Australia is finally reassessing its ban on commercial nuclear power generation.
The country, which has more known uranium resources than any other, is currently the 3rd largest uranium producer in the world, 6,937 metric tons in 2017, surpassed by only Kazakhstan and Canada.
The Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy just closed a period of open inquiry into “the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia” on September 16. At a public hearing held on Wednesday, September 18, the chair of the Committee on Energy and Environment, Ted O’Brien, said that, “It’s important to determine not just whether nuclear energy stacks up economically and technologically but also that it is suitable for Australia on environmental, safety and security grounds.” These hearings are the place for various stakeholders to make their arguments about the feasibility and viability of nuclear power for the country.
Public hearings on the topic will continue until October 2. The House Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science, and Resources held a nuclear industry roundtable on September 20 where proponents of nuclear power in Australia spoke.
Allowing nuclear development to begin in Australia could be as simple as amending the National Conservation Act 1999 to remove four words, section 140A(1)(b), “a nuclear power plant,” from the list of prohibited nuclear installations named in the act which also bans nuclear fuel fabrication plants, enrichment plants, and reprocessing facilities. Amending this act to allow nuclear power plant construction would be a fairly simple first step for the Morrison government to allow nuclear plants to be considered in Australia, and give developers and entrepreneurs the chance to float design ideas and begin the process of complying with Australia’s stringent environmental regulations.
In addition to the National Conservation Act 1999, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 also involves a “prohibition on certain nuclear installations.” But, its prohibitions apply only to Commonwealth owned entities, so it prohibits construction of nuclear power plants by the national government, but puts no such ban on state or private construction, as such; amendment of this law is not entirely necessary to allow nuclear energy in the country, but may be a good step to take later in order to remove that additional restriction.
The coalitions on either side of this issue have made some unexpected bedfellows. Although the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is part of a coalition of groups aiming to discourage Prime Minister Morrison’s government from embracing nuclear power, one important union, the Australian Workers Union (AWR) has set itself apart, emphasizing instead the jobs growth that could be produced by lifting the ban. Its National Secretary, Daniel Walton, described the ban as “ludicrous.” and said that, “Most of our energy crisis is due to partisan pigheadedness – on both sides … so those of us on the progressive side of politics can’t continue to reflexively reject zero-emission compromise options.” While the AWR is supporting attempts at repealing the ban, the ACTU opposes the attempt in part because it is concerned about radiation and waste disposal, and worries that workers may see more harms than benefits from development of this technology.
Australia currently relies mainly on coal for electricity. Seventy-five percent of its electricity is supplied by coal-fired power plants. Coal accounts for 40 percent of its overall energy consumption, oil for 34 percent, and gas for 22 percent. So, although anti-nuclear advocates claim that a 100-percent renewable energy portfolio is feasible, it is certainly far off, and replacing high energy density coal, oil, and gas with low energy density wind and solar will likely prove quite difficult. Its current emissions target is to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.” Without nuclear power, it is likely that the country will struggle to meet those targets.
Many environmental, social, and labor groups oppose nuclear on the grounds that it is unsafe and that this safety hazard would most heavily burden the working class and poor. Some also view it as merely a dangerous distraction from the renewable energy future they envision, including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who described it as a “loopy” idea, and expressed concerns over safety and economic feasibility, emphasizing instead a focus on renewables and increased energy storage.
Although concerns about nuclear powers safety are often brought up in conversations about its efficacy as a power generation source, numerous studies have concluded that it is one of the safest means of generating electricity. Fears fomented by dramatized portrayals of events like the 1986 Chernobyl disasters in media do much to cover up the reality that nuclear power is incredibly safe.
It seems illogical for the country with the largest uranium resources on earth to ignore the option of nuclear power entirely. Whether they build significant nuclear generating capacity as a result or not, amending the National Conservation Act 1999 to allow for the development of nuclear energy capacity would be a smart move for the country, opening another avenue of possible production and diversifying their energy portfolio.