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Nuclear Energy Has a Future in Australia

By John Söderbaum

Australia has compelling reasons to debate the use of nuclear energy as a power source.

Despite community uncertainty about some aspects of the use of nuclear-generated energy, there are strong environmental reasons to adopt this technology to achieve the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. These are backed by current official modelling that suggests nuclear energy is cost-competitive.

Thus, Australia has pressing climate change reasons, as well as economic, social and public health reasons to broaden and deepen the public and political debate on nuclear energy and seriously consider whether it offers a transformational opportunity to achieve our objectives, including declared clean energy targets.

Key issues for debate include technology evaluation, systems economics, attraction of capital, reduction of emissions, management of health and safety and radioactive waste disposal.

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) has long supported the position that Australia must include nuclear generation on its “menu” of energy options. In July 2013 it organised a conference in Sydney titled “Nuclear Energy for Australia?”

The aim of the conference was not to promote nuclear energy. Rather, it sought to inform and stimulate responsible debate on the issues – political, technical, environmental and economic – that surround the topic of nuclear energy and which are of vital interest to the Australian public.

The conference heard presentations from leading inter­national and Australian authorities on the opportunities and threats inherent in nuclear and other energy options available to Australia if it is to meet its multiple goals. Five key points emerged from the discussions:

  1. Nuclear energy is a viable technology for Australia. Nuclear power already generates 11–12% of the world’s electricity. For Australia, nuclear energy is a viable candidate to replace coal power stations as they age and are eventually retired. Exhaustive discussions found no supportable reason to omit nuclear energy as a potential contributor to Australia’s generation mix.
  2. Australia should do some preparatory work now. To ensure Australia is able to respond in a timely way if the need arises, action is needed now to plan and put in place the necessary legal and regulatory instruments as well as establish adequate educational and training facilities.
  3. Social and political acceptance is crucial. Social acceptance and bipartisan long-term energy policies are essential pre­requisites for large-scale nuclear investment. Wide reaching consultation is critical. The keys to success are transparent policy development, widespread community consultation and a robust regulatory system, capitalising on Australia’s strong regulatory history.
  4. Nuclear energy will help reduce emissions. Nuclear power has negligible greenhouse gas or other emissions (as do renewable energy sources). However, nuclear energy is the only proven zero emission technology that could replace fossil fuel as a source of baseload electricity in Australia. While natural gas offers partial emission reductions it cannot deliver the ambitious reduction targets that Australia has set itself. Hydro power also has very low emissions, but existing resources have already largely been tapped.
  5. Nuclear risks are well-studied and manageable. All forms of energy conversion entail some level of risk. However, Australia has a good risk management record and there are no reasons that the same approach cannot be applied to nuclear energy. Nonetheless, the public has concerns that must be acknowledged, discussed rationally and openly, and ultimately addressed before any decision to adopt nuclear energy could be made.

Existing modelling by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics suggests that nuclear energy is cost-competitive. It is also environmentally attractive in terms of significantly reduced carbon and other emissions. However, if Australia is to attract the necessary capital for system expansion and large-scale plant construction, it will need to address the issues discussed above and also consider:

  • the total electricity system costs of technology adoption rather than just the levelised cost of electricity; and
  • electricity pricing policies that can accommodate both the growth of distributed generation as well as the need to service large and long-lived capital investments.

Dr John Söderbaum FTSE is the Director Science and Technology for the Australian consulting firm ACIL Allen. He provides policy and strategic advice to the private sector, governments and international organisations. He is also the vice chair of the ATSE Energy Forum and was a member of the organising committee for the ATSE conference on nuclear energy.