grazier I greatly value the land and water, and the fact that Australia could easily handle 200 million people—not 25 million people—if we had water and power right across the middle of Australia. I can see nuclear power allowing that to happen by desalinating the oceans around our landmass. We've got 10 per cent of the world's landmass here but we haven't got 10 per cent of the population. I think the Australian government needs to have a vision that goes 50 or 100 years from now so that our children and grandchildren have jobs, agriculture, water and power beyond what we can currently even consider. I'll leave my starting point at that but I think we need a vision, and the vision can't occur until we lift a stupid, embarrassing moratorium on even being able to think about nuclear power, which of course is going to yield power without carbon dioxide production.

Mr Laird : As well as doing some study in past system exams in solar, wind and micro-hydro back in 2001, I also have a very personal relationship with the whole nuclear thing because my wife's family is Japanese, and they were all out here when the tsunami hit. We watched it all unfold in front of us on TV; it was quite moving. I decided there and then that I needed to know more about what this was, and to try and understand and get some more knowledge about this. For the last eight years I've been head down, tail up, educating myself on nuclear. I'm not a physicist; I wish I was, but I'm not. For some perspective: what I've discovered is that, despite what happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima, 1950s reactor technology has served the world very well over 70 years. There was a hiatus after Chernobyl, for obvious reasons, while everybody stopped to evaluate the situation. But development on new technologies has continued. In fact there are many new generations of nuclear reactors being promoted around the world at the moment. Earlier on I heard someone mention small modular reactors as being a development of an existing technology, so that's terrific.

My submission talks about one specific class of the latest generation, generation IV, of reactors—molten salt reactors. I've spent a lot of time researching those. They are also called liquid fission reactors, and that's to distinguish this class from most other types that use solid cores. There is a big difference between the inside technology of molten salt reactors and traditional reactors. US nuclear pioneer Dr Alvin Weinberg was arguably the father of modern power reactors, because he invented the light water reactors that make up most of the 450 reactors that are out there today. He also developed the molten salt reactor, and he personally believed that that was the type of reactor that should be used in power applications. As noted in my submission, Australia is the 14th member of the gen IV forum on nuclear reactors, and we are already doing joint research with China on molten salt reactor technology. There are about 20 molten salt reactor-specific vendors around the world, with huge investments being made. Big names are involved, like Bill Gates with TerraPower, who, after six years of working on other technologies in gen IV reactors, made the decision to start developing molten salt reactors.

At least one molten salt reactor is saying that their entire modular molten salt reactor power station at one gigawatt electric is small enough to fit inside—and these are my measurements—the Sydney football stadium, or what remains of it. And, if you leave out the regulation costs and delays, it is substantially less than $1 billion to build. Any costs over and above that, you hear people saying, 'Oh, they cost $10 billion, $15 billion, and they take 15 years, 20 years, 25 years.' That might very well be the case for reactors that were started 10 or 15 years ago and, for whatever reason, got out of control. But, if we are talking about starting now, we are in a position where we have a clean sheet of paper. I believe that Australia could become world leaders in molten salt reactor technology. If we focus on just one class of reactor, not necessarily to the exclusion of all others, we will be very good at it.

Given our unique clean sheet of paper, there will be plenty of people around the world who will want to speak to us. One of the things that I would recommend, and I did recommend in my article, is: if you get the opportunity, please speak to some of the world experts in molten salt reactor technology. You will find that there are lots of them, because there is an enormous amount of effort going into it. I would like to name some of them now. I would suggest Mr Ed Pheil, the CTO of Elysium Industries; Dr Lars Jorgensen, the CEO of ThorCon; Mr Kirk Sorensen, the president of Flibe Energy; Dr David LeBlanc, the president of Terrestrial Energy; and, of course, Mr Bill Gates himself, from TerraPower. I know that Dr Jorgensen, Mr Sorensen and Terrestrial Energy have made submissions—in fact, I've read them. They're all at different stages of development. Some are ready to go right now, some are still developing their novel pathways and designs, but all of them will be able to help us understand why good, new nuclear based on molten salt reactors can help us rescue our future.

Miss Kemp : Currently the moratorium in Australia is preventing the opportunity for nuclear to even be in the discussion, and this is preventing other companies from investing and anyone being interested in Australia as an energy capital. With the development of molten salt reactors specifically, like Mr Laird said, I have mentioned in my submission the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, which is Flibe Energy's design. While a little while off at this stage, Australia is ideally positioned to invest in and research that sort of technology as it doesn't currently have regulatory restrictions other than the key pieces of legislation that are restricting all of nuclear energy—as opposed to the United States, which has specific regulations on uranium power reactors because they are currently being used. Australia could put in ideal licensing environments which encourage new players, new investments and new ideas into the future, which would set us up, ideally, for a changing environment in the future, politically, strategically and in terms of energy generation.

The time pressure that we face currently is generally accepted due to both the limits of fossil fuels—they are a finite resource and will run out—and the scientific consensus which suggests that dire consequences will result from the continued exploitation of these resources. My suggestion, as stated in my submission, would be for the government to set up a mostly independent task-driven organisation—similar to the American Skunk Works and our own Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, which was used to put together the original Snowy Mountains Scheme and shows that we have the potential for great engineering and scientific achievement—to specifically research and develop these sorts of technologies without restriction but with a task-driven focus.

I would also suggest that the government repeal the current legislation which demands the destruction of monazite resources in Australia. Monazite is a mineral which is found prevalently with rare earth metals, for which we currently have mines. It's a resource which contains thorium, a very energy-dense element which can replace uranium in molten salt reactors as a fuel source with low risk; it doesn't produce long-lived transuranics, and it has a low proliferation risk in its by-products, for the most part. Currently Australian policy demands that this invaluable resource be destroyed. That needs to stop, and the monazite thorium needs to be stockpiled so that we can use it when we need to, which hopefully would be within the next 10 years.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Could I stay with you for a moment. You mentioned the US Skunk Works. Can you just elaborate on that a little bit.

Miss Kemp : They developed the SR-71, amongst other projects. I use that as a basis, if you like, because their ability to construct innovative designs and really produce results is globally renowned. That's sort of the idea I'm getting at. The Australian government needs to set up an organisation which is driven for results, as opposed to palming it off, if you like, to a university which will enjoy the academic challenge, I'm sure, but will perhaps not be as focused on the results as on the research. Australia is in a position where we are time pressured. We need the results to happen as quickly as possible, so we need an independent organisation which is specifically tasked.

CHAIR: Thank you. Dr Graham, I think you talked about the need for education, particularly in the sciences. Can that be done without lifting the moratorium?

Dr Graham : It could be, but what would be the incentive to even offer it as a course if there were no future? There has to be at least the potential for a future. Sure, we can train people, and then they leave our country, go somewhere else and do great things. That's not a good idea. We should be doing the good things here. I'm not so focused on just nuclear energy. There's hydrogen power and all that sort of thing. We need to be exploring every form of energy. But nuclear has to be one of them. That's where I see it.

Mrs PHILLIPS: I have a general question. Much of the evidence received so far indicates that nuclear energy would take too long and cost far too much to be considered in Australia. That is the evidence of Ziggy Switkowski and it was the conclusion of the South Australian royal commission. I'm wondering if you agree with that.

Mr Laird : I read some of those reports and, yes, there is a lot of information around that supports what you're saying; there's no doubt about that. But I think that there's a lot of work that's been done, in the last 10 years especially, on these new types of reactors. I think that, unless we actually give them their day in the sunshine so we understand what they bring to the table, we may make a decision without all the information presented in front of us. The thing that I'm hearing—and it admittedly is by their own vested interests, so you may take it with a grain of salt—is that these new technologies are being brought to the table in a completely different fashion to the way those older style reactors are built. They rely on in situ development, where great teams of people go out to a location, rain, hail or shine, and work their way through the construction and development of an in situ reactor. That's subject to all sorts of challenges—workforce, weather and all sorts of challenges. And, by the way, they're building them to probably the highest tolerance of anything you're ever likely to see out in the open.

As to what the new technology reactors are doing: firstly, they're much, much smaller and they're built in a factory. They're built with robots; they're built with computer aided design—enormous supercomputers generating all the software; they're built to extremely high tolerances; and then they're moved out on site. So they've already been built and tested by the time they get to the site. What I'm hearing is that that approach reduces the risk, the time frame and the cost, substantially, of delivery of new technology reactors compared even to some of those reactors that are actually under construction today, which are from an older era. There's a great difference between them. It's very easy to say that reactors like Hinkley have gone over budget—there are all sorts of stories around it, and that's understandable—but if we start from where we are today then we've got a clean sheet of paper. We can start with these new technologies and we can investigate and understand what they bring to the table. People are talking about 10 years and things like that. I think we'll find that it's going to be a lot less than 10 years to actually build one of these things. As I said in my opening statement, probably the majority of the time will be filling out the paperwork and doing the regulation. If we get the regulation right, if we become world experts on molten salt reactors, we can make sure that that's kept to a minimum and provide these things at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time. That's what I believe.

Mrs PHILLIPS: We've heard that SMRs can be delivered at a lower cost than existing nuclear technologies; however, we've also heard that planned SMRs in France, the UK and the US have involved significant delays and big cost blow-outs. Would you agree with that?

Mr Laird : I would, yes. That is the other thing too: there are different technologies in these reactors. Small modular reactors, which are the ones that I'm hearing a lot about now, are still based on light water reactor designs, which go back to the original submarine reactor design. They're based on light water and they've got a metallic solid core. What they're doing is just scaling down the technology. Whenever you scale anything down, you lose some of the economies of scale that you gained by scaling something up. It's a bit of a circular thing. You can also build them in the way that I said—you can build them in a factory and you can get all those sorts of value-adds from doing it that way.

Yes, you're right, and I've heard that, but I think that really it's just a matter of acceptance and getting it right, and a matter of those guys actually getting an opportunity to build these things and show the world what they can do. I'm not personally advocating for those types of reactors. I think they're terrific. Molten salt reactors are completely different inside; the technology is completely different. But they are modular, they are small and they have different characteristics. I'm not an expert on SMRs by any stretch of the imagination.

CHAIR: It looks like we've got another couple of people who'd like to respond—Mr Murphy and then Ms Kent.

Mr Murphy : Mr Laird was right, of course: that's the sort of thing we need to know. But there's a ban. It is illegal in Australia to build a nuclear power plant. So who's going to get interested in helping us, spending time and effort to share their knowledge with us, if we let that ban stay there?

I heard Dr Switkowski. I've known him for years, and he was quite right. This is true. These are the kinds of issues we're now facing because we wasted 20 years—that's why. That original ban, as you probably know, was purely a political exercise. I'm not being critical; it's a fact. I know how politics works, and it was in order to get some things done, and that's how things happen. We understand that. But to leave it there! It was done at the behest of the Greens and the Democrats, and it's still in place 20 years later—the only G20 country that has such a ban. So, whilst I respect, understand and know all the things about building it and building factories—all of that's true, and it could happen—are we so frightened to try and find out about that that we can't remove a 20-year-old ban that has no scientific merit whatsoever?

Miss Kemp : On the time limits, I advise the committee to look at ThorCon's Indonesian customer. At present their timescale is, I believe, smaller than 10 years. I would be happy to submit additional written information to that effect if that is required.

CHAIR: That would be appreciated if you can, Miss Kemp. Thank you.

Dr Higson : If we go on saying it will take too long to build a nuclear power station, in 10 years time we'll still be saying it'll take too long. We've got to get on with it. On the question of cost, first of all, of course there's been some very bad publicity in the last few years from a couple of first-of-a-kind projects in the USA which went very badly askew on schedule and cost. There are some particular reasons why that happened, and you can't argue from the particular to the general. As we heard earlier this afternoon, the Chinese are moving ahead very fast with exactly the same types of reactors, building them on schedule. A South Korean company has built a huge nuclear power station—nearly five gigawatts, with four reactors—in the United Arab Emirates on schedule and on cost. It can be done.

But a big problem, of course, with nuclear is that you've got a large upfront cost. It can be difficult to find financing for that, because you'll certainly have a few years when it's being built and not generating any income. But, once it's built, it's very cheap to run. Experience overseas has shown, generally speaking—in France, China and India—that the actual overall power generation cost, taking into account capital charges and running costs, is competitive. The experience overseas, particularly in OECD countries, has definitely shown that. This is one of the big advantages of the small modular reactor: that, instead of trying to build one very large one over, say, 10 years, you can build 10 small ones and get them going on the site quite quickly, and you can start earning money with the first one, so the financing of them is much easier. So it's a bit of an oversimplification to say it takes too long and costs too much. It's easy to look at it like that, but I don't think that's a fair way to look at it.

Miss Kemp : Just on finances again, if Australia were to develop these sorts of reactors, we would own the intellectual property and be able to license it out to other countries, thereby mitigating some of our own costs by actually owning the technology that other countries are using for their energy production. This would also result in lower global emissions, so we'd be contributing to our international agreements and other countries' international agreements there. It could also be used as part of a foreign aid initiative. We've seen graphs which correlate abundance of clean, cheap energy with high levels of education, standard of living and health. So there are a number of pots that could be dug from as far as funding is concerned.

Dr GILLESPIE: Is there one of these new molten salt, or liquid fluoride, reactors actually running?

Miss Kemp : Not currently. The idea of the two-fluid molten-salt reactor is based on the molten salt reactor experiment in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The funding was cut from that project for political reasons, in the sixties. But it ran successfully for 60,000 hours and was showing great promise in both efficiency and potential for power production. It was a research reactor.

Dr GILLESPIE: Is it coupled with a natural gas turbine or some other gas?

Miss Kemp : The turbine that I've seen associated with it has been a supercritical carbon dioxide turbine, which operates at a high temperature. The advantage of one of these reactors is that they can operate within a large window of temperature, from about 400 to 1,300 degrees. So there is a lot of industrial benefit from those temperatures, using your waste heat, as well as being ideal for power generation in turbines because the fuel is molten so you don't have to have it under any pressure. You can have it basically at room pressure to operate.

CHAIR: Sorry, I promised Mr Pitt a question, and I do know we are running out of time.

Mr PITT: Miss Kemp, we heard evidence this morning from Australian Young Generation in Nuclear, Women in Nuclear Australia and a professor at one of the universities about the general views of individuals, may I say, in your generation. I was just wondering if you might make some comments about what you think the thoughts of others in that generation might be. Are they supportive or not? Is it something you discuss with others?

Miss Kemp : I certainly can't speak for my generation.

Mr PITT: Of course you can!

Miss Kemp : It would generally be considered odd. But I think that my generation, as someone said recently, is much less afraid of a cold war and more worried about climate change, rightly or wrongly. I wish that my generation was more focused on solutions that making a fuss without having a solution. We have possibly a greater level of education that has been available to previous generations, so the potential is certainly there for understanding and acceptance of this technology to arise. Certainly, with the people I've talked to, it takes a 10-minute conversation to convince someone of the benefits of this kind of thing, once you've got past that ingrained—

Mr PITT: Simpsons based view!

Miss Kemp : I think, with my generation, because of this fear of climate change, we're actually perfectly positioned to go, 'Well, you know what? There is another option.' As much as fear of nuclear has been ingrained, fear of climate change has possibly been more ingrained. So I think we're well positioned to accept a better option.

CHAIR: Okay. Let's have one more comment and then we'll go to Ms Stegall, and then we'll have to wrap it up because we are already over time.

Dr Higson : I just wanted to say that the idea of a molten salt reactor has been around for a very long time, and it's attractive for use with thorium fuel rather than uranium fuel—and that idea has also been around for a very long time. It is, to some extent, the possibility of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, because we have gone ahead, very much so, with the light water reactor, particularly a pressurised water reactor with uranium fuel, and there's good reason for that: it's good technology. So don't—

CHAIR: Sorry to cut you off, sir, but Mr Murphy has a comment.

Mr Murphy : I was listening to Miss Kemp's comment about her generation, which is terrific. But I spoke to a group only a couple of hours ago at the University of the Third Age at St Ives in Sydney, for a couple of hours—very invigorating. Let me say that they were more mature—been around for a long while. They said: 'Please tell the people you're going to talk to this afternoon that we are totally and utterly behind the idea of opening up the doors to look at nuclear energy. Tell them we need to look at it.' So I'm passing that on.

CHAIR: We won't get you to define more mature, but thank you.

Ms STEGGALL: In the limited amount of time it's rather difficult to address all the different views or positions that have been put forward. From your position, Miss Kemp, could I summarise that the point is we are at this stage of looking at our energy future because we need to decarbonise. Could we make that a primary starting point—that we need the fastest possible way to decarbonise? Is that right? Would that be your starting point when you're discussing this with your peers? Your words were that climate change is their biggest fear compared to nuclear?

Miss Kemp : Yes, I think that would be true, but I think that'll also get most of Australia and most of Australian politics onside. As was mentioned earlier, the moratorium was the result of the Greens and the Democrats and their position on that. If they really believe in stopping climate change, then opening the doors, as you put it, to investigating nuclear and other potential energy generation technologies—not having this restrictive policy that blinkers our vision—is in their best interests.

Ms STEGGALL: Do you agree that climate change actually requires some urgent action?

Miss Kemp : I think there is a time pressure, both because of the fact that fossil fuels are finite—they will run out—

Ms STEGGALL: No, this isn't about fossil fuels; this is about climate change. We have a limited window of time in which we need to act to reverse our emissions to make a difference. So that is the reason, or a pressure on, why we have to come up with a plan.

Miss Kemp : That's one of the pressures.

CHAIR: Take your time with the answer, as that will probably be the last question and then we'll have to wrap up.

Miss Kemp : That would be one of the significant pressures which I would consider to be putting time pressure on this issue. Definitely climate change and the health risks that are associated with that are a large pressure that needs to be addressed. If it's not causing an issue, then we could go, potentially, another hundred years without causing an issue. But it is causing an issue—

Ms STEGGALL: Did you say 'if'? 'If' it is causing an issue?

Miss Kemp : If—yes. If it is—

Ms STEGGALL: So you're not convinced?

Miss Kemp : I'm sitting on the fence. If there is an issue, it needs to be addressed now. If there's not an issue, you don't lose anything by addressing it now. So the logical choice would be to assume that there's an issue, treat it as such and develop a stable, sustainable solution, which definitely isn't an issue in the immediate future.

Ms STEGGALL: Following from that—

CHAIR: We're going to have to wrap up—

Ms STEGGALL: This follows from it—

CHAIR: We are going to have to wrap up, Ms Stegall, so please make this your last question and this will be the last response.

Ms STEGGALL: Sure. In that sense, shouldn't we be looking at technology that is available to us now, rather than speculating about, for example, your molten-salt technology? You say that has been around since the 1960s, yet it has not been developed as a viable option anywhere in the world so far. If we are under time pressure, should we not be looking at the options that we have now, rather than speculating about something that could be developed in the future and that we've already known about for 30 to 40 years?

Miss Kemp : I believe that the political situation has been the limiting factor, not the scientific innovation and not the necessity. We reach a point where we must make a decision for the sake of innovation, for the sake of engineering and for the sake of our scientific and strategic future. This, to me, seems like the most obvious choice to address a whole range of our problems, not just climate change and not just the finite nature of fossil fuels.

CHAIR: Thank you, Miss Kemp. Thank you all for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information could you please forward it to the secretariat. The committee may have additional questions for your response on notice, which will be sent to you from the secretariat. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thanks very much for your time today.