Explainer: Should Australia build nuclear power plants to fight the climate crisis? | Nuclear power
Weeks ahead of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, politicians and commentators have again suggested Australia consider nuclear energy as part of its future power grid.
Although renewable energies could meet 100% of demand at certain times of the day by 2025 at certain times of the day – a trend that could be accelerated with the energetic support of the federal government – the prospect of an Australian nuclear power plant is still very popular with the public.
Here’s what we know about the pros and cons of nuclear power in the Australian context.
Why were nuclear weapons never introduced in Australia?
Australian governments have always talked about building nuclear power plants but never really pulled it off. While Australia holds 31% of the world’s uranium supply, it has always been cheaper to rely on an ocean of cheap coal, gas and oil for energy supply. Australia’s only nuclear reactor in Lucas Heights south of Sydney is used for scientific and medical research and mainly produces low-level waste.
Why was the idea now being revived?
Nuclear power seems to solve a political dilemma. Since it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, some climate emergency handling see it as the fastest way to deliver carbon-free electricity. Others, who rightly point out that the move away from fossil fuels will hit workers’ regions hardest, see the “distributable energy” of nuclear reactors as the basis of a new social pact that pays high wages and at the same time “strengthens” the grid.
On Monday, BHP’s Vice President for Sustainability and Climate, Dr. Fiona Wild, Australia to consider nuclear power because of the urgency of the impending climate collapse.
“We run out of time to choose our favorite technologies, we have to take an ‘all of the above’ approach because the challenge is so great and the pace at which we have to move is so fast that you want it around make sure you have all of these options, ”said Wild.
On Tuesday, Australian business editor Judith Sloan defended the “nuclear plight” by calling for a rational debate on the merits of adopting the technology.
“With most of the world facing an energy crisis with soaring gas, coal and electricity prices, it is certainly time for Australia to have a rational debate on nuclear power that leads to a final outcome,” Sloan said.
Do the costs and benefits make sense?
The idea of starting a nuclear power industry has been regularly examined by governments. South Australia did the homework for the rest of the nation in 2015 with a royal commission. A federal parliamentary investigation followed in 2019.
The results were mixed. The royal commission concluded that nuclear power was out of reach. The federal investigation recommended that such a project should only be carried out with broad public support – an extremely unlikely prospect. While both reports agreed that “next-generation” reactors showed promise, nuclear energy overall remained a time and money sink.
By 2019, the cost of a nuclear power plant had risen to $ 1 billion for 100 MW of generation capacity. It would take at least 15 years to build a large-scale facility. If Australia had started work on a nuclear reactor before the pandemic, it would not be operational until around 2035. The small or “modular” reactors that are considered the future of the industry will not be affordable until 2050.
Could they help reduce emissions?
Nuclear power is not climate neutral. While the power generation itself is fairly efficient and low in emissions, the process of mining the uranium, transporting it to a location for refining, and pouring the concrete to build the facility creates significant emissions. Since uranium is a finite resource, nuclear power is not “renewable” either.
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Renewables, of course, have similar problems because so many other systems still rely on fossil fuels – wind turbine towers need steel, PV solar cells need resins, everything relies on diesel to transport it – but the total CO2 emissions are tiny and the speed quick to install means there are better chances of decarbonising these processes faster than with nuclear power. With dirt cheap PV solar and rapid improvements in hydrogen and battery technology, it just gets easier.
How about stabilizing the network?
Renewable energy critics say that on calm, cloudy days they are unable to respond to periods of high electricity demand with “distributable electricity” because they rely on wind and sun. Nuclear power, it is argued, can effectively replace the fossil fuel power plants currently in use on an industrial scale, which can be ramped up or shut down as required.
The problems with renewable energy are real, but they are becoming less of a hindrance. There are already plans in place to make the Australian power grid more decentralized with a combination of PV solar, offshore wind and onshore wind in order to remove any loophole in the system when going offline. With the addition of battery technology to store and deliver power on demand, the business case for nuclear power looks pretty thin.
The challenge of renewable energies
Thanks to the introduction of PV solar on roofs, the operation of coal and gas power plants costs more in times of low demand and high supply. The operators have a choice: Push Through or Power Down. In Australia, the operators of aging coal-fired power plants have so far chosen to enforce, but as the oversupply increases, the cost makes it more attractive to turn off the generator. Re-fueling them is another expensive process – one that renewables don’t share and that can be turned on or off quickly.
Australia is far from peaking in renewables and there is time to resolve the challenges involved long before a nuclear power plant has a chance to make it off the whiteboard. If current trends continue, breaking ground for a new nuclear power plant today would mean committing to a white elephant that would be too expensive to turn on at all.
Any other problems?
All of this without even talking about plans to shut down old nuclear reactors at the end of their life or store spent nuclear fuel – another very expensive and time-consuming process. Australia is already struggling to shut down and rehabilitate old mine sites, but nuclear power poses new challenges.
There are currently only a few good facilities in the world whose geological or political environment is stable enough to store this material over the long term. During its royal commission, South Australia was considering building its own waste storage facility but received no public support due to the heritage of nuclear weapons testing in Maralinga.
The federal government is currently working on a separate plan to build a low-level and intermediate-level waste storage facility in Kimba, South Australia, but the process has proven controversial. Under the current proposal, this facility would not be equipped to handle spent nuclear fuel and an expansion would mean a fresh start.