Four Societies Meeting 2006

"A cradle-to-grave concept for Australia's uranium"

The February meeting of the Royal Society of NSW was the annual meeting of the four Societies: The Royal Society of New South Wales, The Australian Institute of Energy, Australian Nuclear Association and Engineers Australia (NUC Engineering Panel).

Speaker: Dr Clarence Hardy, Secretary ANA, Vice-President Pacific Nuclear Council

Wednesday 22 February 2006

BIOGRAPHY

Dr Clarence Hardy retired in 1991 after a 35-year career in nuclear science and technology in senior positions in the UK, USA and Australia. He worked for 20 years as a Division Chief and Chief Scientist at the Lucas Heights Research Laboratories in Sydney and his history of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission was published in 1999.

ABSTRACT

Dr Hardy discussed the advantages of an Australian [involving international partners] integrated nuclear fuel complex for the world's nuclear power programs, for Australia and international non-proliferation. It would take Australian uranium right through to the production of nuclear-reactor fuel elements which would be leased to nuclear power programs, with the spent fuel returned to Australia. After reprocessing, the unused uranium and plutonium would be reprocessed into MOX fuel for reuse. The high-level waste, in Synrock, would be stored in Australia. This international initiative would place Australia at the leading edge of the nuclear industry, earn enormous export revenue and be a major contribution to non-proliferation. The scale of the enterprise would make it the 21st-century equivalent of the Snowy Mountains scheme.

Report on the Four Societies Meeting by Jak Kelly

Dr Hardy's proposal is that, as we have 37% of the world's useful deposits and 22% of the world's uranium production, we should do more value-adding instead of just exporting the raw material as we have done and still do with many of our materials. The full project would cost some seventeen billion dollars but although this seems prohibitively expensive, recent mining projects have involved comparable expense. International involvement would be essential, not only financially, but to ensure continued viability for any project fraught with such emotional, political and military implications as the enrichment of uranium.

A large part of the world's enrichment capacity is still based on the original diffusion methods. These plants, half a century old, are reaching the end of their life in Russia, France and America, which, combined with the proposed building of many new power reactors, will lead to a serious shortage of processed fuel in the next few years. The project involves enriching the uranium, making it into fuel elements and leasing them to reactor operators. The depleted elements would then be returned to Australia for further processing, to extract remaining fissionable materials for reuse, and the residual radioactive waste, encased in Synrock, would be buried in a geologically stable site in Australia. The considerable heat generated by radioactive material could be used to power a desalination plant. Modern small-centrifuge separation technology is now mature and would be available for this project. The project could be developed in stages with the first stage, the enrichment of uranium hexafluoride, starting to pay for itself in three yeas.

Aside from the considerable problem of public resistance to importing radioactive waste, several state and federal laws against it would have to be repealed. The major political parties would have to agree, to avoid a change of government sinking the long-term project, as has happened in the past. The International Atomic Energy Authority would favour such an internationally run project in a politically and geologically stable country like Australia. The hazards of shipping uranium, fuel rods, and radioactive waste between many distant sites, which occurs at present, would be greatly reduced as would the opportunities for theft of fissile material. Such a high-tech industry would also provide employment and development for Australian science and engineering in a way that being an efficient quarry does not.

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