Renewed advocacy for a domestic nuclear power industry has re-emerged as the country weans itself off fossil fuels and works towards a carbon-neutral future. In Australia, proponents are campaigning for nuclear technology to be considered as part of the future energy mix given Australia has some of the largest uranium reserves in the world. However, for this to proceed we would need to repeal federal laws on nuclear facilities and lift mining bans. New South Wales and Victoria are the only two states left which prohibit uranium mining and Australia is the only G20 country where nuclear power is banned.
Many agree nuclear power is a low carbon emitter and does not contain mercury, nitrogen oxide or sulphur dioxide making the air cleaner, with fewer pollutants. Furthermore, it can generate double the power of solar and wind more reliably regardless of weather, thereby providing a viable option to coal and gas as a baseload generator. According to the Australian Nuclear Association, nuclear power generation worldwide avoids annually over 2 billion tonnes of CO2-e emissions.
However, nuclear is not a renewable energy. Nuclear reactors are fuelled by uranium, which needs to be mined. Australia has some of the largest uranium reserves, estimated to be around 35% of the world’s supply, which are all exported given that Australia has no nuclear program of its own.
A bill has now been put forward to remove all state-based barriers to uranium mining as well as the construction and operation of certain nuclear facilities. Opinions remain divided as groups hash out the economic viability given the high upfront capital costs, long build times and its inflexibility to complement the increasing amount of renewable generation capacity. Renewable power fluctuates widely during the day depending on the weather and nuclear plants are not agile enough to deal with rapid rises and falls in supply and demand. According to the Australian Energy Council the ideal sources to complement Australia’s future electricity market needs to be flexible, such as pumped hydro, batteries, and gas-fired peaking plants that can be converted to run on emissions free hydrogen once it is available.
Meanwhile, one of the key risks is nuclear waste. Australia would need a solid plan to deal with nuclear waste and the development of the necessary skills for a workforce to manage a nuclear industry. While the volume of waste from nuclear reactors is arguably smaller compared to waste generated from a coal-fired power station, it still contains 95% radioactivity level and will remain so even after a few hundred years after some radioactive elements have decayed into more stable elements. The only solution at the moment is to store the waste in a deep underground repository. In New Mexico, United States, a deep repository handling intermediate level waste had to close in 2014-17 following a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel. The Sellafield nuclear waste site in Cumbria, England, is currently tackling its second clean-up following radioactivity leakage underground which is projected to cost up to £97billion.
There is also lack of social license to introduce nuclear power to Australia. Opinion polls find that Australians are overwhelmingly opposed to a nuclear power reactor being built in their local vicinity. Following the recent Coalition government’s decision to build a nuclear waste storage facility near Kimba in South Australia to store low-level nuclear medical waste, there was unanimous opposition from the Barngarla Traditional Owners. There is also great concern that the development of nuclear energy programs could increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons and as nuclear fuel and technologies become globally available, the risk of these falling into wrong hands is increasingly present. As Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation summarises it, “Our energy future is renewable, not radioactive.”