Should Australia develop a nuclear energy industry?

Should Australia develop a nuclear energy industry?
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Nuclear energy is a controversial and hotly debated topic within the Australian energy industry as well as the wider community. As the urgency to address climate change increases, the question of whether nuclear should be incorporated into Australia’s energy mix becomes even more relevant. Here, we take a closer look at the “for” and “against” cases for developing a nuclear energy industry in Australia.

Nuclear power stations are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be

By Louis Brailsford, Climate Council

As predictably as the changing of the seasons, nuclear proponents make an appearance in the media, extolling the virtues of nuclear energy and promising a panacea of clean, reliable electricity to solve Australia’s energy and climate woes. 

But beyond these lofty claims, the reality of nuclear is far less rosy.

Proponents often say that nuclear energy will help stop climate change and can do so more cost-effectively and at a larger scale than renewable energy sources like wind and solar. 

Is this really the case? Let’s take a closer look at how nuclear power works. Nuclear power stations run on uranium. When the nucleus of a uranium molecule is split inside a reactor, heat is produced – this process is called nuclear fission. 

The heat produced from this process is used to heat water, which creates steam, which in turn drives a turbine to generate electricity.

It is true that unlike coal and gas, this process produces no greenhouse gas pollution. But all other steps involved in producing nuclear power (mining, construction, decommissioning and waste management, to name a few) result in greenhouse gas pollution. 

Nuclear energy is also not “renewable”. Uranium is a finite resource just like coal or gas – unlike the wind and the sun, which are infinitely renewable. 

To be sure, Australia has significant uranium deposits, and is the world’s third largest uranium producer. 

However, there are a number of reasons why nuclear power is not appropriate for Australia.

Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water.

Nuclear power stations also present significant community, health, environmental, and cost risks associated with potential impacts from extreme weather events and natural disasters, such as occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2011.

Even if they operate uneventfully over their planned lifespans, nuclear power stations leave a long-term and prohibitively expensive legacy of site remediation, fuel reprocessing and radioactive waste storage.

Additionally, building nuclear power stations is a multi-billion-dollar, multi-year process that can’t hold a candle to cheap and readily available renewable energy technology. 

For example, the Hinkley nuclear power station under construction in the UK will cost 20 billion pounds ($A36 billion), and take nine years to build. This could be even longer in Australia given there is currently no nuclear industry here.

In contrast,  wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new generation, and take a mere one to three years to build.

Not only would it be ill-advised for Australia to waste billions of dollars when cheap energy alternatives exist, but it would also take too long. 

Australia’s ageing fleet of coal power stations is already struggling to cope with extreme heat, and we can’t wait a decade to replace it with nuclear. 

And even if, for some reason, nuclear power stations did get off the ground in Australia, nuclear power would not be well-suited to the needs of a modern electricity system. 

Nuclear power stations are inflexible – that is, they cannot quickly increase or decrease the amount of electricity they produce. This means they are a bad fit for modern, fast and flexible electricity grids with large amounts of wind and solar generation. 

Unlike inflexible nuclear, fast response technologies such as batteries, pumped hydro and solar thermal can be turned on and off, or ramped up and down to balance electricity supply and demand.

We can already see renewables and storage proving themselves as a superior option in California, where wind and solar provides more than 30 per cent of the state’s power needs, and the state’s last nuclear power station will shut by 2026.

Lastly, nuclear power stations require massive quantities of water to operate. In a dry continent like Australia, prone to hot summers and drought conditions which are only likely to get more severe as climate change worsens, it would be reckless to rely on a water-hungry power source like nuclear.

Whether you look at it from a cost, practicality, or resources perspective, the bottom line is this: it simply makes no sense to build nuclear power stations in Australia.

Mr Brailsford is an analyst at the Climate Council, specialising in energy solutions to climate change. Since joining the Climate Council in 2017, he has worked on reports on renewable energy and business, energy storage, coal power stations and federal and state energy policy. For more information, visit www.climatecouncil.org.au

The case for developing nuclear in Australia

Dr Ben Heard and Dayne Eckermann, Bright New World

Climate change is real, serious, and must be addressed with a controlled sense of urgency. Yet here in Australia we have kept our doors closed to the possibility of nuclear with twenty years of prohibition. 

The development of nuclear and renewable technologies is not in conflict. The UK shows us this. Their consensus on technology-inclusive low-carbon energy policy means they can aim for zero net emissions by 2050 and it’s actually credible.

To this day, Australia’s anti-nuclear community fights to maintain the ban on nuclear technologies. Typically, perversely, this anti-nuclear prejudice resides in the same organisations advocating urgent action on climate change. Bright New World is the exception.

Our NGO knows climate change is a serious issue, and that no energy technology can be left off the table. This keeps us in harmony with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and a growing trend of independent environmental thinking. The Australian public is agreeing more and more, with recent surveys showing rising support for nuclear energy.

There is a major opportunity cost in excluding a whole family of technologies. Our modelling for the Australian NEM suggests a similar finding to that from MIT – merging firm low carbon with variable low carbon technologies always produces the lowest cost outcome for the overall power system. Nuclear can work synergistically with renewable generation to drive down the cost of a clean, secure, robust power system.

There is no question for us that a small cluster of nuclear new builds in the USA, UK and Western Europe, based on new generations of large reactors, simply have not inspired confidence. Such projects will struggle to find willing investors in Australia. But there is no rationality in prohibiting a whole class of technology based on a sample of disappointing projects – if there were we would have banned concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, wave and ocean power. This prohibition doesn’t protect us from bad projects, it locks us out of good and promising opportunities. 

Consider what has been realised in the United Arab Emirates, where they started with no nuclear in 2009 to turning on 5.6GWe of nuclear over the next four years. Or new opportunities in small modular and Generation IV reactors such as those from NuScale or Terrestrial Energy.

These newer reactors bring the vital benefit of high-temperature outputs to decarbonise industry, and excellent ramping capability to work with variable renewables. The designs are verified ‘walk-away safe’ power plants. These could be a wonderful fit for Australia with our ongoing renewable energy developments. 

Like wind and solar power, nuclear is a very clean energy source. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA, cited by the IPCC, puts the best-estimate nuclear lifecycle emissions at 12g of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh, comparable to wind. 

As uranium is energy dense, material inputs per kWh are lower than other generation choices. Its waste? It is the only energy source that fully encapsulates and manages its waste. There are waste solutions, and they do exist. Finland is a leading example of this.

As for water, a vital natural resource for Australia, nuclear withdraws a large amount of water, but this is mostly once through – it is returned to the environment. With coastal siting, there is little competition for potable water sources.

Yet with all this we are told nuclear deployment is too slow, when the global evidence affirms the opposite – the most rapid decarbonisation efforts have included nuclear build programs. The French nuclear program took 33 years to build 58 reactors. That’s 1.75 commissioned reactors per year! That’s the very definition of the controlled sense of urgency we need to tackle climate change.

When it’s not too slow, it’s apparently too dangerous, though we know nuclear is the safest per TWh energy source in the world. People talk about the failures, but no one talks about the plants in Japan that shrugged off the earthquake and tsunami, or the ones in the USA that continually shrug off hurricanes and polar vortexes. Nuclear is robust and, as late-starters, we can only buy the best!

Lifting this prohibition might lead to a prosperous nuclear power industry in Australia with benefits in slashing greenhouse gas emissions, safeguarding employment in existing power generation communities around Australia, and boosting our scientific and engineering capabilities – all while continuing to develop renewable energy resources.

Or it might not. If our critics are correct, nuclear will never be developed. In which case, they have nothing to lose.

It’s time to end the prohibition, and see the nuclear opportunities. 

Dr Ben Heard is the founder of Bright New World and is recognised as a leading voice for the use of nuclear technologies to address pressing global challenges. Dayne Eckermann is the General Manager of Bright New World and has a background in policy and governance, as well as energy and mining. Further references to the claims in this article can be found in Bright New World’s blog at www.brightnewworld.org


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