Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission of South Australia

In March 2015, the Government of South Australia established a formal inquiry into the nuclear fuel cycle. The inquiry was set up as a Royal Commission, which functions independently of government. Its purpose was to investigate and report on the potential for the state to participate in four aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. These were: uranium mining; front-end processing and manufacturing; electricity generation; and waste management. Following its investigations, the Commission handed its final report to the South Australian Government on 6 May 2016.

Cover of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report.

Cover of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report.

ASNO provided independent advice to the Commission during its inquiry. On 12 August 2015, the Australian Government submitted their consolidated response to the Commission's issues papers. For the response, ASNO contributed expertise on domestic regulation and international security and safeguards oversight. ASNO also responded to various requests from the Commission for information regarding nuclear security and safeguards.

ASNO's largest contribution of expert advice was during the public sessions program. On 25 November 2015, DG ASNO, was called as a witness to the Commission. Dr Floyd was asked about the security and safeguards implications for further participation in the nuclear fuel cycle. His response covered the role of ASNO and broad policy considerations down to specific risks at each stage of the fuel cycle.

The overarching theme of Dr Floyd's message was that international confidence in Australia's non-proliferation standing and credentials is built on a mindset of cooperation and transparency. Dr Floyd noted that there was a high-level of confidence in Australia's non-proliferation credentials, but this should not be taken for granted. He explained that further participation in the nuclear fuel cycle will be accompanied by a greater level of scrutiny and oversight and that Australia may need to go beyond minimum requirements to maintain international confidence. Such additional confidence-building measures could include multilateral approaches for proliferation-sensitive stages of the fuel cycle, further use of safeguards-by-design principles and increased international oversight of facilities.

Many of the findings in the Commission's final report related to waste management. In essence, the Commission found that South Australia could safely manage used fuel from other countries. Further, it found that it would be highly profitable if the fuel was held in an above-ground store before being consigned to a geological disposal facility.

Used fuel disposal facility planned for Finland, courtesy of Posiva Oy.

Used fuel disposal facility planned for Finland, courtesy of Posiva Oy.

At present, there are no operating used fuel disposal facilities anywhere in the world. Finland and Sweden are the most advanced countries in this respect. Both have chosen sites and expect to receive waste in next decade. The projects in Finland and Sweden are intended to only receive used fuel and waste arising from nuclear power use in their respective countries, not used fuel and waste from other countries. In the case of Finland, disposal galleries will be constructed from the existing rock characterisation facility, 'Onkalo'. The main IAEA safeguards measures that will be undertaken at the Finnish and Swedish facilities are likely to comprise: container tracking systems for nuclear material accountancy; surface monitoring techniques such as ground-penetrating radar to confirm the facility design; and satellite imagery to confirm the absence of undeclared exit routes. Any facility for the disposal of international used fuel would require similar safeguards-verification measures.

It is important to remain vigilant against the proliferation and security risks of nuclear fuel cycle programs, but these risks can be readily managed with the application of best practice regulatory standards. The highest standards of safeguards and security would be important for maintaining Australia's strong non-proliferation reputation and a social license for the activities undertaken.