Australia’s embrace of nuclear-powered submarines begs the question: isn’t it time the country dropped its opposition to atomic energy?
Nuclear power has effectively been banned in Australia since 1998 under Commonwealth legislation, including the enrichment of uranium, the element needed to produce nuclear energy in reactors.
But the decision to develop nuclear-powered submarines in Australia as part of an upgraded defence capability, announced on Thursday morning by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, shapes as a turning point for the place of atomic energy in our energy mix.
Australia’s aim to preferably achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050, without firm detail as yet on how it will achieve the target, is another motivation to change our attitude to nuclear power.
While nuclear power plants are expensive to build and the disposal of the radioactive waste they generate is controversial, nuclear energy has the potential to significantly reduce power bills for Australians and accelerate our emissions reductions as we phase out legacy fuels like coal.
For a start, nuclear power is recognised as a clean, zero emissions energy source.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in the US claims the country avoided 476 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 as a result of its use of nuclear energy in the grid, or the equivalent of removing 100 million cars from the road.
‘If you want a proven way to get low carbon then nuclear energy has already proven itself,’ nuclear power campaigner Rob Parker told Daily Mail Australia in June.
‘No nation anywhere has achieved ultra low carbon by relying on wind and solar alone.’
Of course, the nuclear option still needs to overcome a PR problem with Aussies.
Incidents at reactors such as Three-Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) often overshadow the benefits and long-term stability of the technology in many other places.
But among industrialised nations, Australia is a laggard when it comes to atomic energy.
Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce, a prominent supporter of Australia developing a nuclear industry, has previously described the nation as ‘living in a cave’ when it comes to the nuclear issue and has called for a repeal of laws blocking its introduction.
‘I believe we should have nuclear power… and if people want zero emissions – well, this, this is it,’ Mr Joyce said in June.
‘I mean, you have your wind, you can have your solar, but if you want baseline, deliverable, 24/7 zero-emission power, then nuclear does it.’
In 31 countries around the world, more than 450 nuclear power plants are connected to the grid.
Video: Steven Marshall responds to plans to build nuclear-powered submarines in SA (ABC NEWS)
France counts on nuclear power for 75 percent of its electricity, and earns three billion Euros a year as a net exporter to other European nations because of its low cost of generation.
The French made the decision to embrace nuclear technology way back in the 1970s, after the OPEC oil crisis.
The US, Russia, China, the UK and Canada all include nuclear power in their energy mix, some of their reactors powered by uranium from Australia.
Australia is home to a third of the world’s uranium, producing about 10 per cent of the world’s exports worth over $730million a year.
HOW NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS WORK
1. Producing electricity from nuclear energy first requires splitting atoms to release the energy.
2. Nuclear reactors fuelled by uranium pellets produce atom-splitting nuclear fission.
3. As they split, atoms release particles which cause other atoms to split, causing a chain reaction.
4. The chain reaction creates heat that warms a cooling agent such as water or liquid metal.
5. Steam is produced that powers turbines which feed energy to generators that produce electricity.
The recurring sticking points in the development of a domestic nuclear industry are cost and bipartisan political support.
Nuclear power plants are widely recognised as expensive to build, but cheap to run. A large nuclear power plant costs in the vicinity of $40billion to construct.
Options more suitable for Australia’s smaller population may lay in new-generation Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), or by following the example of the larger one-gigawatt plant with four reactors built by Korean company KEPCO at Barakah in the United Arab Emirates.
SMRs generating up to 300 megawatts of power are cheaper and quicker to build, helping nuclear compete with more economical renewables such as solar and wind.
They can also be built underground and cooled with air rather than water, enhancing safety in their operation.
SMRs also ‘load follow’, meaning the reactor adjusts output based on demand.
But the technology remains under development, with its use of new materials, innovative safety features and advanced construction techniques yet to be approved by most international regulators.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said development of a nuclear industry in Australia would require bipartisan political support, but the Labor Party remains opposed to enrichment and processing of uranium for use in a domestic reactor.
Of the three conditions under which Labor said it would support the new tripartite agreement on nuclear-powered submarines, the first was ‘that there be no requirement of a domestic civil nuclear industry’, ALP leader Anthony Albanese said on Thursday.
What affect would adding nuclear power to our energy mix have on a bread-and-butter issue for millions of Australians: electricity bills?
Australia’s household electricity costs have gone from one of the cheapest in the OECD to one of the most expensive. The nominal price of electricity for Australian households rose from around $44 per megawatt hour in 1978 to around $332 per megawatt hour in 2018.
An eFuture study by the CSIRO in 2012 estimated the inclusion of nuclear power in our energy mix could cut wholesale electricity prices by as much as 34-37 percent.
The report also showed that incorporating nuclear into our energy mix from 2025 so that it provided around 55 percent of our electricity from 2040, would save Australia $130 billion in greenhouse gas abatement and $18 billion in health cost savings.
Australia has now conducted numerous inquiries into the possibility of a domestic nuclear industry, from the Switkowski Report in 2006 to South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission in 2016.
The ‘Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia’ report by the Australian Parliament in 2019 re-emphasised the benefits of nuclear technology for climate change, energy reliability, and cheaper power for households and business.
‘Australia should be strategic in its consideration of nuclear energy. This requires us to think about the next 50 years rather than the next five and also how we might enter the nuclear energy industry by learning from other countries while building our own sovereign capability,’ the report stated.
While an increasing number of MPs at both Federal and state level are pushing for Australia to consider the ‘nuclear option’, others say the business case has not been made and community opposition remains too great.
‘The greatest risk to it is public perception, not cost. …A major public awareness program will be the deciding factor to enable the successful introduction of nuclear energy into Australia,’ one submission to the parliamentary report noted.
Mr Joyce believes Australians’ need for cheaper, more reliable power will overcome widespread opposition to the technology, going so far as to suggest free power for towns willing to host a reactor.
‘You just have to come up with the right policy settings and they will accept it … People will think with their wallets,’ he said in 2019.
‘If you can see the reactor [from your house], your power is for free,’ he suggested. ‘If you are within 50 kilometres of a reactor, you get power for half price.’
But at the current rate of debate and discussion, the nuclear submarines to be built in Adelaide will be with us well before nuclear power is a part of our electricity grid.
THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST NUCLEAR POWER
* Clean energy: Relative to coal and natural gas, nuclear is a zero-to-low emissions energy source that could more rapidly reduce our reliance on carbon, improving our emissions outlook in relation to the 2050 Paris Agreement target
* Cheap, reliable power: As coal becomes uneconomic and older coal-fired power stations are decommissioned, Australia’s need for cheaper, reliable power grows. Nuclear power could complement renewable sources such as wind and solar, while avoiding any variability in supply associated with those technologies (the ‘when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine’ argument)
* Long lifespan: Some plants are forecast to last 100 years, offsetting high initial construction costs. By contrast, replacement of renewables such as solar panels and wind turbines needs to occur every 10-20 years.
* Advances in tech: New generation reactors such as Small Modular Reactors are designed to be smaller, safer, more efficient and quicker to construct.
* Expense: Many inquiries into the possibility of nuclear power in Australia have concluded that the business case is not made out. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has previously estimated the cost of nuclear energy creation at an exorbitant $16,000 per kilowatt.
* Time lag: Most experts agree that even if Australia agreed to develop nuclear power, our first reactor would be another decade away from concept to construction and commissioning.
* Waste: New technology may see nuclear waste stored before it is reprocessed into new forms of fuel. Until that time, burying it within a geological deposit remains the most likely option for an Australian facility. Waste from Sydney’s Lucas Heights reactor, a facility producing medical isotopes, is currently transported to France and then returned as a by-product which is stored in cement canisters at the facility.
* Accidents: Incidents at nuclear power plants such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 remain bad ads for nuclear energy, but as Barry Brook, an Australian environmental scientist who supports the development of nuclear power in Australia points out, ‘It’s not possible to design [a nuclear power plat] that’s risk-free… but that’s true of any sort of energy source or indeed, any large infrastructure we require.’
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