The French system of approving and monitoring nuclear
plants and managing waste is a valuable model for Australia
to consider if it adopts nuclear energy.
As a result of increasing energy demands, rising energy
prices and the fact that nuclear energy delivers lower
greenhouse gas emission energy than fossil fuels, there is a
renewed interest in this resource. Governments in countries
such as the UK, France, Japan, USA, Canada, China and India
have all committed to expanding their domestic nuclear power
industries in the medium to long term, as part of a global
response to climate change in an energy hungry world.
With 40 percent of the world's low cost reserves of
uranium, the Australian mining industry will be affected by
these global decisions, even though the Australia's
Federal and State governments do not currently support the
development of a domestic nuclear power industry.
Australia has a history of resistance to the use of nuclear
power and also uranium mining. Although the "three mines
policy" of 1984-1996 no longer stands, uranium mining is
still prohibited in all jurisdictions except South Australia
the Northern Territory and Tasmania (however, has no proven
reserves of uranium). Further, all uranium mined in Australia
is exported for overseas use, with no domestic use.
As however our current reliance on fossil fuels is not
sustainable in terms of both supply and greenhouse gas
emissions, Australia may soon have to face the unavoidable
prospect of nuclear power. As we possess 40 percent of the
world's uranium reserves, it is not surprising that the
Switkowski report recommended the construction of
Australia's first nuclear reactor by 2020, and a total
of 25 nuclear reactors by 2050.
This prospect may be alarming to some, particularly
considering Australia's inexperience with nuclear power
and the current absence of a regulatory regime for nuclear
power. An examination of the approach taken by one of
Europe's leading nuclear power users, France, may
however provide some insights into how nuclear power in
Australia might be regulated.
France gains 75 percent of its electricity needs from
nuclear power (430 billion kWH per year) and has approximately
60 nuclear reactors at approximately 20 sites. With a land area
of 432 000 km2, it fits more than 17 times into Australia.
Thus, if Australia operated nuclear facilities at an equal
density, it would amount to more than 340 sites containing
approximately 1020 reactors. Of course, it's unlikely
to ever be that extensive, given the different population
densities, but the French expertise in the approval process,
monitoring and waste management, is nevertheless valuable.
Creation of a nuclear plant
There is a rigorous system of approvals required for the
construction of a nuclear plant. Firstly, the project proposal
must be presented (including a nuclear safety report and an
environmental impact report). A variety of ministers (industry,
environment and health) provide their input. This is followed
by a public inquiry and sometimes by a public debate. Ultimate
approval is then given by the Prime Minister.
Monitoring is controlled by the independent Nuclear Safety
Authority which acts under nuclear transparency and security
laws. A Local Information Commission is formed for each plant,
consisting of local community representatives, plant managers,
residents and environmental protection groups.
The waste management legislation is based on respect for the
environment, respect for human health and a responsibility to
current and future generations. The legislation defines
"radioactive waste" as substances contaminated by
radio elements which are not reusable. Waste is then classified
based on its activity level (very weak, weak, medium or high)
and its life (short or long). These classifications dictate the
security and finality of its storage.
The French also have a national management policy for the
long-term management of and research into radioactive waste. In
this context, the nuclear waste administrator (ANDRA) is
responsible for maintaining inventory, enhancing storage
research and evaluating the costs of long-term management of
"high" and "medium" activity waste.
Use of nuclear power in Australia remains highly
controversial. Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is not,
however, a feasible long term solution. Nuclear power, as one
potential alternative, may therefore become an unavoidable
prospect in the future. While this may seem daunting, the
regulations employed to ensure the successful exploitation of
nuclear power in France will be a valuable tool when the time
The content of this article is intended to provide a
general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should
be sought about your specific circumstances.
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