Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems, as extended by the Agreement Extending the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems (Washington, 28 February 2005)
The proposed Australian accession to the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems, as extended by the Agreement Extending the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems (the Framework Agreement) will allow Australia to join a number of other Parties engaged in the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors.
The other Parties to the Framework Agreement are: Canada; Euratom; France; Japan; China; Korea; South Africa; Russia; Switzerland; and the United States.
Collectively, the Parties to the Framework Agreement are known as the Generation IV International Forum (GIF).
Membership of the GIF requires cooperation with all other parties to develop the next generation of nuclear energy systems.
According to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO):
The function of the forum is predeployment. It is not, itself, to develop reactors that are going to be built but to develop the knowledge base that underpins the development of the reactors.
Generation IV nuclear energy systems
The National Interest Analysis (NIA) claims that generation IV nuclear reactors will use fuel more efficiently, reduce waste production, be economically competitive, and meet stringent standards of safety and proliferation resistance.
The Framework Agreement arose out of an international study published in 2002 called A Technology Roadmap for Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems.
Modern nuclear reactors are characterised as advanced Light Water Reactors. These reactors use water heated by nuclear fission to turn turbines that generate electricity.
Advanced Light Water Reactors contain the water that comes into contact with radioactive materials in a closed system. The closed system uses a heat transfer mechanism to heat another water system that turns the turbines. In other words, the radioactive components are contained to the reactor itself and are not part of the electricity generation process.
Water cooled reactors limit the temperature at which the reactor can operate. Limiting the temperature of the reactor limits the efficiency at which it can generate electricity and results in the production of the most undesirable forms of nuclear waste, such as plutonium.
The proposed generation IV reactors will use materials that are expected to permit the reactor to operate at higher temperatures, improving the efficiency of the reactors and allowing the consumption by the reactor of nuclear waste materials such as plutonium. As a group, these reactors are called ‘fast reactors’ on the basis that they allow a higher temperature at which a fission reaction can ‘speed up’.
The Roadmap identified a number of reactor systems on which further research might produce viable reactor systems:
The Gas-cooled Fast Reactor. This is a helium cooled reactor which will produce a temperature of 850°c, sufficient to consume materials like plutonium. The significant technological barriers that need to be overcome to make this system operational include the development of materials for the reactor that can withstand the high temperatures and the high levels of radiation in the reactor, and safety systems for removing residual heat from the reactor. In 2002, the Roadmap estimated that the cost of research before a test reactor could be built at $940m.
The Lead-cooled Fast Reactor. This reactor is intended to be a mass produced reactor with a long life that can be deployed as a ready built system, run for 20 years, and then be removed. The reactor will operate at a lower temperature of about 550°c. The technological barriers for this system include the development of a specialised nuclear fuel and concern about the environmental impact of lead in the event of an accident. The estimated cost of research is $990m.
The Molten Salt Reactor. The molten salt reactor uses molten salt with dissolved uranium and plutonium (in other words, a liquid fuel) and a separate molten salt coolant system. The reactor will operate at 700°c . The technological barriers to this system include a lack of knowledge concerning the long term chemical behaviour of molten salt fuels, the problem of corrosion of reactor components and the problems of the metals in the salt coming out of solution and plating onto reactor components. The estimated cost of research $1,000m.
The Supercritical Water-cooled Reactor. This reactor operates by placing cooling water under high pressure, which increases the boiling temperature of the water. Cooling water temperature in this type of reactor is expected to be 374°c. This is considered to be a relatively simple design that will not be as effective at managing plutonium as the other reactor systems. The technical barriers in this instance relate to the handling of high pressures, such as dealing with potential corrosion and cracking of reactor materials. The estimated cost of research is $870m.
The Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor. This reactor system uses liquid sodium to cool the reactor and has the advantage of using almost all of the fuel in a reactor. This makes the reactor very efficient and very effective at managing plutonium and other waste materials. The largest problem with this type of reactor is the fact that sodium reacts explosively with both air and water. The effective isolation of sodium from air and water is the biggest technological barrier to the development of this reactor system. The estimated cost of research for this system is $610m.
The Very High Temperature Reactor. This is a development of the Gas-cooled Fast Reactor which will produce a temperature of 1000°c. The reactor is expected to be very efficient. The high temperatures are expected to make this reactor useful in industrial settings where the heat can be used for purposes such as the hydrogen production in addition to electricity generation. The technical barriers to this system are the same as those for the Gas-cooled Fast Reactor system with additional research required to ensure the materials used can sustain the higher operating temperatures. The estimated cost of research for this system is $670m in addition to the research costs for the Gas-cooled Fast Reactor System.
According to ANSTO, the GIF research process, which concludes at the point at which generation IV reactors are ready to be constructed, can be expected to continue for between 10 and 40 years.
The development timeframe and costs associated with the development of generation IV reactors have been raised as a reason for Australia to not accede to the Framework Agreement by Mr Noel Wauchope. Mr Wauchope argues that the cost is not worth it as Australia is not currently considering the use of nuclear power.
This position is also advocated by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War.
Taking the opposite view, Mr Barry Murphy argues that accession to the Framework Agreement provides an opportunity for Australia to develop a nuclear energy program.
Further to Mr Murphy’s argument, Bright New World, which supports accession, argues that Australia’s current position on nuclear energy limits the sustainable energy pathways for the country.
The Framework Agreement
The Framework Agreement came into force in 2005 and had its time frame extended by 10 years in 2015.
The Framework Agreement establishes the basis for international cooperation that is necessary for the timely development of generation IV nuclear reactors.
Essentially, the Framework Agreement spreads the significant cost of developing new reactor designs, avoiding ‘any premature elimination of potential reactor designs due to the lack of adequate resources at the national level.’
The objectives of the Framework Agreement is to engender collaboration in:
joint research and technology development;
exchanging technical information and data and the results of research and development;
supporting the organisation of technological demonstrations;
conducting joint trials and experiments;
allowing staff to participate in development activities;
exchanging and loan samples, materials and equipment for experiments, testing and evaluation;
organising and participating in seminars and scientific conferences;
contributing monies for the development of experimental facilities; and
training and enhancing the skills of scientists and technical experts.
The Framework Agreement will also ensure that the scientific and technological information obtained from GIF research will be made available to the world scientific community unless that information is subject to national security, commercial or industrial concerns.
Benefits for Australia
The Australian Government initially canvassed the possibility of joining GIF in 2006, in the 2006 Uranium Mining Processing and Nuclear Energy Review report of the then Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In order for Australia to participate in the GIF, Australia followed a lengthy nomination process in which Australia was required to demonstrate that it could contribute to the research and development goals of the GIF.
Australia will initially participate in two of the GIF research projects:
the Very High Temperature Reactor System, particularly in the area of the behaviour of structural materials at high temperatures and levels of irradiation; and
the Molten Salt Reactor System, focussing on materials corrosion and radiation damage assessment.
Participation in the GIF is expected to help Australia maintain its national capacity as a leading edge nuclear technology developer in material sciences and fuel technologies. In particular:
…Australian industry membership will provide participation for Australian scientists and engineers, with avenues for collaboration in the world-leading teams developing our next generation of nuclear and related technologies and with access to the technologies themselves.
According to ANSTO, Australia possesses a technological lead in the development of materials that are expected to be used in generation IV reactors. ANSTO identified Australia’s lead in the development of additive parts manufacture, a process that involves the manufacture of parts for industrial use using 3D printing technology, as potentially significant in the development of generation IV reactors.
Mr Martin Thomas argues that accession to the Framework Agreement will also enable Australia to capitalise on ANSTO’s research and development on high level waste storage through encapsulation (essentially, capturing dangerous nuclear waste in ceramic for safe long term storage) and the analysis of materials that are expected to be used in generation IV reactors.
The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering at the University Of Sydney emphasised the opportunities for international cooperation in high technology development that would available to Australian researchers and industries should Australia accede to the Framework Agreement.
According to the NIA:
Accession to the Agreement will …improve the Australian Government’s awareness and understanding of nuclear energy developments throughout the region and around the world, and contribute to the ability of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to continue to provide timely and comprehensive advice on nuclear issues.
The NIA states that participation in the GIF will also enable Australia to retain its permanent position on the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This position is held because Australia is the most advanced in nuclear technology of the South East Asia and Pacific regional group of IAEA members.
No other member of this group is currently part of the GIF, so Australia’s membership is likely to strengthen Australia’s claim to the permanent position on the IAEA Board of Governors. Participation in GIF is also likely to secure Australia’s leadership in nuclear technology in the region.
According to the NIA, failure to accede to the Framework Agreement would impede Australia’s ability to remain constructively engaged in international nuclear activities into the future.
The NIA further argues that failure to join the GIF may also diminish Australia’s standing in international nuclear non-proliferation fora and Australia’s ability to influence international nuclear policy developments in accordance with Australia’s national interest.
The cost of participation in GIF, which will initially be a $100,000 membership fee, will be borne by ANSTO out of existing funds.
Mr Oscar Archer summarises the general view of Australians involved in nuclear energy as follows:
The nation’s accession to the Framework Agreement will compliment this effort and can be viewed as a confident first step. Among the many positive objectives of the Framework Agreement, an engagement of Australia’s regulatory resources with those of Canada, China and other appropriate nations will serve to build expertise that should be vital when the time comes for Australia to take its next big step with regard to nuclear technology.
Accession is also supported by the peak body for nuclear research in Australia, the Australian Nuclear Association.
Conversely, Friends of the Earth argues in opposing the Framework Agreement that:
It is generally understood ‒ even by most Generation IV advocates ‒ that the development and in particular the commercialisation of Generation IV technology is decades away. Such statements miss the point that the development and commercialisation of Generation IV technology has always been decades away.
Questions of the future of nuclear energy in Australia aside, the Framework Agreement appears to offer significant opportunities for Australian research and technology for many years into the future. On that basis, the Committee supports Australia’s accession to the Framework Agreement.
The Committee supports the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems, as extended by the Agreement Extending the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems and recommends that binding treaty action be taken.
The Hon Stuart Robert MP