The storage and disposal of the world’s used nuclear fuel in South Australia has been supported in “tentative findings” released by the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission was established by the South Australian government close to a year ago to undertake an independent investigation into the state’s participation in four areas of activity that form part of the nuclear fuel cycle: the expansion of exploration and extraction of minerals; further processing of minerals and manufacture of materials containing radioactive substances; use of nuclear fuels for electricity generation; and the storage and disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste.

In tentative findings released today (Monday), the Commission said the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel in South Australia was “likely to deliver substantial economic benefits to the South Australian community” – with an integrated storage and disposal facility generating $257 billion dollars in total revenue, with costs of $145 billion over a 120-year lifespan.

Regarding international used fuel, or high level waste, the Commission found that South Australia had “a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel”.

“Given the quantities held by countries that are yet to find a solution for the disposal of used fuel, it is reasonable to conclude that there would be an accessible market of sufficient size to make it viable to establish and operate a South Australian repository,” the tentative findings say.

On electricity generation, the report found that nuclear power would not be commercially viable into the foreseeable future, but said the government should not preclude its consideration as part of a future energy generation portfolio.

It also noted there was “considerable optimism about the potential of renewable technologies to meet South Australia’s electricity needs”.

On exploration, extraction and million, the Commission found an expansion of uranium mining had the potential to be economically beneficial, but was not as lucrative as storage and disposal. Regarding further processing and manufacture, it found no opportunity for commercial development in South Australia.

Mixed reactions

Reactions to the news have been mixed, with some commentators calling the findings “stunningly good advice”, while others have suggested any government that acted upon the findings would be “politically foolish”.

Griffith University’s Professor Ian Lowe, who was former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the crucial finding was that “community consent would be essential to the successful development of any nuclear fuel cycle activities”, and that bipartisan support at the state and federal level was necessary.

“It is difficult to see how bipartisan support at both levels would be achieved for South Australia being more deeply involved in the nuclear industry,” he said.

He said the belief that a nuclear waste dump would be profitable was based on “generous assumptions” about the willingness of countries to pay for the removal of waste.

UNSW’s Professor Mark Diesendorf said while the findings noted there was little chance nuclear would be commercially viable, it expressed “great enthusiasm” for storage, which he called an “economically risky scheme”.

“The report is not troubled by the fact that no country, not even the USA, has so far succeeded in building and operating an underground waste dump,” he said.

Curtin University Department of Physics and Astronomy associate professor Nigel Marks, however, called the commission findings on nuclear waste “stunningly good advice”.

“Australia offers a technically literate workforce familiar with the demands of the task, tremendous experience in mining and some of the most suitable geological conditions in the world. Together, they make a powerful combination which offers rich rewards to the first state or territory willing to pick up the challenge,” he said.

“Kudos to the Weatherill government for facing down the fear-mongers and looking to the future for South Australia.”

The Greens said the report was, as they predicted, about “softening South Australians up to be the world’s nuclear waste dump”.

Greens SA parliamentary leader Mark Parnell said the findings on waste disposal and storage were based on “dubious economics, heroic assumptions and a big dose of guess work”.

“The Commission has identified a problem that lasts hundreds of thousands of years and proposed a solution with income that lasts just a few decades, but with costs lasting virtually forever,” he said. “If anything goes wrong in the future – we’re on our own.”

He called on the Weatherill Government to protect the state’s reputation, and not leave “a toxic future” for the next generation.

“Previous state Labor premier Mike Rann fought off a Liberal plan for a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia last decade,” Mr Parnell said. “The current proposals are far more sinister and dangerous because they involve South Australia taking the most dangerous radioactive waste on the planet.

“South Australians will now need to ask themselves and their politicians: ‘Is this the best future that we can aspire to?’

The Commission will now undertake a week-long public information program, visiting regional South Australian cities and towns including Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Whyalla, Port Lincoln, Mt Gambier, Coober Pedy, Ceduna, Renmark and Aboriginal communities in the Far North and West Coast.

Commissioner Kevin Scarce said the tentative findings would provide an opportunity to update progress and engage communities in how they might comment on the report during a five-week feedback period.

“The public meetings are a forum for the Commission to explain its processes and detail how we have reached the tentative findings, including the drawing together of the information we have received from more than 250 submissions, the evidence from the public sessions, our international visits and the detailed financial analyses recently undertaken,” he said.

A final report will be handed down on 6 May, and the state government will formally respond before the end of the year.

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