Australia’s 40-year-old uranium debate was reignited some 12 months ago at the World Energy Congress at the Sydney Convention Centre at Darling Harbour. A dozen or more of Australia's customers and trading partners for uranium oxide fuel gave technical presentations describing the excellence, safety, economic attraction and environmental integrity of their greenhouse-friendly nuclear power programs. They also signalled their intention to expand these programs and their interest in sourcing a further uranium supply from Australia.
In June this year, the Australian Institute of Energy hosted a large seminar also in Sydney on the potential role of nuclear power in Australia and globally. The seminar brought together top Federal Government scientists and engineers as well as politicians and business executives. The papers presented highlighted the role that nuclear power will have to play to fuel the increasing energy needs of both developed and developing nations in the 21st century and to help minimise greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Technical programs such as the above, together with the Federal Government inquiry into the strategic importance of Australia's uranium resources have undoubtedly challenged both sides of the political establishment. Several keen new political nuclear advocates have emerged.
Speaking at the Australian Uranium Conference in Perth on October 11, the Labor Party's resources spokesman Martin Ferguson welcomed Australia's plans to export uranium to China and the establishment of the Asia-Pacific partnership on clean development and climate. He also indicated he would like to see debate on Labor's contentious three mines policy and declared that as a premier uranium exporter, Australia must take some responsibility for global nuclear waste.
Ferguson has been involved as an assessor with the government uranium resources inquiry. His views on these issues, and those recently proclaimed by former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, show both informed realism and political courage.
Scientists, engineers, academics and economists would commend the views expressed by these two men. Many would go much further and perceive Australia's role in the global nuclear fuel cycle industry as being in great need of enhancement by value-adding to the basic operations of uranium mining.
They would strongly advocate that the Australian uranium miners, possibly with overseas joint-venture partners and investors, undertake the task of enrichment, fuel fabrication and ultimately waste disposal with or without reprocessing.
In a globalised 21st century, such an endeavour would ensure that these tasks would take place in a politically stable nation possessing an optimal geology for a nuclear waste repository. The offensive and highly emotive word "dump" would soon disappear as the Australian community began to understand that valuable radio-isotopes were simply being recycled from one location - the mine - to another - the repository.
Geographically, both have very small footprints. In fact, the nuclear industry is the only energy industry that has responsibly planned for and costed dealing with its waste products from the outset.
Within 50 years the high-level activity of spent nuclear fuel will have decayed to 0.1 per cent of its original activity. And within 1,000 years it will have returned to the "background" activity of the ore body from which it was extracted. Indeed, the use of nuclear fuels for energy and the deposition of correctly packaged waste forms hundreds of metres underground will, over time, decrease Earth's background radiation field at surface level.
Compare this with the radioactive isotopes continually being released during the burning of hydrocarbon fuels in power stations and the carcinogenic emissions from motor vehicles. Essentially uncontained and uncontrollable, they are dispersed in air and across the countryside. The burning of brown coal in Victoria's Latrobe Valley produces about 70 tonnes of uranium oxide per gigawatt of electrical energy per year. This artificial uranium mine is contained in the slag material from power station coal combustion and deposited in landfills.
Ethical responsibility for both fissile and radioactive materials could best be enforced by a country such as Australia if it undertook both the front end and the rear end of the nuclear fuel cycle. In principle, every atom of fissile material can be accounted for at every stage of fuel-element manufacture and a balance audit could be carried out as the radio isotopes are returned for reprocessing and deposition. This production and recycling of nuclear fuel could best be operated as a sound and ethical commercial venture if Australian uranium producers were to "lease" the energy content of their fuels rather than sell the element. Some approximate cost estimates based on current Australian uranium production and practice may be of interest.
Australia's present three uranium mines produce about 11,500 tonnes of yellow cake (U308). This would yield about 1500 tonnes of, say, three per cent enriched uranium and a similar tonnage of waste for disposal. The enrichment industry might generate a revenue of about $800,000 per tonne per year.
A $2 billion capital cost waste repository could handle the 1,500 tonnes of spent fuel per year and earn about $700,000 per tonne. This figure is comparable to reprocessing costs and adds about 0.5c per kilowatt-hour to the cost of electrical energy from a nuclear power station.
This industry could be doubled or tripled in size to meet the supply and demand problems of global markets. Under the strict supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, it could become a valuable adjunct to nuclear safety in South-East Asia and a huge asset in guarding against proliferation in a global sense.