Over the past month or so, a number of inquiries into uranium mining and nuclear energy have been announced. In NSW, an inquiry was established on 6th June 2019 into the Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Repeal Bill. On 2nd August the Australian Federal Energy Minister requested parliament to establish a multi-party parliamentary inquiry to examine the use of nuclear power in Australia. Last week an inquiry into removing the prohibitions on nuclear power and uranium mining in Victoria was established after a motion put forward by Liberal Democrats MP David Limbrick was passed in the Victorian Upper House. These are welcomed and long-overdue developments in Australia's protracted and polarised energy and climate debates. For too long nuclear power - a potential source of clean electricity generation - has been sidelined from such debates. These inquiries are the first steps for Australians to have a mature, fact-based, frank and honest discussion around the role if any, that nuclear power could play in Australia's future energy mix.
Currently, Australia finds itself in the rather paradoxical and hypocritical position of having the worlds largest known reserves of uranium and being a net exporter of uranium while choosing not to use nuclear power. Annually Australia exports all its electricity needs in uranium alone to the EU, China, India, South Korea, and the US. These countries use the uranium to generate clean electricity to millions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. What's more, Australia is a key supplier of medical isotopes used in nuclear medicine around the world. This is thanks to the research reactor that has operated safely and quietly for over 60 years in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights. Meanwhile, despite these facts, we remain the only G20 country to have prohibited ourselves from using nuclear to generate clean electricity at both the federal and state level.
For readers who are not aware, in 1998, Australia - through amendments to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act - prohibited the approval, licensing, construction, or operation of a nuclear power plant, among a list of several other facilities. It was a ban achieved as "a result of an ideological position of a minority and misperceived stigma" rather than empirical evidence or scientific fact (Read Bright New World's piece on the history of the nuclear ban here). Thus if Australia does wish to pursue nuclear power, these pieces of legislation must be amended and the current prohibition overturned.
Confronting energy realities
So why should Australia seriously consider nuclear power to be part of its energy mix? If Australians truly believe carbon dioxide is bad and wish to transition away from coal-fired generation (which makes up the bulk of Australia's electricity generation), we need to consider where we will get the clean energy we need to power our homes, cities, and industry, that can be relied upon every hour of the day, at a cost that consumers and business can afford.
With hydro expansion limited due to Australia's topography, wind and solar are pushed by some as the only energy alternative in Australia to coal and gas. While there is no argument that intermittent renewables will have a key part to play in Australia's future energy mix, it is highly questionable that we will be able to rely solely on renewables for all our electricity needs, let alone all our energy needs. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Germany, the renewable wunderkind, whose Energiewende (Energy Transition) is turning out to be no picnic. As highlighted in an article by the reputable newsweekly Der Spiegel, Germany's Energiewende has come at an extortionate cost for consumers, taxpayers, and industry for little environmental gain. Germany still relies on burning dirty brown coal and electricity from its neighbours to make up shortfalls when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.
Nor is it clear whether a transition to 100% renewables is even environmentally desirable because of the significant material and land input required to support such a huge expansion in intermittent renewable energy. Former NASA Climate Scientist, James Hansen, writing in the Boston Globe last year, argued that "the notion that renewable energies and batteries alone will provide all needed energy is fantastical. It is also a grotesque idea, because of the staggering environmental pollution from mining and material disposal, if all energy was derived from renewables and batteries."
The nuclear option
Nuclear power could prove to be the circuit breaker needed for Australia to resolve its current energy and climate woes. It is a technology that is already proven to decarbonise large electricity grids in combination with hydro and/or renewable technologies as has been achieved in France, Sweden and Ontario Canada. According to data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, countries that have the highest shares of nuclear power also have some of the cleanest electricity grids on the planet. Their ability to generate large flows of electrons cleanly, affordably, and reliably means citizens of these countries continue to enjoy modern and energy-rich lives, without worrying about whether they are killing the planet.
Globally, nuclear power already plays a significant role in reducing carbon emissions. The International Atomic Energy Agency highlights that worldwide the "use of nuclear power avoids the emission of nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year - the equivalent of taking over 400 million cars off the road per year." Without it, the world would be in a more serious state with regards to air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. This is a point that was emphasized earlier this year in a report by the International Energy Agency. Sadly, it a point conveniently ignored by the majority of climate activists and green groups here in Australia.
Indeed such groups, led by the Greens, have done their level best to demonise nuclear in the minds of the public as dangerous and costly. Yet much of this is based more on fiction than fact. Despite Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power remains one of the safest forms of energy per 1000 Terawatt Hours generated. To date, not one person has died from the Fukushima incident in comparison to the tens of thousands who perished in the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. Nor are all nuclear projects over-budget and behind schedule like the often-cited Hinckley Point C in the UK or Olkiluoto in Finland. The UAE and South Korea provide contemporary examples of nuclear projects that can be delivered relatively quickly and on-budget.
Tristan Prasser is co-editor and contributor for Urban Source.
He is a graduate of UQ and ANU and has worked previously in the
Queensland State Government and higher education sector in Australia and
the UK. He has a keen interest in energy and urban policy and advocates
the use of nuclear power in Australia.