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Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
09/10/2019
Prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia

HISLOP, Mr Roderick, Private capacity

MACGREGOR, Mr Colin, Private capacity

RACITI, Mr Mario, Member, Nelson Parade Action Group

[16:14]

CHAIR: I now welcome Colin Macgregor, Rod Hislop and Mario Raciti. Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Macgregor : I'm here as an interested citizen. I've spent 42 years working in museum laboratories, but I'm not a nuclear physicist, so my comments are from what I've observed and read.

Mr Raciti : I'm a committee member of the Nelson Parade Action Group.

Mr Hislop : I'm here as an independent, although I'm a mechanical engineer and I work in energy efficiency. I've worked for the largest energy service companies in Australia and, overseas, the USA.

CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise that this is a hearing and 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 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, ideally for no more than three minutes each, if that's okay. Any order is fine, but we can go in the same order. Mr Macgregor?

Mr Macgregor : I'd just like to make four brief points based on my interest in the energy industry. I was an opponent of nuclear power in the seventies and eighties on safety grounds, but now I'm an agnostic. I'd hoped it would become safer and more economical, because we need lower-emissions power sources. The great hopes for a fusion reactor seem to have come to nothing or to have been somewhat illusory.

Point 1 is on safety. Major incidents are rare, but I was living in Scotland when reactor 4 at Chernobyl blew up. The reactor clouds blew across Scandinavia, and the UK, which is 1,300 miles away; we received part of the reactor core as a little gift from the Soviet Union! Routine radiological inspections were suspended, including in the laboratory where I was working, and inspection teams were diverted to measuring the fallout on farmland. Incredibly, actually, I discovered recently that some farms in Scotland could not sell or move their livestock without radiation testing until 2010, which was 24 years after the incident. I also travelled in Japan three months after the Fukushima crisis and heard about a variety of direct and indirect social and economic consequences across the nation, from the Japanese friends we were staying with, concerning food safety or conditioning, or lack of, and trust in governments and industry.

Point two is about large reactors. I think you've probably heard already about Hinkley Point's C reactor—which is massively over budget—in the UK, produced by the French and the British, who have over 50 years experience in building reactors and are still having trouble getting a project that will run to budget. It is tipped to produce some of the most expensive electricity in the world. We should also bear in mind the costs of the decommissioning and management of old reactors, which I think Britain initially did not take into account when they told us that incredibly cheap fuel would be available in the sixties and seventies.

The small modular reactor has been tipped as a possible future solution to cost and safety concerns, and obviously that's been widely discussed. But, from what I've discovered, there's none actually running in the world currently. I consulted a friend who has worked in the nuclear industry in the UK for almost 35 years. He is at the Dounreay nuclear research facility, and he confirmed that SMRs have been a concept for years, and there are plans in various countries to build them. The Chinese may be building one now, which I think someone just commented on. They're not the same as small reactors used on ships and submarines, which are not suitable for civilian use, he commented. Those are pressurised water reactors. The notional costings that we've been hearing about SMRs and their costs per megawatt hour, which I've read, seem a bit premature, since there are none actually functioning and operational. So it would be interesting to see how the technology develops, but we've got nothing we can actually look at at the moment where we can go and kick the tyres, look under the hood, run it up to its full speed and actually see whether this technology is going to fulfil our needs, although it sounds very promising. So it's early days to actually commit to it.

An example would be that in the 1970s the British designed advanced gas cooled reactors which were supposed to be a cheap form of electricity. They were declared by a member of the government to be one of the UK's biggest financial disasters, along with Concorde, because they were so inefficient and unreliable. Mostly they've been shut down now. When the electricity industry was being privatised in the 1980s, nuclear reactors were not included as part of the package for sale, because they didn't think anybody in the private sector would actually take up these offers.

Looking to the future, I think the long lead time required, as was commented on earlier, means it doesn't address our immediate power and energy needs. We need solutions from the new technologies that are currently evolving rapidly. Maybe in the future we can go with something like the SMRs, but we'd really need to know a lot more about them. In France, the government is the majority shareholder of the nuclear reactor fleet. Is this the model that Australia would need to adopt if we're going to invest in this type of energy, or is the private sector going to take the risk of starting to build nuclear reactors which may not be economically viable in the future? So, yes, I think it's great if nuclear can be a low-emissions energy source, but I think we need to know a lot more about the new generations of reactors that have been suggested.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Macgregor.

Mr Raciti : This submission is on behalf of the Nelson Parade Action Group, known as NPAG, whose members have been working for about 11 years towards appropriate remediation of the radioactive contamination in the residential street of Nelson Parade, Hunters Hill, New South Wales. This submission is based on our experience with radioactive waste management in New South Wales and addresses the first two terms of reference of the nuclear energy inquiry: waste management and safety.

NPAG submits that appropriate storage for radioactive waste must be a basic prerequisite of any future nuclear energy industry, and we note that waste management is the very first term of reference of the inquiry. New South Wales has radioactive material currently stored in 269 licensed facilities in New South Wales—that information has become available from Property NSW based on their proposal 08_0008 PPR—which critics claim to be inadequately and inappropriately stored, pending the establishment of the federal facility. Due to the lack of radioactive storage facilities across Australia, it is essential that the federal government establish the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility as a matter of urgency.

Our experience in Nelson Parade in New South Wales is that disposal and storage of radioactive material is a difficult issue, politically and emotionally charged and often clouded by misinformation and stigma. Decisions seem to be often politically driven, not evidence based or informed by expert opinion. We believe that independent expert-driven decision-making is essential as a prerequisite for best-practice radioactive waste management, and this needs to be fundamental in establishing a nuclear energy industry.

Successive New South Wales governments have failed to resolve the radioactive contamination issue in our street in the past 11 years since the 2008 New South Wales parliamentary inquiry which unanimously recommended that the radioactive waste should be disposed off site in an appropriately licensed facility. However, the New South Wales government subsequently ruled out disposal of the Nelson Parade radioactive contamination in the only appropriately licensed facility in New South Wales, due to community concern. Furthermore, the New South Wales government has since failed to locate an alternative disposal/storage site either interstate or in New South Wales and consequently has chosen to encapsulate this radioactive material on site in a residential street.

Under the proposal, Property New South Wales seeks to permanently store the radioactive contamination on the foreshores of the densely populated residential street, Nelson Parade, within four kilometres of where we're sitting. Hunter's Hill Council and the majority of residents have rejected the proposal as inappropriate. Experts are strongly critical of the proposal, since it is widely accepted that the world's best practice is to store radioactive material in a central facility with proper licensing, monitoring and maintenance and with protection for people and the environment such as a buffer zone several kilometres from densely populated areas.

The second term of reference of the nuclear energy inquiry is health and safety. In terms of Nelson Parade, Property New South Wales' current on-site encapsulation proposal raises questions of safety for residents and the community. The radioactive material will be consolidated in the bunkers and the level of radioactivity will be increased to hazardous. Encapsulation is said to actually increase the exposure risk for a wide range of people. This is based on an ANSTO report: PPR5.2. The radioactive contamination is not being taken off site; consequently it is not classified as waste, so Nelson Parade residents will have no protection from a 500 metre or large buffer zone normally mandated to protect people and the environment. No precedent of residential radioactive storage exists to evaluate safety, nor has the New South Wales government provided any evidence for safety of the proposed radon gas management. There will be no basic protections such as a tent to protect dust ingestion and inhalation by neighbouring families and community during the estimated two years of construction. There is no long-term management plan detailed for succeeding generations to manage the legacy of the encapsulated radioactive waste.

In summary, our experience in NSW has exposed the difficulties for governments in disposing of radioactive waste. The issue severely impacts on residents trapped firstly by government inaction and subsequently by Property NSW's proposal, which is opposed by the community, inadequately addresses safety concerns and is not based on best practice. We submit that safe, highest standard radioactive waste management needs independent experts' control over planning and management in order to ensure that the best interests of the community drive decision-making.

Mr Hislop : Thank you for the opportunity to present to you. I hope we can work together towards a future plan for a cheaper, more reliable and cleaner energy system. My submission focused on the economics of nuclear. Back when most of the operating plants were installed, nuclear was competitive with coal. It's now much more expensive than new technology—namely, renewable electricity and energy storage—and I've presented figures in my submission to show that.

I think the main reasons the Australian public voted to ban nuclear energy were the risk of catastrophic failure, potential cost of clean-up of that failure, concerns about waste management and security. I believe all those issues still remain, although many believe terrorism has increased the security concerns. Since the banning of nuclear, we have deregulated our electricity market, and now the cost of generation is more a public concern. So for me the circumstances and prerequisites necessary for consideration of nuclear energy generation should include addressing the risk of catastrophic failure; provision by the nuclear industry for insurance against catastrophic failure, rather than expecting the public to pay for any clean-up; understanding nuclear waste management now and for future generations; and security. And, of course, it must be competitive with other alternative energy systems.

I focused on the economics through published figures. From what I and many others have found, it is significantly more expensive to build and operate a nuclear power station than to build and operate a renewable one, even with energy storage. I notice that some submissions called for the ban on nuclear to be lifted so business cases can be determined; however, nuclear appears to be at least three or four times as expensive. There is talk that small modular reactors may become economical, although published figures are not showing that. There's no need for accurate business cases when the costs are not even close.

It is great that we're discussing improvements and plans for our electricity system. I think we should be looking for win-win opportunities, such as embracing electric and hydrogen transport and establishing an electric network that allows stationary cars to provide electrical storage and capacity to the grid. There seems no point in lifting the ban on nuclear generation unless it can be demonstrated that it's competitive with existing clean, safe and economical renewable energy with storage. Until then, it's a distraction. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much time. Given time, colleagues, we'll try to keep it to a question each. Mr Hislop, just on your numbers there: I'm looking at page 2 of your submission, and you have nuclear at greater than $18,500 a kilowatt, and wind and solar at less than $1,000. Could you explain that a little bit. That's probably solar and wind at 5½ per cent the cost of nuclear—is that right?

Mr Hislop : Yes. They're the published figures. I think if you rang up and got a quote for somebody to put solar on your roof it would be a thousand dollars a kilowatt. They're published figures. As far as the nuclear costs are concerned, I've given the references. There are a couple of them, such as the Hinkley plant. You've heard many refer to that one. Also, there's the Vogtle plant in Georgia, USA, which is presently being built. I also went—and I've shown reference—to Diablo Canyon, which is one in the USA that's being turned off. It's presently estimated to cost equivalent to $2½ thousand a kilowatt just to turn it off. That's the decommissioning cost. So I've added those two to give the figure of greater than $18,500 per kilowatt for nuclear.

Mrs PHILLIPS: Do you think it's ironic that the government is considering nuclear energy at a time when the demand for firmed renewables—wind and solar—continues to grow?

CHAIR: Is your question to anyone in particular?

Mrs PHILLIPS: Anyone can answer it.

Mr Macgregor : I can understand that there's still the desire to have a constant energy source that runs all through the night and when the wind's not blowing. But, yes, at the moment the figures don't seem to be supporting the sheer investment and length of time it will take us to establish that industry and to assure people that it's safe, which I think is one of the biggest problems. I was surprised when it came up quite suddenly when we were discussing it—when was it?—about six months ago.

Mr Hislop : I'm used to working with industry to look at opportunities. So I think it's great that you're looking at every opportunity. I am equally used to culling quickly. You first look at the economics. From the figures that are published, nuclear doesn't stack up, so we should probably cull it quickly.

Dr GILLESPIE: Thanks, Mr Hislop and Mr Macgregor. My question is to Mr Raciti. What is the nature of the waste? You mentioned radon in one of your discussions.

Mr Raciti : It's restricted solid waste which, once it's diluted, will be reclassified as hazardous general waste. At the moment it's restricted solid waste. All that waste could have gone to a facility at Kemps Creek. That was the plan of the Labor government 12 years ago, until Tanya Davis and Michael Richardson got involved, because she was trying to win the seat of Mulgoa. She started a scaremongering situation.

Dr GILLESPIE: Do you know the nature of the radioisotopes that are there?

Mr Raciti : I don't know the technical specifications of that, I'm afraid. I know that it's going to be reclassified as hazardous general waste, which will have a different classification, which then means that it can only go to an international facility. It can't go to any of the existing facilities in Australia, once it has been reclassified.

Ms STEGGALL: Thank you for those numbers, Mr Hislop. We debated the numbers a lot when it comes to comparing technologies. What I was quite interested in hearing from Mr Macgregor and Mr Raciti is actually that other element. When we're looking at the prerequisites and the circumstances, it is that waste management and that community expectation. Mr Raciti, from your point of view, from your community, dealing with probably a lesser type of waste—from what I'm understanding it's nuclear or radioactive, and it must come from medical?

Mr Raciti : It came from an old watch factory. They used it for the dials. It became concentrated. That's the main focus of the waste. It's been described as general waste, but it will be reclassified as hazardous once the process of sorting takes place.

Ms STEGGALL: From our point of view, looking at all the circumstances that are prerequisite, do you see that a really clear pathway in terms of waste management is really a prerequisite before going down these kinds of pathways?

Mr Raciti : Yes. You're going to have people who are living really close to that facility who are going to be fearful of what's going to be delivered there, I would imagine.

Ms STEGGALL: We need to take a step back. This enquiry is not determining whether we should go nuclear. It's determining whether the ban should be lifted. Coming with lifting the ban means considering things. The question is, does the ban bring good outcomes or bad outcomes?

Mr Raciti : For us the ban is presenting a bad outcome, because it's restricting where that waste can be taken to. As a consequence of that, the alternative is to build bunkers within a residential street and to leave it there, because there isn't a depot where it can go.

Ms STEGGALL: My understanding is that if we didn't have a ban we would have more of that waste, so we would have more of a policy to take care of your waste.

Mr Raciti : Correct.

Ms STEGGALL: So a bigger problem, but not in your backyard.

Mr Raciti : Correct.

Ms STEGGALL: Mr Macgregor, talking about your own experience, I found it interesting to hear about those more expanded consequences that we don't hear about or consider. We haven't heard much about what you're saying from a farming point of view. The impacts are vast. They're direct and they're indirect as a result of nuclear. We really haven't had much in the way of submissions or evidence on that front.

Mr Macgregor : Yes. Hopefully it's never going to happen again that a major reactor basically melts down and blows up. The distance, the widespread effects of it, are incredible, as we were finding in Japan when we were there. We went out for an organic meal one lunchtime with our friends. They said: 'It's great. They grow they're own vegetables. They use organic beef.' We got home that evening to find that they'd banned the organic beef because that entire prefecture had been declared to be hazardous because of the Fukushima fallout. It's very widespread. The sheep in Scotland and Wales were absorbing it because of the nature of peat. The caesium hangs around and gets drawn into the plants much more quickly and then it gets into the soil and builds up in the livestock through their lifetime. So, yes, it seems to be one of these things that will impact on a lot of people. I don't know Australia's experience. I suppose there's Maralinga and the effects of that fallout. I don't know whether that fuels fears within Australia of it. Britain's never had a ban on nuclear power, but people are still very wary of it. Various leakages have happened at Sellafield and various places over the years. So, yes, it's building up that confidence. Really, you'd need SMRs, the new small reactors, to be there up and running for a while, so people can see that this is a much superior design that is almost fail safe because of the impacts. There are also the social impacts, as I mentioned. In Japan people have said they don't trust the government and the industry. They thought they were colluding, because information was changing, was leaking out slowly. It had a range of impacts in Japanese society, which is quite integrated, and trust was really undermined at that time. It was very interesting.

CHAIR: We'll have to wrap it up, gentlemen. Thank you very much for your attendance today. If you've 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. I declare this public hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 16:42