Australia, Long a Uranium Champion, Mulls Nuclear Power

An Australian federal inquiry last December recommended partially lifting a nationwide ban on nuclear energy, urging that the government pursue a “goal-oriented” and community-focused strategy as it considers the prospect of including nuclear energy as part of the nation’s future energy mix.

The measure is notable because though Australia has the world’s largest reserves of uranium—it has cultivated a uranium mining industry since 1954, and it is today the world’s third-largest uranium exporter, mainly to North American, European, and Asian countries—the country only operates a single nuclear reactor in New South Wales for medical research and other purposes. In 1998, owing to formidable anti-nuclear sentiment attached to French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific and the surreptitious bombing of a Greenpeace vessel, Rainbow Warrior, that had been heading to protest the French nuclear test site, parliament introduced a moratorium that prohibited construction or operation of a number of nuclear installations, including nuclear power plants. The moratorium was introduced as Parliament was crafting laws to ensure the security and safety of nuclear activities and radioactive materials.

However, much has changed since the ban was enacted, notes a report resulting from a federal inquiry, which parliament’s House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy began in August 2019 in response to a request from Energy Minister Angus Taylor. The report specifically points to two “contextual features of energy policy”: government actions worldwide to tackle climate change and interest in new technologies that could firm capacity as the system is increasingly inundated by intermittent wind and solar installations—and to new nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs).

The report makes clear that the inquiry is “forward-looking.” It notes, “Australia would not be in a position to introduce nuclear energy for at least a decade,” and underscores that the inquiry examined only “the conditions under which it may be introduced in the future.” Considerations include “the feasibility of nuclear energy in Australia in relation to economic, technological and capability factors; the suitability of nuclear energy in Australia in relation to environmental, safety and security factors, and the acceptability of nuclear power generation to the Australian people.”

An examination of these factors—along with 309 submissions the inquiry drew from public hearings across the country—led the committee to recommend that the government consider nuclear technology as part of its future energy mix. However, as part of that consideration, the government should also deepen its understanding of nuclear technology in the Australian context. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the inquiry urged the government to lift the current moratorium only for new and emerging nuclear technologies on the condition that approvals for nuclear facilities have the “informed consent” of affected local communities.

Among key points that the report makes to support its recommendations is that Australia already plays a key role in international collaborations on nuclear-related activities, such as in the Generation IV International Forum. The measure would also keep with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) stance that nuclear energy could play a “mitigative” role in addressing climate change that is comparable to renewable energy sources. It also cited the Australian Nuclear Association’s assertion that comparisons of life-cycle emissions profiles considered by the IPCC don’t always consider carbon emissions from storage facilities or backup generators required to bolster variability from wind and solar, or the significance of methane emissions from hydro.

Meanwhile, the report notes, Australia direly needs to keep its electricity supply affordable. “Australia has been experiencing long term trends of increasing wholesale and domestic electricity prices. Recent months have seen the price level off and begin to decrease, but the fact remains that Australian household electricity prices have gone from one of the cheapest in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries] to one of the most expensive,” it says. Citing the International Energy Agency, the report says Australia’s electricity prices for households has surged from $38.74/MWh in 1978 to $248.49/MWh.

3. Australia’s electricity generation mix (2000–2018, with estimates for 2025). Source: Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Energy Update 2019

Reliability has also become a significant sticking point as more variable renewable resources flood energy markets (Figure 3), the report says. While Australia today leads the world in per capita investment in clean energy, low capacity factors for wind and solar necessitate more “firming” capacity. “Other challenges of introducing variable renewables include their relatively low life span, the cost and complexity of integrating them into the electricity grid, the need for more transmission infrastructure and the need for better management of hazardous waste material,” it argues. Emerging nuclear technologies with greater ramp-up and ramp-down capabilities could help nuclear and renewables to “work in tandem,” the committee suggested, pointing to France’s increasingly flexible operation of large nuclear plants, but also specifically to NuScale Power’s SMR technology.

However, before Australia can begin developing a nuclear power industry, the committee found that the nation must expand all aspects of its nuclear fuel cycle management capabilities, from mining to waste management. It should also explore nuclear applications beyond power generation, such as for medical uses, desalination, radiography, silicon irradiation, and the production of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels. And though Australia joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1973, it should also deeply consider ongoing compliance with nuclear non-proliferation. It must also commission an economic assessment that adopts a “whole system cost” methodology, though the committee acknowledged this could prove difficult, because it would require estimating costs 10 years into the future. In its report, the committee also underscored that the “economics of nuclear energy is contested,” and any assessment it makes should consider weaknesses in leveled cost of electricity methodologies. Finally, and as significantly, Australia must develop a trained workforce—a feat that could take more than a decade, according to one expert.

As interesting are different views it collected from stakeholders on how long it could take to start up a nuclear industry. While most suggested it could take between 10 and 15 years, an SMR operator claimed an SMR could be operational within seven years after the moratorium is lifted. Meanwhile, the Australia Institute estimated it could take until 2040 for a nuclear plant to become operational in Australia.

The report’s release predictably elicited strong reactions. Part of the report’s package included a dissent from parliamentary Labor members, which essentially argued that Australians were overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear power, and, “Above all, there is no economic case for pursuing nuclear energy.” Anti-nuclear groups, meanwhile, seized upon the partisan split; in one opinion piece published in Renew Economy (that was titled, “Federal Nuclear Inquiry Report: Lunatics in Charge of the Asylum”), Friends of the Earth Australia noted the majority report was authored by Coalition members of parliament that showed a “pro-nuclear bias.” However, as bushfires ravaged large swaths of southeastern Australia over December and January, causing unprecedented destruction, and the deaths of dozens of people and at least a billion animals, climate advocates, pro-nuclear voices among them, increasingly called for substantive government action.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor.

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