Is Nuclear Power the Best Bet for Australia


It looks like nuclear energy may be back on the table in Australia, again.

A nuclear technology ban has been in place in Australia since 1998, which prevents the building of nuclear reactors for power generation. The Liberal Party (Australia’s centre-right party, currently in opposition) has announced they are considering it in the energy mix as a viable way to reduce carbon emissions.

Though the policy has yet to be written, this ought to result in them taking a pro-nuclear policy to the next election and advocating for the end of the ban.

Nuclear power was seen as political poison in the past, but much has changed in 20 years, and it is likely that the Australian people will be much more receptive. Nuclear technology has lost its mystical quality, and the hypothetical tales of nuclear holocausts and fallout that were so topical in the cold war now live on only in select sci-fi dystopias.

Though there are nuclear disasters that can serve as fodder for anti-nuclear campaigns, any pro-nuclear campaign also has a vast amount of relatable, concrete evidence at its disposal.

Politicians can be filmed touring plants in other countries, even nuclear waste depots, without having any facemasks on. They can interview life-long nuclear industry workers who have lived to old ages. They can show maps of all the hundreds of generators around the world. And they can compare the electricity prices in France to the rest of Europe.

It is high time that the ban is lifted, and the private sector has this additional option on the table to try and achieve the energy “trilemma”—emissions reduction, price, and availability.

Considering Nuclear

Whether nuclear turns out to be the best answer for Australia or not is yet to be seen. The issue is an interesting one and several prominent factors require consideration.

Firstly, there is a transition that has to take place. Australia does not have an established nuclear industry. We have part of a nuclear industry (mining) and we have pockets of nuclear industry (research), but we don’t have a nuclear power industry. It will take significant work to develop all the infrastructure, skills, regulatory framework, and standards to guarantee safe implementation of the process, from refinement through to waste storage.

In this picture taken on July 27, 2018, foreign journalists receive information about decommissioning works between reactor unit 2 and unit 3 (in background) at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (Kimimasa Mayama/AFP via Getty Images)

Secondly, there is the question of “base load” versus “flexible” power. Several years ago this was the main objection to nuclear. The problem that our electricity network then faced was not a lack of base-load power but a lack of flexible generation. Nuclear, in contrast, has a reputation for being an inflexible power source, more commonly used to supply base-load power.

However, both sides of this equation have changed in recent years. Australia’s most recent energy short-falls on the East Coast were, in fact, due to a loss of base-load power. And the most problematic forecast shortfalls in electricity supply are due to losing our aging coal infrastructure, which provides base-load power.

Additionally, nuclear technology is losing its reputation for being inflexible. A more modern form of nuclear generator called small modular rectors have been making a name for themselves, and is intended to supply very flexible dispatchable electricity on demand. The US and UK have both commenced processes to adopt them.

The third question is, “what to do with our nuclear waste?” This gets unnecessary air-time because the answer is simple—store it. Nuclear waste contains the world’s most insecure plutonium, yet Australia is the best place in the world for storing it. Australia is a vast, geologically stable desert surrounded by a thousand-kilometre-wide moat. I believe we should be offering to store everyone else’s nuclear waste.

Additionally, a little-considered fact about nuclear waste is that it’s not necessarily waste. It still has residual nuclear energy. In the future, we may develop the technology for harvesting the remaining energy, and then Australia would find itself a storehouse of another vast source of nuclear energy (we already have the largest reserves of uranium in the world).

The Coal Option

For all that, I may surprise you by saying that nuclear isn’t my preferred solution for Australia. This country already has a well-established coal industry with a skilled workforce, safety standards, infrastructure, and a lot of coal still in the ground. I’d rather we continued using coal and had the gumption to build new coal-fired powerplants to replace the ones that are growing old. This is likely the cheapest electricity solution for Australia.

Epoch Times Photo Aerial view of the open cut coal mine at Muja, near Collie in Western Australia. (Philip Schubert/Adobe Stock)

But I’m not a climate alarmist. And I am realistic about the relative impact on CO2 levels between if we reduce our coal usage rapidly or slowly and if we export it compared to using it ourselves—it’s minimal. We might as well use it and enjoy the energy security.

For those who are climate-alarmed, however, nuclear is a very obvious compromise. This leads many to wonder, why are climate activists not advocating for it?

There are a few reasons why nuclear has not been a large part of the international decarbonization discussion.

One reason is that there are many countries that the international community does not want to have nuclear capabilities. The idea of ​​equipping every country in the Middle East and Africa, for instance, with nuclear power infrastructure, would not leave all the rest of the world’s leaders sleeping peacefully at night.

Australia’s Energy Needs

A second less prominent reason is that nuclear energy is also in finite supply, with limited supply chains. It is common to assume that there is enough uranium around to last “millions of years”—this is usually from factual-but-misleading anecdotes about how much energy you would get if you could turn an orange into energy.

In reality, we have more like 135 years of supply from “reasonably assured and recoverable uranium resources” at the current rate of consumption, according to Australia’s Nuclear Energy Agency’s Uranium 2020 report.

If we used our uranium as fast as we use coal, we might only have decades of supply. However, similar things have been said about oil in the past, and we have never yet reached peak oil; if nuclear recovery technology improves, “unconventional resources” could greatly increase supply longevity.

For Australia’s imminent energy needs, nuclear is an option that should definitely be on the table.

For the Liberal Party, this is also a politically savvy move. If the last election was a referendum on climate action, then it is clear from the results (Greens, Labor, and Teal independents) that many people in Australia want emissions reduction. This policy shows that the Liberals are listening.

From a longer-term view towards the next election, this is a win-win position—if Labor’s energy policies work (unlikely, in my opinion), then this issue won’t matter; things that are working are invisible at an election. On the other hand, if Labor’s energy policies fail, as I expect electricity and gas prices to reach record highs, and Australia’s energy security is in jeopardy, then the Liberal party have differentiated itself from those policies early.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.



Peter Castle is a mechanical engineer with broad experience in the oil and gas, energy, and other process industries.

Comments are closed.