From Windscale to Jervis Bay

Mention nuclear testing in Australia, and I would hope most people would immediately think “Maralinga” (otherwise they probably have not heard anything regarding it at all). Maralinga was, in fact, the site ultimately chosen for the bulk of the UK’s testing in the 50s and 60s, after various other devices were tested nearby at Emu Field, also in the arid outback of South Australia, and in the Montebello Islands, Western Australia.

I hadn’t thought to wonder at the story behind this testing, or the origin of the designs and materials – a persistence, despite my research and advocacy, of the deep, programmed rejection of nuclear shared by many Australians, perhaps? UK weapons testing, in hindsight, is like something that was forced on Australia, and we’ll understandably always be pretty sore about it. But I recently followed a link to the story of Windscale.

The reactor was one of those monstrous first generation piles, built for breeding plutonium so that the UK could essentially keep up with the US in terms of nuclear weapons. The details of the waste, cooling design and disregard for safety margins is spine-chilling. It seems amazing that no one died during normal operation, let alone in the ultimate fire which released substantial contamination. But no one died, just like at Fukushima (despite the Youtube channel’s loaded sub-title).

In any case, give me Gen-III+ or IV passive safety any day. The rushed, flawed designs of the past are absolutely no excuse for dismissing the promise of modern approaches.

jervisbay

The clearing for the Jervis Bay reactor

For a few years back in the 60s, Australia could have had one of those old reactors, and like Windscale, it would have been for the wrong reasons.* It is doubtful that the 500 MWe plant would have been connected for power transmission at all. Maybe, in time, it would have led to further civilian capacity, first hand experience of the relative safety of nuclear, avoidance of the proud but lazy anti-nuclear mental rut… but nuclear weapons are terrible (hindsight or no hindsight). One more country, our country, armed with these things, getting all the wrong kind of attention, possibly normalising it for our region, and for rather weak reasons in the first place.

Still no reason to dismiss modern reactors. The concluding remark of that Catalyst segment linked above is baffling. Our future is behind us? How does that make sense? Efficient gas generation is impressive, sure, but if that ends up being good enough then all that happens is the fossil fuel is burned more efficiently over a longer timescale, and is eventually released as GHG anyway. It has to be part of the (briefly deployed) transition technologies which help us meet the future’s energy needs without appreciable GHG release, not to mention the capability to recycle and mostly eliminate the radioactive legacy of yesterday – something that only advanced nuclear technology can do.

That could be our future. South Australia is part of nuclear history, arguably unwillingly, but it’s also a state of firsts, a state that has historically and progressively lead by example. It would be a shame if we left that behind too.

 

*UPDATE: There may have been more chance of the reactor being connected for electricity generation than some outlets would like to admit, according to this and this.

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