There are four indisputable facts about energy, climate change and nuclear power:
- Climate change is real and as global energy demand increases, so does the need to decarbonise our power supplies.
- Nuclear energy provides around 10 per cent of the world’s electricity demand with zero emissions power.
- The power provided by nuclear energy is low cost and can meet the needs of industrial and household consumers 24/7.
- Billions of citizens in 31 countries benefit from low cost zero emissions nuclear power.
Yet Australia, with the world’s largest deposits of uranium, continues to prohibit the use of nuclear power.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Energy’s Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia offers a chance to consider the absurdity of this.
The Minerals Council of Australia strongly supports nuclear power in Australia for the following reasons.
Nuclear energy can provide zero emissions affordable 24/7 power for Australian industry
Apart from existing run-of-water-hydro, nuclear is the only energy source capable of providing affordable zero emissions power 24/7 at industrial scale.
Over the longer term, it must play a key role – along with other zero emissions energy sources like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and renewables – in helping Australia meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement of net zero emissions by the second half of the 21st century.
Australia has lost its comparative advantage in energy. Rising prices and falling reliability are forcing businesses to invest overseas instead of Australia.
Nuclear energy is a mature, proven and safe power generation technology and the foundation of many electricity systems across the globe.
It must be considered as part of the energy mix if Australia is to retain and grow its strong industrial sector with high-paying long-term jobs, particularly in regional and outer suburban areas while also significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the coming decades, older higher-emitting baseload coal plants which have provided cheap and reliable electricity to Australian industry for the past 50 years will close. It is unclear what will replace the output and reliability of those retiring plants.
Only a commitment to restore energy affordability and reliability will reverse this drift, and nuclear power – especially innovative Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – will go a long way to providing clean, reliable and lower-cost power for Australian homes and businesses.
SMRs could provide the cheapest zero emission 24/7 power in Australia
SMRs are an evolution of a proven mature technology.
Once manufacturing has been established, the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE) from SMRs could be as low as around A$60/MWh. This would likely make SMRs the cheapest zero emissions power source capable of providing 24/7 energy of any technology, including renewables with storage and coal with CCS.
On a system cost basis, SMRs will be even cheaper than comparable zero emission technologies based on intermittent energy sources. This is because SMRs would not require additional storage, could be integrated with existing transmission networks and provide the full range of ancillary services critical for modern electricity grids.
Compared to traditional large reactors deployed at 444 sites in 31 countries, SMRs are smaller and cheaper to build. Sites using SMRs will also be able to add more modular units to increase a site’s total generation capacity as and when needed.
These innovative units are currently undergoing regulatory approval in the United States and Canada, along with other countries.
SMRs will be commercially available by late 2020s and could, along with CCS-ready coal plants, replace some retiring coal generators as well as complementing intermittent renewable energy sources.
Nuclear power is the only energy source which deals with its own waste The waste developed by nuclear energy is dealt with by industry under tough domestic and international regulatory standards. Some 90 per cent of waste is classified as low level, with 7 per cent defined as intermediate and the remaining 3 per cent – primarily spent reactor fuel – high level waste.
Spent reactor fuel can be disposed in deep geological repositories such as that being built in Finland, or reprocessed as occurs in France. Emerging technologies like Generation IV reactors may also use high level waste as a fuel source.
There is no justification for the continued prohibition of nuclear power in Australia Nuclear power was prohibited in Australia two decades ago based on sentiment from four decades ago, preceding the mainstream understanding of the threat of climate change and potential mitigation solutions.
Repealing the legislated ban on nuclear energy in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is critical if Australia is to seriously embrace all technologies so our future energy mix is affordable, reliable and cleaner.
Similarly, removing uranium mining and milling from the definition of nuclear actions in the EPBC Act and lifting the state-based prohibitions on uranium exploration and mining is critical to not just removing discriminations against uranium mining, but also as part of a broader recognition that Australia is joining the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in acknowledging uraniumfuelled nuclear energy as a critical part of global efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Nuclear power’s safety record demolishes the argument that nuclear energy should be banned because it is dangerous.
Its public acceptance in communities around the world where it has operated for decades negates the argument that it should be banned because communities do not accept it.
Despite two decades of legal prohibition, nuclear energy commands net positive support in Australia in the most recent polls, shattering the argument that the public is not ready for it to be legal.
Australia is short-changing itself by not allowing nuclear power
Canada is similar to Australia in many ways – apart from its visionary and pragmatic decision to develop a world-class multi-billion dollar nuclear industry which employs 60,000 people in highly skilled, highly paid roles.
From uranium mining, fuel processing to nuclear power generation, Canada is a major exporter of nuclear technologies while also producing 15 per cent of its power needs from zero emissions nuclear power.
While Australia exports enough uranium to provide 246 TWh of zero emissions power – almost Australia’s entire power generation – existing state and federal bans on uranium exploration, mining and nuclear power means Australia denies itself the ability to develop a thriving, modern regional industry based on the world’s largest uranium resource.
A modern and sensible nuclear policy in Australia would revitalise the nation’s nuclear engineering education potential, because nuclear engineers would be required from an early stage. This would
encourage universities to develop specialist courses and partner with international universities. It would also allow Australia to build on its world-class uranium sector, state-of-the-art nuclear facility at Lucas Heights by developing a high-tech nuclear sector which offers a broad range of employment, investment and research opportunities.
Australia can start developing a regulatory framework for SMRs now
The practical timeframe being proposed for the introduction of nuclear power in Australia is 10-15 years, by which time SMRs will be commercially available.
Australia already has a world-class research and medical nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, and the regulatory framework governing its operation could be the basis for a future approach enabling the successful and safe deployment of SMRs.
Countries like Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom have long-established regulatory frameworks which could also serve as a model for Australia.
There is nothing precluding Australia from working with other countries to develop a harmonised regulatory framework for SMRs. This would contribute to lower construction and deployment costs, which in turn would lower the cost of delivered electricity.