ziggyThe Minerals Council of Australia has called for the country’s prohibition on nuclear power to be lifted. But both critics and supporters see little future for large-scale nuclear power in Australia’s energy mix.
The man who once famously called for 50 nuclear reactors across Australia, nuclear physicist and NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski, says “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed”.
A lack of public support and any actual proposals for a nuclear plant had resulted in government inertia, he said on Thursday.
“Government won’t move until a real business case is presented and none has been, to my knowledge, and there aren’t votes in trying to lead the debate,” he said, adding that renewables were now a more economically viable choice.
“With requirements for baseload capacity reducing, adding nuclear capacity one gigawatt at a time is hard to justify, especially as costs are now very high (in the range of $5 billion to $10 billion), development timelines are 15+ years, and solar with battery storage are winning the race.”
Warwick Grigor, the former chairman of Uranium King, mining analyst, and a director of uranium miner Peninsula Energy, agrees.
“I think nuclear energy is great, but we’ve missed the boat in Australia, no one is going down that path in the foreseeable future,” Mr Grigor told Fairfax Media.
“When Fukushima [the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan] occurred, that was the closing of the door to our nuclear power possibilities.”
Mr Grigor sees battery technology, a market he has since entered, as a better alternative.
Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear free campaigner Dave Sweeney said talk of nuclear power was “a dangerous distraction” from the steps that needed to address the energy and climate challenges facing Australia.
Nuclear energy has been officially banned in Australia since 1998, with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s OPAL reactor at Lucas Heights, NSW, the only nuclear reactor in the country.
But the Minerals Council’s executive director for uranium, Daniel Zavattiero, said the nation had excluded a low-emissions energy source of which Australia has an abundant supply from the current debate.
“Maybe nuclear power might be something that is not needed, but an outright prohibition on it is not needed,” he said.
Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg supported the Mineral Council’s stance.
“There needs to be bipartisan support for nuclear power and that does not exist right now,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“You would also need state-based support and that is not clear at this stage either.”
In a pre-budget submission, the Minerals Council said nuclear energy needed to be “allowed to compete with other low-emissions sources of electricity – and on equal terms”.
“The ban on nuclear power in Australia is hampering an open debate about future energy and climate change management.”
Mr Zavattiero’s position has been supported by the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, which recommended the lifting of the federal prohibition on a nuclear industry.
Mr Switkowski said smaller, modular nuclear reactors could play a part in the future energy mix, and could support regional centres.
An ANSTO spokesman told Fairfax Media these smaller plants could technically work in Australia.
“If Australia did want to expand into nuclear energy technologies, there would be a number of options to consider in the future, including small modular reactors and Generation IV reactors, which could be feasible if the policy, economic settings and technology were right and public support was in place,” he said.
However, the country currently did not have enough skilled personnel to safely operate a nuclear energy industry, he said.
“The question of whether nuclear energy is technically or economically feasible is a different question to whether Australia should or should not have a nuclear energy program, the latter of which is a matter for policy makers and the people of Australia,” the spokesman said.
Countries such as France have embraced nuclear energy, and nuclear power accounts for nearly 75 per cent of all energy generation.
This reliance on nuclear energy has played a role in helping the nation slash its CO2 emissions, with OECD data outlining France averaging 4.32 tonnes per capita compared to Australia’s average of 15.8 tonnes per capita.
While France had set a timeline to reduce its proportion of nuclear energy generation to half of all generation by 2025, French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said it would be difficult to keep to its timeline without reintroducing fossil fuel generation.
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