6 July 2012 – One of Australia’s foremost nuclear energy proponents warned the uranium exploration and mining sector that advancements in technology are already focused on building nuclear reactors that will totally recycle uranium rather than the current convention of putting it through a single processing cycle that produces long-lived waste.
The future outcome will be far less demand for freshly mined uranium, and reactors that totally recycle their uranium to achieve 100% use, and therefore no long-lived waste – compared to the less than the 1% use of the uranium used in current reactor cycles.
The Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide, professor Barry Brook, said the market pressure is already being felt to bring forward the near term deployment of integral fast reactors (IFR).
“Typical expectations are that commercial IFRs will be available sometime between 2030 and 2050 to replace the current but new generations of reactor being built around the globe,” Professor Brook said.
“However, there is now pressure for a much earlier timeframe to deploy IFRs, to consume existing nuclear waste and plutonium, and provide extremely safe and closed power generation systems and recycle all of their future uranium intakes. The downside for uranium producers is that these IFR reactors may, in the longer term, make uranium miners almost redundant.
“However, while there is strong social imperative to recycle uranium and so demonstrate a credible solution to dealing with long-lived nuclear waste, from a resource point of view, there is no great urgency to do so.
“There are perceived barriers to overcome to large-scale nuclear energy supply which IFRs present, barriers which are more political than technical. These include waste disposal, proliferation, civic safety and plant economics perceptions.
“Economics and safety are issues that are now already being dealt with by developers of the current generation of reactors. The big additional advantages of IFRs are that they also process plutonium in a manner which makes it useless for military purposes, and can supply virtually inexhaustible amounts of energy for society for thousands of years.”
Brook said any social and political licence to build many future nuclear reactors would have to come from their proponents clearly demonstrating that nuclear waste is not an issue in their design and operation. “This is where the IFR technology is crucial. It shows the public that nuclear power offers a secure, sustainable source of low-carbon electricity, and that nuclear waste is a massive energy resource, not a burden, to future society.”