- 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 comes.
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