Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Is Nuclear Waste More Valuable than Scientific Research?

By Ian Lowe

The federal Budget treated science as an expense while the Royal Commission identified nuclear waste as a potential money-spinner.

It’s a telling comment on the recent political climate that a Budget that does virtually nothing for science and technology is welcomed. As Dr Alan Duffy of Swinburne University of Technology wrote: “Scientists around Australia breathed a sigh of relief” that there was “at least funding for the coming year”. Senior science journalist Leigh Dayton noted in Science that there is “little to suggest any recovery from the $2.2 billion decline in support for science, innovation and research since 2014”.

There was some good news in a small number of specific areas that probably indicate overall government priorities.

Geoscience Australia got about $100 million to fund exploration for minerals as part of the “Exploring for the Future” scheme. Given the declining importance of mining, that looks more like exploring for the past.

The $83 million “to support Australia’s presence in Antarctica” is driven by geopolitical considerations rather than the importance of polar science.

The next biggest new allocation of $37 million went to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to “ensure nuclear waste is disposed of more efficiently”. The whole area of nuclear waste management remains a serious political embarrassment, which this funding will do relatively little to defuse.

The $15 million for the National Carp Control Plan and the similar sum for cyber-security small business grants look more like industry assistance than science, while the $12.6 million for the Australian Astronomical Observatory seems to have been found from savings in the Cooperative Research Centres scheme.

Dayton noted that “the government appears to support CSIRO head Larry Marshall’s drive to refocus on industry-oriented research”.

The fundamental problem is that governments see research funding as an expense rather than recognising it as an investment in our future. Duffy noted that discoveries and innovation from the past 20 years in the physical and mathematical sciences “directly contribute $145 billion to the economy” while advances in the biological sciences over the past 30 years add a further $46 billion.

The South Australian government’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has submitted its final report. As anticipated, it is optimistic that South Australia could make money by taking radioactive waste from other countries.

The report sees no prospect of nuclear power being economic in the state, and also discourages consideration of processing uranium before export. It supports expanding the uranium industry, even though approved mines have been mothballed in response to the reduced use of nuclear power since the Fukushima accident, saying there is now relatively little opposition locally to mining and exporting uranium.

The industry still has the problems identified 40 years ago by the Fox report: management of radioactive waste and the risk of fissile material being used to produce nuclear weapons.

The report sees the first of those problems as an economic opportunity. It argues that some countries have accumulated used fuel from nuclear reactors without having developed agreed schemes for long-term management of this radioactive material.

Sweden and Finland have advanced projects for burying their radioactive waste. Finland estimates the cost of disposal at $0.65 million per tonne, Sweden at $1.13 million/tonne. Estimates of disposal costs in Taiwan and Japan are even higher.

As the inventory of used fuel in countries with no disposal schemes is about 90,000 tonnes, the Commission argues that there is a multi-billion dollar opportunity if South Australia built a waste repository and offered to take in the used nuclear fuel of other countries.

Apart from the obvious question of whether there would be support in the local community for such a scheme, there is an obvious chicken-and-egg problem. No country is going to contract to send their used fuel to South Australia unless there is evidence of a secure facility with solid political and social support. But without hard evidence of other countries being willing to pay the billions of dollars that would be needed to recover the costs of building a waste repository, it would be a huge gamble with public money for the South Australian government to go ahead.

The discussion in South Australia will be very interesting. It’s hard to see the proposal getting the broad community support and bipartisan political backing that would be needed for it to go ahead.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.