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Labor must accept nuclear fact rather than fiction

By Tristan Prasser - posted Friday, 6 March 2020

Once again the federal Australian Labor Party (ALP) has sadly reaffirmed its capture by the Greens. Last week the ALP unveiled its goal for Australia to be net-zero emissions by 2050, while simultaneously refuting the prospect of nuclear energy being part of a future energy mix. To much applause in the seats of Melbourne and Warringah to be sure. Yet by automatically discounting nuclear energy, the ALP has only highlighted their inability to understand the technical and economic challenge of achieving net-zero emissions. Here is a political party that is committed to decarbonisation, while refusing to consider one of the largest sources of zero-emission energy available to humanity. A contradictory position if there ever was one.

Labour’s opposition to nuclear power is best summed up by Opposition Health spokesman Chris Bowen when earlier this week he labeled nuclear energy in Australia as “a fantasy and a furphy”. He went on to state that “The economics of nuclear power don’t stack up. You could start building a nuclear power station today and it wouldn’t be ready for decades.” Not that economic rationality has ever stopped the ALP before — NBN, school halls, pink batts anyone?

Instead, the ALP are putting their (blind) faith in intermittent renewables and nascent grid-scale storage technologies to do the heavy lifting. This is despite the real-world experience of countries such as Germany who are already proving that such a path is no picnic as a recent McKinsey report highlights.


Unfortunately for Mr Bowen, such anti-nuclear sentiment ignores evidence and real-world experience to the contrary. For starters, it ignores the fact that Australia is already a nuclear nation, with globally respected nuclear scientists and experts as well as regulatory and scientific bodies such as ANSTO and ARPANSA. Australia is a major contributor to nuclear medical science and supplier of life-saving medical isotopes thanks to the OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights. Australia also exports its annual electricity demand in uranium to the EU, China, India, South Korea, and the US.

Nuclear energy is neither “a fantasy” or “a furphy” for the 31 countries that currently operate nuclear power plants. Nor is it for the 15 countries building or planning to build new nuclear power plants. It seems that nuclear energy is good enough for new entrants such as United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey, and Poland, but not Australia. It is good enough for social democracies such as Finland, France, and Sweden, but not Australia. It is good enough for Ontarians in Canada, who live energy-rich lives like Australians and thanks to nuclear, burnt their last piece of coal a few years ago.

Nor does such a view acknowledge the fact that the cleanest electricity grids in the world, as verified by data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, are largely operated by countries that use nuclear energy as part of their energy mix.

BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 —

Nor is nuclear energy “a fantasy” or “a furphy” for numerous established and start-up companies aiming to bring new innovative designs to market, often referred to as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Such companies include GE Hitachi, Rolls-Royce, Bill Gate’s Terrapower, Terrestrial Energy, Thorcon and Nuscale. In fact, Rolls-Royce aims to build 10–15 of these reactors in the UK by 2029. Chris may be interested to know that such designs also aim to overcome the financial burdens, drawn-out build times, and safety concerns that have long plagued nuclear builds in the west.

Nor is it “a fantasy” or “a furphy” for countries that have decarbonised the largest amounts of electricity over a 10 year period. Countries such as Sweden, France, Finland, and Canada have done so largely by deploying nuclear, alongside other technologies such as hydro and wind. This is highlighted in the graph below.


In spite of these facts, the ALP remains wedded to views that belong in a seventies Jane Fonda film, not in 21st century Australia. Its anti-nuclear position is unscientific and factually incorrect. Nor is its economic argument compelling enough for a prohibition to remain on nuclear energy in Australia. No technology has ever been banned because “the economic case doesn’t stack up”. If that was the case, then renewable technologies should have been banned a long time ago.

Clearly Labor’s leadership has yet to recognise the winds of change sweeping across the broader Labor movement. The Australian Workers Union, the CFMEU Victoria and Industry Super Australia are embracing the prospect of nuclear energy. Former Victorian Labor energy minister Theo Theophanous has also recently argued for nuclear power to be in the mix. Why? Because they all understand that two fundamental facts. First, if Australian blue-collar workers are to have well-paying, value-adding jobs, then you need affordable and reliable sources of energy that can provide electricity and process heat 24/7, 365. Second, if you want this energy to be provided by sources other than fossil fuels, then nuclear remains one of the only sources of clean baseload energy that can be deployed at scale.

If Mr Bowen and Labor are truly interested in modernity and prosperity; if they are truly interested in well-paid jobs for Australian workers; if they are truly listening to ‘the science’ on climate change; if they are truly interested in decarbonisation; then they need to change their anti-nuclear position. Intermittent renewables have and will play a part in Australia’s energy future. But they are not the only game in town and nor should they be. It is high time that the ALP confront some energy realities and accept fact over fiction when it comes to nuclear energy.

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About the Author

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.

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