Nuke Kwinana

Despite the freshly branded name, Kwinana remains at heart, a town in Western Australia, still hosting some of its surviving heavy industries as well as still-verdant residential area, home to the employed, formerly employed and “aspirants”. Many of the employed however use the town mainly as a dormitory, many heavy industry jobs having fallen during various economic turmoils.

Kwinana is significant in being the heavy industry hub of the metropolitan area of the state capital, Perth. Amongst other industry, there are still an oil refinery and an alumina refinery and focus of this post; the Kwinana Power Station.

Powering Industry

Originally built to support the growing industry around 1970, That power station is the largest one in the Synergy/Verve fleet of power stations, producing up to 420MW of electrical power from gas, oil and coal. However, the Minister in 2006  decreed that Synergy/Verve must not have more than a total of 3000MW of non-renewable generating capacity, so Kwinana Stage C will turn off its lights in October 2015. (Verve Annual Report 2012/2013)

Limiting the Synergy/Verve QUANGO’s capacity was intended to leave a market open for competitive entrants, but they’ve come in at the premium end of the supply mainly with peaking plant. Synergy retains about 65% of the total market, with a monopoly on domestic consumers. A great deal of electrical power is supplied from inefficient sources such as sub-critical coal and open-cycle gas turbines (see Fig 4.2).

There is, on paper at least, a generating capacity glut in the South West Interconnected System (SWIS) covering the south-west of the State to around Albany and extending a tentacle to the Kalgoorlie region. Retail prices to domestic consumers are set by regulation. Such, along with the high consumption of fuel from low efficiency (Verve published a figure of 31.8% thermal efficiency) for the electrical power supplied, contributes somewhat to the very high costs of electrical power to consumers.

The supply grid, owned by Western Power (another QUANGO) is the major cost centre as far as getting electricity supply to the consumers. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. Geography and sparse population outside of the main cities make for long transmission lines and vulnerable distribution lines. The penchant for timber utility poles in urban areas is unabated, despite the shortage of suitable timbers and the need to import them from interstate and, according to some reports, from overseas. But that tangent is grist for another blog article.

Grist for a further tangent is the Renewable Energy Target (RET); requiring a percentage of all power supplied to be from renewable sources. Conventional generators meet mostly that requirement by purchasing certificates from “generators” who have installed “renewable capacity” earning certificates on a quasi-fictional projection of electricity to be generated. Conventional generators of course pass on the costs of purchasing monopoly money to their consumers.

The W.A. Department of Finance issued an Electricity Market Review Discussion Paper in July with submission invited but already closed in September. One notable submission was from the Kwinana Industries Council which pointed out the importance of a stable grid to industries in the area. The published submissions are otherwise unremarkable and conventional; even the fantasies presented by the Greens and the renewable energy lobby.

Subsequently, the Economic Regulation Authority issued a discussion paper of November, relating to the Wholesale Electricity Market, with public submissions closing in January, 2015.

The ostensible purpose of these market reviews is to reduce the price of electrical power to consumers; which for domestic consumers is amongst the highest in the nation.

Let’s Nuke Kwinana

Eh? What!?

By that, I’m suggesting the possibility of re-using the Kwinana Power station site to build Australia’s first commercial nuclear power plant (NPP).

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently called for open debate on nuclear power in Australia, before heading off to a bun-fight regarding Cnutian measures to stop the weather from changing. Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett previously stated that nuclear power was a “proven and safe source of energy“.

The decommissioning of Kwinana Power Station’s Stage C in about 10 months provides a convenient site for at nuclear power plant with at least one reactor. Nuclear power plants are available “off the rack” from e.g. South Korea’s KEPCO with AP1000-type light water reactors able to produce around 1.4GW electrical power. Proximity to other industries may provide a ready market for heat, increasing the revenue stream.

Right next to the old power station is new gas-turbine peaking plant as well as a desalination plant that has the potential to operate as a “small” shedable load, allowing the nuclear power plant to operate near peak efficiencies most of the time.

Adding Generating Capacity to a Glutted Market

It seems a bit silly at first glance. And it definitely won’t work in a tightly regulated market.

What is needed alongside the NPP is another player willing to take the risk to invest around $3,000 million and 5 years of wrestling with bureaucracies, to build a NPP to provide cheap electricity to wholesale and retail markets for all consumers.

How cheap? Well, when KEPCO won the contract to supply four NPP to the UAE on a turnkey, arms-length, full life cycle contract for 40 years, constructing, fuelling and operating the plant, the price of electrical power worked out as an average of around 5.5 cents (US) per kWh. Much of the operational cost is in the fuel and fuel’s reprocessing as well as operational staff.

… random points follow until I get to drive by again …

Governments to Entertain, Not Regulate

It’s essential for governments at Federal and State level to not only remove obstructive legislation, but to declare the market open with a guarantee for reasonable operation of NPP in Australia for at least 40 years.

An invitation must be given to generating companies with established NPP experience outlining these changes in policies; suggesting sites such as Kwinana which are prima facie acceptable locations for a NPP.

The substantial obstacle to building NPP in e.g. the USA is the regulatory burden which imposes not just enormous inspection fees, but also astronomical licence fees up front, for each reactor.

Education, Research & Development and Future Expansion

One of the side benefits of entertaining a nuclear industry is that local trades and professions can become intimately familiar with nuclear power plants; which share some similarities with other highly concentrated generation technologies.

The region already engages many specialist welding and similar metal trades; typically in shipbuilding but also in oil and gas.

The existing site of the old power station is large enough for at least 2 reactors. Acceptance of the first reactor will already be difficult with reactors of established technologies. Newer, safe and cheaper to run reactor technologies are under development; notably molten salt reactors (MSR).

A Czech-Australian project is exploring one type of MSR as a spent-fuel actinide burner; “burning up” the long-lived (1000+ year half-life) isotopes produced by conventional reactors while producing useful amounts of heat and therefore the possibility of generating electricity. A pilot, proof of concept reactor is scheduled to be operational in 2016 in the Czech Republic. Commercial reactors, if the pilot is successful, would be more than a decade later; after 2026.

Such a reactor would be a synergistic companion for a nuclear power plant with conventional reactors. It also offers a potential revenue stream for the operator to burn up actinide radioisotopes for other NPP operators. The operator could effectively be paid to take the fuel as trying to assure secure storage for tens of thousands of years if fraught with technical and social complications.

Regardless of the eventual viability of such an MSR, space at the plant should be reserved for expansion. While population may peak around the middle of the century, its energy needs are not expected to decline.

But We Have Plenty of Coal and Gas

Sure we do; enough to burn for a century of more to generate electrical power. But the supply channels are narrow and vulnerable as well as subject to rapid price fluctuations.

Stockpiling gas, oil or coal to operations over a long period is expensive and risky. A whole year’s worth of coal is unfeasible. On the other hand, it’s fairly straight-forward to store more than a year’s supply to nuclear fuels on-site at a NPP, hedging against price rises. The necessary amount of nuclear fuel fits on the back of one semi-trailer.

The Western Australian government had to legislate to guarantee a certain amount of the natural gas being extracted to be reserved for W.A. consumption; a regulation that distorts market prices and limits exports.

What Australia and Western Australia lack is liquid fuels for transport and other mobile uses. Both coal and gas can be converted to clean, liquid synthetic fuels to run everything from lawnmowers to jet airliners. An old rule of thumb for coal to gasolene conversion (via Fischer-Tropsch) was that the crude oil price remain stable above USD$80/barrel.

The Process

  • Declare the NPP market as “open” and make changes to legislation between now and late 2015.
  • Invite expressions of interest from international players and maintain a conversation. Modify legislation identified as unreasonably obstructive. 2015 to 2017.
  • Perform feasibility, etc. studies for all plausible sites. 2017 to 2019.
  • Allow for competitive candidates to make “best offers”. Negotiate a final connection date. 2020
  • Issue licences for construction and operation. 2021
  • Training and education of staff. 2021 to 2029
  • Construction. 2022 to 2028
  • Commissioning and connection. 2028-2029.

Leave the setting of wholesale price to the power generator, to negotiate with its customers.

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