Engineering the Future of Nuclear

About the episode

The on-going debate on nuclear feels like a constant battle of weighing the benefits of low carbon electricity generation against the public perception of potential risks. As some countries power ahead to expand their nuclear reactors, others are closing theirs down. In Australia, the AUKUS agreement will force Australia to not only invest in a nuclear industry but might spark a new debate about its position on nuclear technologies.

Nuclear engineer and lead of UNSW’s Nuclear Engineering program, Dr Edward Obbard, and Lieutenant Colonel Jasmin Diab, join STEM journalist, Neil Martin, to discuss exciting developments in nuclear engineering and discuss what impacts we can expect on society as a whole over the next two decades.

UNSW Sydney
Lieutenant Colonel Jasmin Diab

Jasmin is a mum, leader, nerd and diversity advocate. Jasmin joined the Australian Army in 2001 and after graduating from the Australian Defence Force Academy and Royal Military College Duntroon, was allocated to the Royal Australian Engineers as a Combat Engineer.

With a background in explosive ordnance disposal, Jasmin has spent the majority of her career providing operational and training support in countering chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats and has seen operational service both domestically and overseas. She has just completed her tenure as a Commanding Officer of an Engineer Regiment. 

Jasmin is a big advocate for thinking differently and is a co-founder of the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum Australia (DEF Aus) which encourages bottom-up conceptual innovation. She is also the President of Women in Nuclear Australia, the Oceania representative on the Women in Nuclear Global executive, a member of the ARPANSA Nuclear Safety Committee and a Fellow with Engineers Australia. 

 

UNSW Sydney
Dr. Edward Obbard

Edward Obbard studied mechanical design and materials engineering at the University of Nottingham, UK, and later studied mandarin Chinese while working on his PhD research in biomedical alloys at the Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Metal Research, in Shenyang, China.

His experience of life in Shenyang, a developing industrial city of 8m people, about the same population as New South Wales, only with dark, -20C winters and powered almost entirely by coal, caused him to rethink the need for nuclear energy as an essential ingredient for development, environmental conservation and energy security for the 21st century. Thus redirecting his knowledge of materials science to focus on nuclear applications, he worked 2010-2015 at ANSTO designing and building new nuclear infrastructure for irradiated materials research; he now leads the growing and diverse nuclear engineering program at UNSW Sydney, which delivers education programs and research training in this critical sector for Australia, and the wider world.

 

  • Voiceover: 

    Welcome to UNSW is engineering the future podcast, a series where we'll speak to academics and industry leaders who are embracing cutting edge ideas, and pushing the boundaries of what is truly possible. In this episode, we'll take a deep dive into exciting developments in nuclear engineering, and discuss what impacts we can expect on society as a whole. Over the next two decades. We'll hear from leading experts in the field, Dr. Edward Obbard, and Lieutenant Colonel Jasmine DAPP, as they explain why Australia is likely to finally allow the production of nuclear energy within the next 20 years by relaxing federal legislation. They'll also reveal how the development of new nuclear technologies could help in the ambition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. So join us as we discover her world changing action starts with fearless thinking in engineering the future of nuclear.

    Neil Martin: 

    Hello and welcome to Engineering the Future of Nuclear. My name is Neil Martin and I'm a journalist and STEM communicator working in the Faculty of Engineering at UNSW. Joining me today to discuss the potential for advanced nuclear technologies to provide clean, safe, and reliable energy that contribute significantly to global decarbonization efforts is Dr. Edward Obbard. Ed is a nuclear materials engineer in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at UNSW Sydney, whose research involves new materials and technology that enhance the safe and sustainable deployment of nuclear energy. Welcome Ed.

    Ed Obbard:

    Hi Neil.

    Neil Martin: 

    Also with us is Lieutenant Colonel Jasmin Diab, a combat engineer officer in the Australian Army. Jasmin is also president of Women in Nuclear Australia and sits on the Nuclear Safety Committee of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. Hi Jasmin.

    Jasmin Diab: 

    Hi Neil.

    Neil Martin: 

    So it seems to me when we talk about nuclear that as soon as that word is mentioned, it's guaranteed to spark a debate and finding consensus seems to be very rare. I think just in this example, countries such as China, India, even Finland and Sweden are currently powering ahead with new or upgraded reactors while at the same time Germany is closing all of theirs down. Of course, here in Australia, nuclear power continues to be prohibited by federal legislation introduced in the late 1990s. Ed and Jasmin, it seems like there's a constant global debate around nuclear energy, which involves weighing the benefits of low carbon electricity generation against potential risks or even sometimes just the public perception of potential risks. Ed, I'm going to give you a tough question to start off with. In 20 years’ time, do you think nuclear energy will be allowed in Australia?

    Ed Obbard:

    Oh, well it's allowed now, isn't it? Because we're putting it in submarines, it's just that it's not for making electricity. Will we be using the civilian nuclear energy? I'm going to say yes. Go on. I got to come down on one side or the other.

    Neil Martin: 

    And why and why would you say that to back up your opinion?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Because we are going to have a nuclear workforce in 20 years. And when you have a nuclear workforce and when you have that level of heightened understanding and appreciation of the technology throughout government and throughout society, you then have the option to use nuclear technology for its civilian purposes. And if the global warming and the decarbonization, and if all of these things that we have to do turn out to be true and indeed as important as we think they are, why would we then not use that technology when we have all the pieces in place to do so. I have to add on that it's a big step, it's a decision to make. I'm not saying that we have to or that we must. But I guess my point is founded on my belief that in 20 years time it will be feasible and possible and probably still just as beneficial as it seems to me now. So yeah, why not.

    Neil Martin: 

    Jasmin, I see you nodding there, but do you think it's a political argument that needs to be made as much as a technical or social?

    Jasmin Diab: 

    Most definitely. The decision to have nuclear powered submarines will force Australia to invest in a nuclear industry. And I think that alone will allow the Australian public to have a better understanding of what nuclear technology means. At the moment, you have your two extreme camps, people that are very pro-nuclear because they're probably scientists and engineers or policy makers that are comfortable with the technology because they've either worked in it or studied in it or you've got the extreme anti-nuclear who really thrive off emotive debate, which we saw throughout the entirety of COVID. There's a big chunk of Australians that sit in the middle that just don't understand enough to make an informed decision. 

    The fact that we are going to have to invest in an industry means more Australians will be introduced to nuclear science. Hopefully a lot more school children will question what nuclear means, which allows the government then to look at their policies and legislations. And at the moment it's two legislations that really restrict nuclear power production in Australia. Both of those prohibit us to generate nuclear power and the reasons behind it, were political to begin with and I think it’ll be political to change it again, when Australians say, "Hey, we want clean, reliable power that's cheap." We can't just rely on what we currently rely on, which is a little bit of solar, a little bit of wind, and a whole heap of coal that's just not feasible in 20 years’ time. So I'm hopeful that the Australian public will be more informed, which means we'll force our politicians to make the right decision.

    Neil Martin: 

    Ed, do you think the politicians will be in a slightly odd situation whereby we have this AUKUS agreement with nuclear-powered submarines, but at the same time that federal legislation is still prohibiting nuclear energy. It seems to be a strange position that they would've got themselves into.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Oh yeah. Absolutely. It is strange to prohibit the civilian benefits of something yet to embrace the military on many sort of levels if you want to argue down that road.  So if you frame the nuclear question to people as a question of strength and security and resilience, the AUKUS question, nuclear technology makes perfect sense.

    Of course, I would drive my submarine around on nuclear energy because that’s the framing, right? I'm trying to be strong and resilient. But yet when I switch the framing to how we currently frame the energy debate, I'm looking to be ethical and virtuous and green and low impact. And within that framework, regardless of the facts, nuclear just doesn't really chime with our preconceived ideas. So although I started out by saying, "Yeah, sure, we might be using civilian nuclear energy in 20 years”, the two sort of frames that I've described are pretty stable. I think that that framing would have to change for us to be say using nuclear energy in 20 years’ time and they don't have to. 

    Jasmin Diab:

    I think historically the nuclear industry has been really bad at how we promote ourselves and what our technology is. And you could see the fallout from things like Chernobyl, Fukushima, even Three Mile Island. The messaging the nuclear community pushed out there was very technical and didn't allow for the good environmental impacts of nuclear energy to come through. So I think we find it really hard to say, "Hey, I agree. Solar and wind, great low carbon technologies.” However, when you look at the entirety of environmental impact and low carbon technologies, we need to talk about nuclear’s benefits as well. And Ed's right, we haven't framed it right to be able to look at nuclear as a green technology and I don't know, I don't know whether the way we look at it will change over time. I try to be really hopeful. I think you can become very pessimistic very easily in this space, but the climate change debate is something that gets people quite passionate and will force us to have to change the way we look at different technologies.

    Neil Martin: 

    It seems to me that that conversation is going on and continues how nuclear fits into that net-zero situation. But different countries seem to be going in all different directions. So what do you think needs to be done globally to fulfil that promise for nuclear to really work in tandem with renewables? 

    Ed Obbard: 

    I think that the energy transition needs nuclear, but not just on a technical level. I think on a political level, the energy transition needs nuclear because currently with a kind of centre-left energy transition, there's really no payoff and there's really nothing to buy into for people who may be more on the centre-right of politics. So now the energy transition is a sort of broken utopia for people who are not left-wing, whereas there should be something in it for everyone because the current energy transition is really wedded to a very particular kind of worldview that this future of being more connected somehow more limited by technology using basically renewables is going to sort of be everybody's utopia but it's plainly not.

    There's a lot of people who don't ascribe to that kind of worldview. And I think at the peril of the energy transition, we force people to choose one side or the other when really the energy transition should have proponents on both sides of politics, it should be bipartisan. And if you had both sides campaigning for what they believed in, of course the energy transition would be much less fragile and would have a higher chance of success. So yeah, I think nuclear is absolutely essential because it's the sort of missing link to make the energy transition truly bipartisan.

    Neil Martin: 

    Jasmin, do you think that disparity between what's going on in different countries around the world will still exist in 20 years’ time or will there be some kind of coming together and a bit more consensus?

    Jasmin Diab: 

    I think there will still be disparity amongst countries all because of how much they've either got the investment and the comfort in using nuclear technologies. Although there are a lot of emerging countries that are investigating in using nuclear into the future. So countries we never thought would consider nuclear out of Africa, like North Africa and Latin America, that are really investing heavily in that future because they understand that's a really important part of their energy mix. But when you look across Europe and see just how different reactions have been to nuclear power, I think you'll still see that disparity due to political will of the people.

    Neil Martin: 

    Ed, do you think it's a renaissance period for nuclear energy?

    Ed Obbard: 

    A patchy one, yeah. The situation in Europe rewrote everything with the Ukraine war and so on. Energy security is now top of everybody's concern and lots of countries are going reinvesting again heavily in nuclear technology like Romania, Poland, the UK, France, Sweden. We have research partners in Sweden building new reactor technology. 

    Neil Martin:

    And going back to the potential for Australia, and we mentioned the AUKUS agreement, my understanding is that that will necessitate the training of a lot more nuclear engineers, people with those skills. What impact do you think that will have with regards to driving things forward in Australia? There's going to be a lot of people with quite a lot of skills with maybe not the jobs to go into.

    Jasmin Diab:

    And I think that's my fear. So we will train a lot of people to have great careers as nuclear engineers and scientists and they will have a set period of time that they can work in defence or want to work in defence. Then the only appealing place to continue a career using those skills is elsewhere in the world. And so we're going to lose all this talent because we just don't have the career longevity domestically for them. So while I'm really excited that there'll be more people that will talk nuke, I feel that a lot of them are going to disappear and will lose them to other countries that are investing heavily. 

    Neil Martin: 

    Do you have the same fear for a so-called brain drain? I guess it would be, Edward.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Oh, definitely. I mean there is a huge global skill shortage in nuclear trained people. So young people who study nuclear engineering will find work for sure. But yeah, it may not be here.

    Neil Martin: 

    Are there any things that you can see that might change the landscape of nuclear energy? I've read about small modular reactors; I believe they're also microreactors. Can you explain what they are and why they might change things two decades from now?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Small modular reactors are mostly light water-cooled reactors. So actually, very similar to current pressurized water reactors, but using, I guess a new business model. What really sets small modular reactors apart is it's not necessarily completely new technology. I mean, one of its advantages is that it's fairly proven like water reactor technology. Certainly when you talk about something like the new scale, which is one of the more advanced small modular reactor technologies. It's a new way of deploying nuclear technology in hopefully a way that benefits from learning curves and benefits from factory fabrication and modular construction, modular deployment. I think there's really interesting ideas around deploying fleets of small modular reactors, perhaps at sea or under the water and things like that.

    Neil Martin:

    And for anyone who might not be aware, how small are we talking about when we talk about small modular reactors?

    Ed Obbard:

    200 megawatts down to 50 megawatts electrical is considered small.

    Neil Martin:

    Which would be enough to power like a town?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Yeah, yeah. Some people ask me what's the biggest drawback with a small modular reactor? The answer is they're small. The biggest problem. So yeah, if you ever built some small modular reactors, you may wish you'd built some big ones. But that's okay because the idea is you build more.

    Neil Martin:

    And Jasmin, what are your thoughts with regards to these new technologies? I guess microreactors are just even smaller than small modular reactors.

    Jasmin Diab:

    Yeah, so when you're talking about the 10 megawatts electrics, so very, very small. The ability to have something that's rapidly deployable, whether that's to respond to loss of power due to weather events or any kind of extreme activity that's cut a power system, the ability to move a microreactor in, generate enough power to allow emergency services and medical teams to do what they need to do in a low carbon way. So I think it’s pretty amazing, especially where we live where we have extreme events every year. Power is often a big thing that's interrupted due to those events and then you see that across our region. The ability to utilise a technology like microreactors I think is phenomenal. 

    Neil Martin:

    And what are the challenges that still need to be overcome for these to be widespread technologies?

    Jasmin Diab: 

    Well, at the moment there are about, I think 70 odd different designs for small modular actors across the world and each of them has nuanced differences. It's a lot of upfront cost to come up with the prototype design to then reap the benefits in the future when you can set up a big SMR factory that can just mass produce small modular reactors. I think that’s the challenge at the moment is figuring out what is the most cost-effective, efficient, great, small modular technology that can then be mass-produced that countries comfortable with using. 

    Neil Martin:

    And from doing some brief research Ed, my understanding is that these modular reactors are maybe a little bit safer. Would that be a correct assessment?

    Ed Obbard:

    Yeah, and anything smaller is safer from a loss of heat sink point of view because you have less decay heat to look after. Some of the microreactor technology like these really small ones, the kind of deployable microreactors are often based on TRISO fuel, which is uranium dioxide fuel kernels inside a graphite pebble. And this is in very, very stable fuel form, which is chemically very unreactive and especially if it's gas cooled, there's really nothing for it to react with inside the reactor. So yeah, they're incredibly resilient type of fuel technology.

    Neil Martin:

    Do you think safety is still maybe the number one barrier for implementation of nuclear technology? You've mentioned before the big accidents that have happened that have had a real impact on people's consciousness. Jasmin, I believe you visited Fukushima recently and you've seen the impact there. How important do you think it is to educate people some more and kind of address those fears and concerns that they have?

    Jasmin Diab: 

    There's a lot in there which I guess centres on our natural fear of the unknown, fear of catastrophe. And the people of Fukushima were much the same. And the biggest thing I noticed there was technical authority, confusing the general public on what was safe, what wasn't safe, changing the narrative resulting in, I guess chaos and mass evacuations where evacuation may not have been necessary. I guess there's a lack of trust because accidents have occurred that the public doesn't necessarily believe or listen to the fact that's around that. So stories out of Fukushima where people were evacuated from hospitals because they thought that the reactor meltdown would have an exclusion zone a lot bigger than what was actually required at the time.

    What that led to was a whole heap of vulnerable people evacuated that didn't have access to emergency equipment, medications, power for their equipment, which meant they died in transit. And so not one person died from the nuclear accident itself or extreme exposure to radiation, but rather all these people who were vulnerable at the time were unfortunately killed by other aspects as part of that evacuation. 

    Neil Martin: 

    Ed, do you think it's slightly frustrating for a nuclear engineer to have to keep addressing this topic every time it gets mentioned when the truth might not be as people perceive?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Oh no, I mean I never get tired of thinking and talking about risk and perception because it’s enduringly interesting and wonderful about how differences in how we perceive things. I think obviously our risk perception is very personal and wildly different between people. And I think it's not appreciated among the sort of nuclear camp, among the nuclear proponents, really how risk perception works. I may as well say it now. I think one of the most fascinating thing about risk, which is discovered by Paul Slovic, is that when we perceive benefit for a particular course of action, we downgrade the risks. And so, as soon as you actually see tangible benefits in a technology say nuclear or something that actually causes you to downplay the risks, but we do this to everything. So if I perceive particular benefits in a course of action, I don't know, I'll say a fossil fuels like a different energy source. If I perceive benefit in the use of a technology, I'll downplay the risks and the drawbacks. 

    Neil Martin:

    So do you think that 20 years of continuous nuclear energy benefits without any further incidents would change that perception because people would've seen the benefits and seen how nuclear fits into that bigger picture? 

    Ed Obbard: 

    Oh yeah, something as simple as just having visible people who work with nuclear technologies, just knowing people who work in the industry, just seeing nuclear technology at work. For example, seeing a nuclear propelled ship or something in the bay will do an enormous amount, I think to ally people's concerns and just bring the whole thing down to earth and make it more tangible and understandable.

    Jasmin Diab:

    I think it's just talking about it .

    Ed Obbard: 

    Yeah, exactly.

    Jasmin Diab: 

    Nuclear has been so taboo in Australia that even as engineers in a group, people wouldn't want to talk about nuclear. But now the fact people are talking about it, I think is the best step. Let's talk about it. Let's make people comfortable, let people realise, "Hey, we're exposed to radiation all day every day.” There's nothing we can do about it but let's talk about what it means if you increase radiation, what's safe, what's not safe? And how do we put the measures in place to make it safe for the general public, for the workers. And I think that's a huge start.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Yeah, and discussing benefits as well, going back to my sort of risk perception thing is that I think something that the nuclear industry has got so wrong for so long is to try and convince people based on safety, which just doesn't work because unless you perceive a benefit, you're just never going to accept it no matter how safe it is. So we have to just talk about why we think it's good.

    Jasmin Diab: 

    Yeah, a hundred percent agree with you. I think historically the nuclear industry has been very cold and hard about its facts and wants everyone else to believe its facts. And that's great if you're a black and white person but most of us are shades of grey. Because there's a lot of industries in Australia I think that can be re-skilled for a nuclear industry. There’s probably a lot of fear there because they have no idea what it looks like. So we really need to, as a community, the nuclear community need to humanise a lot of those facts and benefits to make it tangible to each individual.

    Neil Martin: 

    I guess you guys now have this platform here today with this podcast. What would be your elevator pitch with regards to these are the benefits you need to realise that are really going to change that perception of risk, like you said, Ed?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Low environmental impact combined with high productivity. I don't think anything else does that.  

    Lower resource input, lower land usage, more energy, more resilience - something which is fundamentally very safe, safer than almost all of the competition actually. And ultimately something that's ethical in terms of biodiversity and conservation. I think that's for me, the most powerful benefit of nuclear technology is that we can lessen our environmental footprint for the same outcome. We always think that somehow its high impact. It's not because it's such high energy density, it's low impact, it uses less land, less resources, less materials to do a better job than what you can do with fossil fuels or in fact anything.

    Neil Martin: 

    I might ask the same thing to you, Jasmin, but with proviso that maybe the general public have a perception with regards to, well, renewable energy can do all this, and renewable energy obviously doesn't have the potential to explode and cause death and injury. So that's where they're coming from with regards to where they think the future of energy should be. Why might that not be correct?

    Jasmin Diab: 

    So unfortunately, the sun doesn't always shine and give us all the power we need. Sometimes the wind doesn't always blow the way we need it to, which means that solar and wind, for example, are heavily reliant on an external source to generate power. 

    We need something that isn't reliant on wind, sun to produce that baseload of power to allow us to just function as a country. So whilst I think having solar and wind is good as part of a renewable energy mix, there needs to be something else that's low carbon. And if we lived in places that were all hydro available, that would be great. But unfortunately, again, water's not everywhere and it's quite scarce. So I think nuclear is a good fit to allow us to reach those climate goals, but also having the power we need to function as an entire country.

    Ed Obbard:

    Hang on, Neil, why do you want me to back one and not the other? You're being a journalist here.

    Jasmin Diab:

    It's all or nothing.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Yeah, no, I mean that's the whole problem with the premise is that you have to be one or the other. I mean, I want to get away from this sort of identity politics in energy choice. I think that we should do both. Why do I have to choose between nuclear and renewables?

    Neil Martin:

    No, I think that's a valid point. I just come at it from where I think the general public, because of that perception of nuclear, that getting on board with regards to having that in the mix, they just feel that renewables can meet all the demand. And that's probably the error that they're potentially making.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Well, but guys, it's not just a technical discussion. We always do this. We sort of masquerade technologies as being value neutral. They're not. Technologies really are not value neutral. And the sort of renewable powered energy transition is not value neutral. It's asking us to buy into a particular worldview which values this kind of high connectedness, low sort of individual freedom, almost rationing of energy by a kind of techy nice way. And that's not value neutral.

    I think you need a range of low carbon or preferably zero carbon energy technologies that correspond to different types of worldviews because only with that kind of democratic, there's something in it for everyone type of approach, can you actually transition a whole of society to a new industrial primary energy set of primary energy sources. I think what we should do is we should embrace the idea that technologies are not value neutral and we should just have an Australian energy referendum in which everyone votes for their favourite. 

    Jasmin Diab:

    Are you saying we have to only pick one, Ed?

    Ed Obbard: 

    You can only pick one. Everyone has to vote for their outright number one favourite energy technology, and we just accept that it's political. We stop trying to pretend it's apolitical, and then we hand over to AMO the blueprint and say, "Right, this is it. Do it."

    Jasmin Diab:

    Make it happen.

    Ed Obbard:

    Make it happen. Exactly. And then everyone can be happy knowing that they voted for their favourite technology and you'd actually probably get an energy system, which is not that bad to be honest.

    Jasmin Diab:

    Yeah, but will there be the workforce to actually implement whatever we come up with?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Yeah, of course there will be. I mean, because it drives me nuts. The current energy debate is that you get all these people sort of trying to keep a straight face and pretend that they're, "Oh, I'm advocating based on the most optimised system for a set of conditions." No, you are not. You're just out for your camp. I wish we should just drop that pretense and just have the referendum.

    Neil Martin:

    Should you not have ranked voting? And then that's the percentage of energy mix that you end up with based on the different options.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Well that's what I mean. Yeah. So if we all just pick our favourite energy supply, I'll vote for nuclear and maybe a few people will. And you'd end up with, I don't know, 10 or 20% nuclear reckon in Australia. Maybe a bit more, maybe 30%, which might be about right. And then you'd get like 60% renewables and maybe 10% fossil just for a little bit of gas. It would be great. What a great energy system.

    Jasmin Diab:

    But how do you educate the public to make the right decision there? Because you're kind of assuming that everyone will understand the differences between the technologies.

    Neil Martin:

    You'd have to be making your pitch, I guess.

    Jasmin Diab:

    Pro one nuclear party vote for us.

    Ed Obbard:

    No, you have the kind of big fact-based information referendum sheets that lay out all the facts of the different energy sources when you go to vote. So there'd have to be this kind of long education process, which would have to be somehow managed to be fact-based about all the different energy technologies. And then yeah, we should choose.

    Neil Martin:

    Are you guys putting your hand up to be the nuclear prime minister?

    Ed Obbard:

    The nuclear party. No, it's representative democracy. It'd be a bit like in Switzerland or something. Everyone would get a vote about that.

    Neil Martin:

    Well, one of those things that might add in, it might lead on to what I was going to ask you about whether or not you would be pitching for nuclear fusion. My understanding is that the joke in the nuclear circles is that nuclear fusion is always just 20 years away and it always just keeps being out of reach. In 20 years’ time, will it finally be here?

    Jasmin Diab:

    Well, I mean they had a breakthrough earlier this year. I mean, there's still a lot of challenges they need to work through. Fusion is the ultimate, right? To be able to stabilise a fusion reaction with the right materials for a decent period of time to generate power is a huge challenge. So do we think we'll have it in 20 years’ time? I don't think it will be commercialised by then, but I think there'll be a lot more breakthroughs between here and now that get us closer to producing that.

    Neil Martin: 

    And Ed, if I could maybe just as your answer for anybody that wouldn't maybe understand what the benefits of fusion would be and why it's seen as so exciting?

    Ed Obbard: 

    Oh, because fusion works off hydrogen isotopes. So the most advanced form of fusion is deuterium tritium fusion. The deuterium is a natural component of water and the tritium you get through breeding tritium from lithium. So the energy sources plentiful is the main point. Also, you do not get transuranic nuclear wastes as you do in nuclear fission factors. 

    Look, there's lots of wonderful benefits, but the engineering is incredibly difficult, and it honestly hasn't been solved yet. So you asked me, Neil, will we see fusion reactors is like, "Yes, I think we will start to see fusion reactors as, for example, neutron sources as scientific apparatus as it gets closer to working.” I mean, a fusion reactor could be an incredible pulse neutron source for when you need neutrons to do experiments. A very intense neutron source as well.

    The engineering that system to produce continuous power is, it's pretty far away, honestly, like any fusion reactor, no matter how complex and challenging. So think of all the wackiest fusion reactors like molten salt and thorium and all this sort of sci-fi fission reactor stuff are all in the engineering phase of development, which is way ahead of where fusion currently is. So yeah, fusion still has 20 years to go, but I really want to highlight that the nature of fusion research is actually changing. It's becoming engineering. And that was never the case before - it was firmly in the sort of physics experiment area. 

    Neil Martin: 

    Would it be the big game changer for energy?

    Jasmin Diab:

    I think it has potential to be. The big question will be once those reactors are realised. How are they marketed as safe? Because they won't have a proven track record that fusion currently has. So we'd all still have a steep learning curve to try and get a foothold in the door while scientifically they are excellent. And as Ed described, the fuel comes with no waste, which is what people are really concerned about. So there's a huge selling point, but how do we make that stable and able to produce power? I think that'll be the challenge in educating and informing the public on that.

    The biggest hurdle I've found for the nuclear industry at the moment is waste. People go, "Well, what about the waste? There's so much waste, it's going to be there for a million years." And you can talk about how nuclear waste is handled because there are a lot of really great technologies, some developed in Australia that do great things with waste. And it's such a small amount of what comes out of a reactor anyway. Fusion takes that off the table as an argument and then you've got all the other nuclear hurdles to deal with. But waste is one that you can say, "Hey, we don't really need to talk about that part because the radio nuclei everyone’s so concerned about just aren't a waste product from a fusion reactor”. So whilst yes, it is a nuclear technology, I think it's removing one of the big challenges nuclear currently has.

    Ed Obbard: 

    We could talk about nuclear waste, but it's really not a problem. It's really not a technical or environmental problem because it's not in the environment. That's the key to it.

    Neil Martin:

    Well, it definitely sounds like fusion is something for a little bit beyond the 20 years that we are talking about. But that might lead to me to my final question, which is that if you were a 16- or 17-year-old thinking of a career in nuclear at the moment, what would you be most excited about?

    Jasmin Diab:

    I think I'd be excited that there's so much happening in Australia, in the nuclear community, in the nuclear landscape, that you are destined to have a career for life and in lots of different ways. And whilst this podcast is very engineer centric and I'm an engineer, there's also opportunities in law and policymaking in the nuclear industry that'll allow lots of young Aussies to have a fulfilling career and get to see the world. So if I was 16, I'd definitely still head towards nuclear. It's a lot of fun.

    Neil Martin:

    And Ed, same question to you.

    Ed Obbard:

    Yeah, it’s absolutely a global career that recognises and indeed celebrates the expertise of people. And I think that's wonderful. I couldn't wish for anything more in a fulfilling career. And it's also a career that takes you with the same basic set of knowledge about nuclear engineering and nuclear reactions and so on through a whole range of sectors, from policy to safety, to law, to engineering, technology, fundamental science.  And the people who I see working in nuclear technology are doing that. I think it's wonderful. I'm so glad that I wanted to become a nuclear engineer and then I did. I'm happy that I did that, and I think other people could do the same.

    Neil Martin:

    It sounds like there's a lot of massively exciting opportunities for young people who might be interested. Unfortunately, that's all we've got time for.  Dr. Edward Obbard, many thanks for joining me.

    Ed Obbard: 

    Thank you, Neil. It's been fun.

    Neil Martin:

    And Lieutenant Colonel Jasmin Diab, it's also great to speak to you.

    Jasmin Diab: 

    Thanks Neil. And thanks Ed for robust chat.

    Neil Martin:

    It's going to be interesting to see how Australia and the rest of the world develop their nuclear energy policies over the next two decades and what new technologies might be in place by 2050 to help the goal of reaching net-zero in terms of carbon emissions. To everyone out there, thank you for listening. I've been Neil Martin, and I hope you'll join me again soon for the next episode of Engineering the Future. 

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