ELEANOR HALL: The nuclear debate so far has focused on uranium. But there is another mineral that could drive an Australian nuclear industry.
A Sydney nuclear physicist has been working on an experimental accelerator driven reactor that uses thorium as a fuel.
Dr Reza Hashemi-Nezhad from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney says thorium would be safer, its waste would be easier to dispose of and it would be a cheaper energy source than uranium.
He’s been telling David Mark that Australia should embrace it.
REZA HASHEMI-NEZHAD: In commercial nuclear reactors we have four problems.
Number one is that the fuel is not abundant. Uranium that you mine is only less than one per cent of that useful in a nuclear reactor. That’s the reason you need to enrich.
And the second thing is nuclear waste. Nuclear waste produced in these nuclear reactors must be stored for hundreds of thousands of years sometimes. Today’s technology cannot answer to that.
And the third one is cost. It is a slightly expensive way of producing energy.
And another, number four, is the possibility of these accidents.
Any new development in the nuclear for future reactors must answer to all these four problems.
To solve the problem of the shortage of the fuel, well, use in these new type of reactors thorium, which is four times more abundant than uranium and fortunately Australia is number one in the world on that one as well.
And the second point is the nuclear waste. The reactor that I’m suggesting will not produce that much nuclear waste. We will not produce plutonium. So once we do not produce plutonium, it is not”¦ nobody will have a military concern – that you divert it to military use or something like that.
The waste that’s produced with these new types of reactors, you need to store them only for 500 years, not 100,000 years. And today’s technology has answered to that. It’s quite easy. And after 500 years, its radioactivity will be the same as the coal ash.
Another advantage of these reactors is that you can burn the nuclear waste of the conventional nuclear reactors in these”¦ within these reactors. We can get rid of the existing nuclear waste and produce energy as well.
And the third problem was the accidents. If for any reason this reactor went out of control, you can shut it down immediately because this reactor runs by an accelerator. And then once you shut down this accelerator, which is an electrical instrument, everything will finish, stop.
Even the first reactor built on this will be safer than any other reactor that exists on the earth at the moment.
DAVID MARK: You’re putting a lot of faith in these new forms of reactors. Are they going to happen? Is it a technology that you believe will eventually be built?
REZA HASHEMI-NEZHAD: Definitely. Absolutely. That’s the future of nuclear reactors. Almost every developed country is working on it. The European Union, even they have established a Ministerial Committee which organises this research.
DAVID MARK: How soon could one of these accelerator driven reactors be built?
REZA HASHEMI-NEZHAD: A prototype nuclear reactor in Dubna, Russia will start in three years time, three or four years time.
DAVID MARK: Are these accelerator driven reactors the future of nuclear technology, do you believe? Will they be embraced?
REZA HASHEMI-NEZHAD: That is… everybody believes in that because these reactors have many, many advantages and we in Australia, we are not in a hurry yet.
We have”¦ we are not in shortage of fuel and so on, so we’d better invest in the most modern type of nuclear reactors, research and development and then we can start making and putting in nuclear reactors which are state of the art.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s Dr Reza Hashemi-Nezhad from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney speaking to David Mark.