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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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World’s Nuclear Waste Could Be Headed Down Under

For a long time one of the primary criticisms of nuclear power has revolved around the issue of what to do with nuclear waste. Effectively disposing of nuclear waste literally requires a plan that spans centuries, making it the world’s most deadly and expensive garbage to deal with. Yet with that cost comes opportunity. And now Australia is stepping up to earn a major fortune dealing with this garbage, while the United States and many other industrialized nations are dithering over how to deal with their nuclear waste.

Senator Sean Edwards of the state of South Australia is advocating for his state to develop facilities to handle other nation’s nuclear waste… for a cost of course. South Australia makes up essentially the middle third of the southern half of that country, an area which is sparsely populated, but well-off. A good analogy in the US would be Arizona or the interior portion of California. Edward’s plan is generating interest from the Australia national government which has formed a Royal Commission to investigate how nuclear waste can generate substantial revenues for the country. It is ironic that a country which made a vast fortune digging up resources in the last two decades, now could make a second fortune filling in the holes where those resources were extracted. Related: Beyond Iran And Pakistan: 7 Nuclear Wannabes

One of the things that makes Sen. Edward’s proposal so intriguing is that nuclear plants do not produce a lot of waste relatively speaking. For example, after decades of nuclear power use around the world, all of the waste produced by all of mankind would not come close to even filling a football stadium according to the Nuclear Power Institute. A little under 15% of the world’s power is produced by nuclear power plants and US nuclear plants power roughly 1-in-5 US businesses and homes. Each year, all of this combined energy generation only produces about 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste – this might sound like a lot, but it is actually more than 50,000 times as efficient as coal power. If coal were used to produce the energy generated by nuclear power, the result would be 147 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

All told then, nuclear power is very efficient and Australia’s plan is certainly feasible given the size and stability of that country. This plan puts Australia at the forefront of the nuclear waste industry in terms of credible solutions. But taking on nuclear waste is also appealing for another reason. It is true that the half-life of nuclear waste, or the time it takes for half of the radioactivity of the material to decay, can span into centuries. But what most people do not realize is that radioactive material is either highly radioactive or has a long half-life. Never both. Related: Who Benefits Most From Cheap Oil?

Waste isotopes that are highly radioactive decay quickly; sometimes in a matter of days or weeks. Waste isotopes with half lives in the millennia or more only exhibit relatively low levels of radioactivity. Now of course one wouldn’t want even low level radioactive material sitting in a backyard, but the low levels of radioactivity make storing these materials much easier. Radioactive material is generally stored for the long term in steel cylinders after it has been sufficiently cooled and processed.

The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that costs for nuclear waste disposal run about $300-500M in a typical plant decommissioning and roughly $41B has been committed for nuclear waste disposal thus far. Assuming Australia can come up with a reasonable approach for spent fuel disposal, the plan could be worth tens of billions to the country. Related: Rare Earths Problem Could Have A Nuclear Solution

Overall it remains to be seen if Australia’s plan will get off the ground. A lot of other nations have proposed similar ideas that have ultimately come to nothing. But given the stability, size, and industrial base, Australia’s opportunities here are probably more credible than almost any other countries. In ten years then we may all be talking about the world’s most lucrative garbage site in the middle of the Australian outback.

By Michael McDonald for Oilprice.com

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  • G.R.L. Cowan on April 04 2015 said:
    Here -- https://fbcdn-sphotos-g-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xpa1/t31.0-8/10958030_896293597060158_7637476419324842487_o.jpg -- are some of us in Ontario using our nuclear waste as a photo background.

    Inside each of the casks in the photo are about 500 spent CANDU fuel bundles. Each bundle has cancelled tens of thousands of dollars in fossil fuel tax revenue and, perhaps, 0.0001 carbon monoxide poisonings, in exchange for 0.0000 nuclear waste poisonings.

    It is disturbing but true that it is a lot easier to replace 0.0001 people than tens of thousands in tax revenue. Allowing nuclear waste to be shipped to Australia could create a feeling, in Ontario, that the nuclear waste problem -- at this end -- was solved. And that would increase the likelihood that nuclear plant construction would resume here.

    Because of the government income involved, the public servants tasked to decide whether to allow the shipment are likely to see that likelihood as a risk. And the photo accurately summarizes all nuclear power waste experience everywhere: no trouble at all.

    So while Senator Sean Edwards' initiative is very commendable, it -- at least the nuclear waste part -- is likely to go nowhere. The stuff is doing no harm, and action that draws attention to this fact could be costly to people who can block it.

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