In 2009 an episode of Spooks (at around the 51 minute mark) provided what possibly sounded like a science fiction version of a nuclear reactor, the Integral Fast Reactor, as a solution for the Iranian nuclear issue. It was indeed real, but apart from a small community of serious, environmentally-conscious campaigners, the last time Australians would have heard of anything like it was in the early nineties, when paranoia was running high regarding breeder reactors. I know I distinctly remember hearing about them, but always in the context of weapons plutonium production, and therefore nuclear proliferation. That misunderstanding led not only to sloppy journalism, but to termination of funding in the US.
Last month, Russia celebrated the start up of it’s latest BN-800 sodium-cooled fast reactor. This technology can consume weapons material and used fuel from any conventional reactor, and will allow Russia to close its nuclear fuel cycle. Given the staggering density of energy available via fast spectrum fission, what will it mean for the far future, where fossil fuels are either constrained or depleted, if no other nation competes?
Australia could step up. We have vast uranium resources, more than we could use domestically. With the current depressed global price and demand, immediate utilisation is difficult for both national wealth and global clean energy goals. But embracing modern nuclear energy with our clean slate means our informed, freshly-minted operating framework can be geared towards providing a destination for foreign used nuclear fuel to be used as an energy resource, without the over-burdened inertia so obvious in the regulations of other countries. Seizing this market niche could provide the confidence these other nations need to enhance their nuclear energy sectors as clean replacement for coal or gas, thus generating the market for our uranium. If this idea sounds familiar, it’s because Ben Heard already had it.
We need not miss another opportunity to think big and bold, while tackling air pollution, emissions and fossil-fuel dependence in a historically-proven manner.
And yes, that’s 300 years, not tens or hundreds of thousands. Solid waste storage, irrelevant to the potential dangers of climate disruption, need not be on science fiction timescales.