Australia’s debate around nuclear power is set to reignite in the coming months (Image Source: Rudolf Vlcek/Flickr).
From a scientific perspective, nuclear power is mind-blowing.
Just under 6kg of uranium—the fuel used in nuclear power plants—can produce as much energy as the amount of oil it would take to fill the Westpac building in Adelaide.
According to numbers from the European Nuclear Society, per kg, this equates to two million times more energy than oil and three million times more energy than coal.
However, the production of nuclear energy in Australia has been banned since 1998 by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (ARPANS) Act, as well as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, and it was barely given a mention in the recent federal election.
Often talked of as an emissions-free alternative to coal, nuclear power is lauded by some environmentalists, and condemned by others.
With Australia’s ban on nuclear power due to be reviewed later this year, the debate is set to ramp up again.
But with renewable energy and battery technology growing, is it worth it for Australia to construct nuclear reactors?
Dave Sweeney, a nuclear-free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), thinks not.
“Nuclear is not a bridging technology. It’s actually a dangerous distraction from the structural changes we need to make,” Mr Sweeney said.
“The effort and rate of return would be much greater to invest in renewables rather than to subsidise nuclear.”
Globally, nuclear reactors have been producing power since the 1950s, currently supplying about 11 per cent of the world’s electricity, and Australia is home to almost one-third of the world’s known uranium resources.
Australia is also the third-largest producer of uranium, behind only Kazakhstan and Canada.
Still, Australia is the only G20 country to have a ban on nuclear power.
Robert Parker, president of the Australian Nuclear Association, sees no virtue in Australia’s nuclear power bans.
“In any event, restrictions on nuclear energy have no validity. The basis is around cost. The market can work out whether it wants it or not,” Mr Parker said.
Industry Super Australia last month released a report highlighting the need to look at the nuclear power option in Australia.
“It is important not to limit technological capacity. This might include taking early steps to acquire some nuclear expertise,” the report said.
The report also stated that for Tesla lithium-ion batteries—like the ones in SA—to provide one and a half days of power, the cost would be $6.5 trillion or equivalent to 1000 nuclear reactors.
Mr Sweeney accepts battery technology is currently problematic but said we should not get distracted.
“There’s a real need to develop greater battery capacity, no question about it, and that’s one of the big challenges,” Mr Sweeney said.
“We need to face that challenge, rather than get caught in the distraction that’s nuclear power.
“What makes Australia different historically is coal. There’s been massive amounts of coal which has enabled Australia to develop an easy, not necessarily a wise, but an easy energy option.
“Because we had cheap, coal-fired electricity, we didn’t turn down that path of other nations of going down the nuclear path. So, what we’re saying is now, as we exit coal, we don’t go from the coal fire to the atomic frying pan; we go from coal to very much a renewables-based energy system.”
Mr Parker questioned the viability of renewable resources.
“The average life span of a wind plant in Europe is 17 years; you can get 80 years or 100 years out of a nuclear power plant. So, I think we really need to ask ourselves, what do we mean by renewable?” Mr Parker said.
“On a materials intensity basis and on an environmental footprint basis, nuclear is vastly lower in terms of the amounts of materials that are deployed for the output.”
The recent HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, dramatically showcased the infamous nuclear disaster which took place in Ukraine in 1986.
“I think they did a good job of looking at the incident. It was a pretty proficient job of explaining what happened,” Mr Parker said.
The miniseries highlighted the horrors of the events which unfolded before and after the accident.
However, Mr Parker said the type of reactor built in Chernobyl had technical deficiencies and would never be constructed in Australia.
But the real dark side of nuclear power is what comes out the other end of a plant. Australia already produces some radioactive waste, though this is only of a low and intermediate-level.
How to manage the high-level radioactive waste is the most contentious issue surrounding nuclear power, as spent uranium fuel can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.
“Waste would have to be right in the front end of consideration,” Mr Parker said.
“There are two methods of disposing of waste: the most disappointing one, but the one that’s happening, would be deep geological repository. That’s 500 metres down under granite and that’s what the Swedes and the Finns are looking at doing.
“I think that’s less than what I would call an ideal method.”
Another method Mr Parker described was called partitioning and transmutation.
“It’s what a lot of nation’s programs are looking at actually doing in the long term that has the effect of reducing the duration of radioactivity of the waste from the couple of hundred thousand years down to about 300 years.”
But Mr Sweeney does not think Australia should choose to go down this path.
“ACF has far more confidence in the ability of people to design enhanced batteries than to design a system that encapsulates radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years.”
So, will Australia ever develop nuclear power?
Many high-ranking Australian politicians are discussing it and, according to a recent poll, a slight plurality of the Australian public support its development, although a clear majority would not be comfortable living near a nuclear power plant.
If Australia goes down the nuclear path, industry groups say a carbon price will need to be reintroduced to make them viable.
Do we want to guarantee a heavy drop in C02 emissions, something Australia desperately needs, if the case for batteries doesn’t stack up in the near future?
Will people want to sacrifice their land to radioactive waste for thousands of years, knowing we have the technology to harness power from the wind and sun?
These questions will loom large as the Nationals continue to push for a committee inquiry into nuclear power.