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A Milestones Approach to introduction of small nuclear reactors in Australia

Navy veteran and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner examines whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Milestones Approach should be adopted in Australia in light of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine program.

Navy veteran and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner examines whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Milestones Approach should be adopted in Australia in light of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine program.

Last Friday the Australian Nuclear Association (ANA) ran a very successful conference in the Aerial Centre of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) which brought together members and interested people face-to-face for the first time in more than two years.

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Significant information and viewpoints emerged, and among these, perhaps the most positive was the clear message from international expert on nuclear legal and regulatory matters Helen Cook that the International Atomic Energy Agency Milestones Approach for introduction of nuclear power, as proven in international use by many countries, is able to be progressed even within all the legislative constraints at federal and state level within Australia.

Passage through the full three phases takes 10 to 15 years which sounds realistic for Australia.

The IAEA Milestone Approach is very well explained in webpages, documents and videos all readily available from IAEA in several languages. This approach has three phases and the first of these, called the pre-project activities phase covers all 19 of listed nuclear infrastructure issues that Australia will face both for the AUKUS submarine acquisition program and any future consideration of small modular (nuclear) reactors (SMR) which unsurprisingly are remarkedly similar to nuclear attack submarine (SSN) reactors except for some additional criteria for military use, such as shock proofing and platform motion in six dimensions.

Applying the Pareto Principle, 80 per cent of the criteria for SSNs also apply to SMRs so why not progress those 80 per cent to save time later.

The suggestion was made that the IAEA Milestones Approach should be adopted right now for the AUKUS program with the expectation that most of the work could be applied to a future SMR program if and when that is approved as an optional carbon-free energy source to be included in Australia’s energy roadmap.

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Presentations at the ANA conference included an overview of large and small nuclear reactor programs worldwide, with focus on the secondary benefits of SMRs including factory manufacture of modules, road transportation for assembly on site, greatly reduced emergency planning zones which typically are no larger than the current fossil-fueled power station sites, and enhanced inherent safety due to convection cooling and extended design margins.

The conference also heard from retired Royal Navy Commander Peter Bullard, a nuclear submarine marine engineer department head and leader of the concept design studies for the ASTUTE class SSN that is entering RN service now. He emphasised the same message from the nuclear power plant presentation that a long lead-time item is the education, training, qualification and licensing of the operational and maintenance staff for nuclear reactors.

It is encouraging that Defence has announced 300 scholarships for graduate and technical education in nuclear science, technology and engineering, and some of the recipients were attending the conference.

The AUKUS SSN program will be the largest technically complex program ever undertaken in Australia and it behoves all scientific, technical and engineering institutions to contribute to its success. Similarly for the workforce development institutions to create the courses and contribute to the more general knowledge of nuclear science, technology and engineering.

However there is still a level of fear and apprehension in the community about anything nuclear as was shown in the recent University of Queensland study report What would be required for nuclear energy plants to be operating in Australia from the 2030’s?, a timeframe not dissimilar to the AUKUS submarine program. At the end of the study, the team concluded there were only two main issues to be addressed to build public trust through:

  • more detailed explanations of the processes involved over the entire nuclear fuel cycle to ensure safety, and long-term sustainability of radioactive waste; and
  • greater assurance of the risks involved and especially the measures to be taken to minimise the risk of accidents and to mitigate the effects of such accidents when they did occur.

As the ANA conference clearly showed, there are parallel development paths being considered for SMRs and nuclear submarines for Australia, and there are many points of common interest that will benefit from a complementary approach.

The encouraging news from the conference was that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) is working closely with Defence’s Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force in several working groups that were recently announced in the AUKUS progress report.

Christopher Skinner served 30 years in the Australian Navy as a weapons and electrical engineer officer in six surface warships. His interest in nuclear power for submarines is more recent and is reflected in his membership of the Engineers Australia, Sydney Division Nuclear Engineering Panel, the Australian Nuclear Association and the American Nuclear Society. He is also associated with several other organisations and institutes engaged in geopolitics, technology and submarine matters. The views expressed above are entirely those of the author and are not endorsed by any of the organisations of which he is a member.

A Milestones Approach to introduction of small nuclear reactors in Australia
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