Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has recently shown a more open-minded approach to Australia’s nuclear future. In a radio interview in South Australia in late October he speculated on the possibility of a nuclear industry in Australia:
PRIME MINISTER: On nuclear power I commend Jay Weatherill for having the Royal Commission I think it’s good that he has done that.
QUESTION: I mean he’s probably going to say yes, go ahead and create some kind of nuclear industry. What would you say?
PRIME MINISTER: I was just talking about this with the cook in the café downstairs when I was having some coffee and breakfast with Steve Marshall. As Brett the chef was saying, his view, and I think a lot of South Australians feel like this, and it is a perfectly reasonable view, is we have got the uranium. We mine it. Why don’t we process it, turn it into the fuel rods, lease it to people overseas? When they are done we bring them back and we have got stable, very stable geology in remote locations and a stable political environment. That is a business that you could well imagine here. Would we ever have a nuclear power station in Australia or like the French do, dozens of nuclear power stations? I would be a bit sceptical about that ….But playing that part in the nuclear fuel cycle I think is something that is worth looking at closely.
This looks like a cautious testing of the waters by the prime minister. Brett the chef’s left carrying the weight of the proposal, with the prime minister saying only that it’s worth looking at closely. But if Australia’s going to be working across the full nuclear fuel cycle, from the mining and milling of uranium ore—which is what we do now—to nuclear fuel fabrication, fuel leasing and the storage of spent nuclear-fuel waste, the country’s going to have a nuclear industry and not just a mining operation. Such a capability would be both a commercial and a strategic asset. And it would mark a deep-level policy shift in Australia’s nuclear identity, which since the days of Bob Hawke has consciously shunned the possibility that we might possess sensitive nuclear technologies such as uranium enrichment.
It was the Hawke government, in the balmy anti-nuclear days of the early 1980s, which shut down Australia’s research and development program into centrifuge-based uranium enrichment. That program had begun in 1965, so by the mid-1980s we were throwing away twenty years’ worth of effort. (A small R and D program in laser enrichment was subsequently closed down in the early 1990s.) The program was a casualty of Labor’s interest in a stronger position on non-proliferation and disarmament, not a victim of underperformance. Indeed, the publicly-available information suggests Australian nuclear engineers had been successful in building an experimental cascade that delivered enrichment results comparable to those being achieved at the time by Urenco.
But enrichment, of course, doesn’t merely provide fuel for nuclear reactors; it’s a critical pathway to fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Enriching the percentage of the U235 isotope in a given quantity of uranium—it’s only 0.7% in natural uranium—is one means of building a nuclear bomb. That’s why it’s typically described as a ‘sensitive’ technology. Still, Australia has a strong case for an interest in uranium enrichment. We’re not Iran—we have the world’s largest uranium reserves, and a program to provide low-enriched nuclear fuel to others and to manage the resulting wastes would be a positive one for the international community.
If the new prime minister is serious about the possibility of building a cradle-to-grave nuclear industry in Australia (though without nuclear power stations), he should be interested in an early resuscitation of the enrichment research and development program at ANSTO. An enrichment R and D program doesn’t mean Australia intends to build nuclear weapons. In our case, even an industrial enrichment capability wouldn’t suggest that. A sound understanding of the enrichment process is important in its own right, not just for our own prospects but for understanding what other countries are doing in their nuclear programs.
True, an Australian enrichment capability would also be a strategic signal. It would constitute a hedge against any sharp deterioration in the regional security environment—a hedge similar to that enjoyed by a range of other countries around the world and in all likelihood one we’ll never need, because we’re already protected by US nuclear weapons under the ANZUS alliance. Still, the 21st century strategic order hasn’t yet unfolded in Asia. Keeping options open is no bad thing.
There have been other proposals over the years for Australia to think about the enrichment option (see here for example). Time to put the topic back on the agenda. As for Brett the chef, perhaps he should be applying for a job at Prime Minister and Cabinet under the new open admission rules.