The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, established last year by the South Australia state government, has said a facility accepting nuclear waste and used fuel created by the global power generation, industry, medicine and research could be viable and could deliver significant economic benefits to the state, generating more than AUD5bn (3.6bn) a year in revenue. South Australia, which hosts the Olympic Dam uranium mine, set up the commission last year to look at the role the state should play in the nuclear industry, from mining and enrichment to energy generation and waste storage.
A waste facility would be commercially viable, with storage starting in the late 2020s, the commission said in its initial findings. "The storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel in South Australia would meet a global need and is likely to deliver substantial economic benefits to the community," the commission said. "Such a facility would be viable and highly profitable under a range of cost and revenue assumptions." The facility could handle 13% of the world's nuclear waste and used fuel and could prove "highly profitable" in the long term, according to the commission. Financial assessments suggested that a facility with the capacity to store 138,000 tHM (tonnes heavy metal) of used fuel and 390,000 square metres of intermediate-level waste operating over a century "would be highly profitable in a range of scenarios", it said.
"For the management of used fuel and intermediate-level wastes, South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel," according to the commission. It noted that two countries - Finland and Sweden - have successfully developed long-term domestic used fuel disposal solutions.
The proposal for a large-scale storage facility is separate from the process already under way in which six potential sites in Australia were chosen late last year by the federal government for a national low-level radioactive waste management facility.
The commission added that generating electricity from a NPP in the "foreseeable future" would not be economically viable in view of the costs and demand. However, in the longer term, "Australia's electricity system will require low-carbon generation sources to meet future global emissions reduction targets," the commission said. "Nuclear power may be necessary, along with other low carbon generation technologies."
Expanding uranium mining could be beneficial, but it is not the most significant opportunity. "Even if production could be increased to meet very optimistic demand forecasts under strong climate action policies, the value of production in South Australia by 2030 and associated royalties, while significant in themselves, are small in terms of the state's total revenues," the commission said.
It saw no opportunity for South Australia to commercially develop further uranium processing capabilities in the next decade as the market is already oversupplied and uncertain. However, fuel leasing is more likely to be commercially attractive.
Kevin Scarce, the commissioner and the state's former governor, or Queen's representative, said South Australia was uniquely suitable for storing nuclear waste because it is stable geologically and seismologically. But he noted there could be community opposition and recommended extensive public consultation. "There are a range of risks associated with storage of used fuel, including transport and storage disposal," he said. "None of this occurs without social and community consent. And that takes sophisticated planning and time."The Australian Conservation Foundation described the proposal as "desperate, dangerous and in direct conflict with Australia's national interest".
Federal Minister for Resources and Energy Josh Frydenberg welcomed the constructive community participation the royal commission had enabled and said it was important to remember that Australia had been part of the nuclear fuel cycle for 60 years. He said the expansion of Australia's nuclear industry would "require significant legislative and regulatory change". The federal government will wait until the final report is handed down by the royal commissioner on May 6, examine it carefully and consult with the South Australian government before responding.