Nuclear Power in Australia: Is It Finally Time to Embrace It?

As President Obama mulls about the future of nuclear power in the United States, Australia has been discussing the same issue for a while with great focus. Although many left-wing politicians, including the country’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, have stated that Australia will not go nuclear for the foreseeable future, many scientists and analysts believe that it would have to embrace nuclear technology in order for Australia to reduce its national-carbon output.

Currently, Australia has an eighty-percent reliance on fossil fuels to power its country’s electrical needs, with the majority consisting of coal [1]. It has large reserves of coal and natural gas that the country uses for domestic consumption and for its major exports. In 2006, Australian power stations produced 237 billion Kilowatthours (KWh) of which 220 KWh were consumed [2]. Much of the growth seen in Australia has been seen in the increase of energy-intensive industries, which is expected to increase [2]. Currently, Australia has no active nuclear power plants but had three small research reactors, the High Flux Australian Reactor, the Open Pool Australian Lightwater reactor, and “Moata” (Aboriginal name meaning “gentle firestick”) [3]. Those reactors were never intended to be for power generation but for general scientific and technical research and development [4], and, to this day, no electrical nuclear plants exist now or are planned in the future.

The country’s prime minister has proposed that the government invest in “clean-coal” technology, renewable energy, “cap and trade” and conversation for its energy future. Ruud has does not support nuclear energy and is opposed to the construction of any nuclear plant in Australia. During the last Australian national election in 2007, the eventual winner Ruud ran on an anti-nuclear platform while his opponent ran on a pro-nuclear platform, which was turned down. Recently, however, Australians have become more welcoming to nuclear power as a potential new source for its energy supply. Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation said that “he expected Australian public opinion would soon favor nuclear power” [5]. In the 2007 election year, 53% of Australians were opposed to the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia compared to 41% in favor and 6% who were unsure. In 2009 when asked the same question, 49% of Australians were in favor while 43% were opposed and 8% were unsure [4]. This represents a significant change in its political sentiment on nuclear power in a country that has no active nuclear power stations in the country.

Many Australian analysts believe that it is outrageous for Australia to export its copious amount of uranium abroad while the country refuses to use it domestically. Nuclear proponents point out that nuclear power is cheap, generating a cost of 1.68 Australian cents per KWh, compared to as much as 2.8 to 3.9 cents today [1].  And it is environmentally friendly with a low carbon footprint. While coal produces 0.86 tonnes/MWh and gas produces 0.36 tonnes/MWh, a nuclear plant produces 0.001 tonnes/MWh of carbon [1]. Despite generating no nuclear power for electricity, Australia is home to 40% of the world’s recoverable uranium [6] and has the second largest reserves of uranium behind Canada. And with the average nuclear power plant generating around 700-1200 MWe of power, just a few nuclear reactors each allocated to different major cities, nuclear has the potential to replace Australia’s great reliance on coal for its electrical-generating needs. In fact, some of nuclear’s biggest proponents go so far as to say that “without nuclear power, Australia’s carbon reduction targets for 2020 and 2050 will be difficult if not impossible to attain” [1].

Opponents, however, have pointed out multiple apparent shortcomings, many of which have been arguments for decades. Concerning costs, they state that the 1.68 cent/KWh does not represent the fixed costs of building the plant; mining and enriching the uranium, which generates pollution; covering for the potential contamination of groundwater, which is very expensive; security for each plant; and the “safe disposal” of nuclear waste for “thousands of years” [7]. In fact, building a nuclear power plant cost around US$4 billion in the 1990s [7], so, even accounting for inflation since then, the construction costs are not insignificant. Building a nuclear plant takes around 15 to 20 years to build, which means that a proposed plant that starts construction today will not be online until 2030. If climate change is as imminent a threat as often believed, then nuclear power plants would not have an impact in time to curb the near-term effects of climate change. Also, going back to the statement that Australia will not be able to achieve “carbon reductions targets for 2020” without nuclear power, Australia could not achieve its targets for 2020 anyway even if Australia were building many nuclear plants right now [7].

Both sides appear to give reasonable arguments for their respective sides, but Australia needs to have a nationwide, fully engaged discussion on nuclear power and make a decision soon, or else any future benefits of nuclear power will be futile in offsetting the environmental and economic damage that has occurred and will delay the transition from fossil fuels through the next couple of decades. PM Ruud does not appear that he will ever support nuclear power because his critics allege and public records show that many of his donors and biggest supporters are the coal industry and coal unions [6], so persuading the public and electing new politicians who support nuclear power appear to be the best paths towards a nuclear future.

Renewable sources of energy are becoming more a part of Australia’s energy policy, but they have remained somewhat clumsy alternatives to fossil fuels, especially in a country that goes through scorching summers, which causes their peak demand to vary greatly from less demanding periods. Many countries around the world, like China, Finland, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and India [6], are building or are about to build nuclear plants very soon; and the United States is paving the way for its first nuclear plants since the 1979 “Three Mile Island” meltdown [5]. However, Australia has remained resistant to nuclear power for its energy and environmental future. Despite its flaws, nuclear energy has many benefits that the Australian government needs to reconsider.

[1]: Kemeny, Leslie. “Emission and population targets impossible without nuclear power.” Canberra Times 01 Feb. 2010, : A9. (Available on Lexis-Nexis)

[2]: “EIA – International Energy Data and Analysis for Australia”: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/country/country_energy_data.cfm?fips=AS

[3] “MOATA” from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MOATA

[4] “Nuclear Power in Australia” from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_Australia

[5] Maher, Sid. “We won’t be going nuclear: Ruud.” The Australian 18 Feb. 2010, :Local p. 2.http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/we-wont-be-going-nuclear-rudd/story-e6frg6nf-1225831551975

[6] O’Connor, Mike. “It’s a nuclear future.” The Courier Mail 08 Feb. 2010, Features p. 25. http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,26692239-5012446,00.html

[7] “Is it sensible to promote nuclear power or just folly?” Canberra Times 04 Feb. 2010, A12. (Available on Lexis-Nexis)


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One response to “Nuclear Power in Australia: Is It Finally Time to Embrace It?

  1. sauronseye

    Nuclear power in Australia has been the subject of extensive public debate and the anti-nuclear movement in Australia has a long history.There are several prominent Australians who have publicly expressed anti-nuclear laws. The Rudd government vehemently opposes nuclear power and almost killed off the process but the debate has resurfaced.
    The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization fueled the debate by commissioning a study entitled ” Introducing Nuclear Power to Australia: An Economic Comparison” from John Gittus a UK -based consultant. The report concluded that with subsidies, nuclear plants could produce electricity in Australia at a cost that was competitive with coal.
    The critics for nuclear power are still not convinced believing that the focus should be on renewable sources of energy. Australia has vast renewable energy sources which are relatively untapped.In 2006, Australia’s annual electricity production was 255 TWh, with approximately 9,500 GWh of electricity from renewable sources. This represented less than 4% of electricity consumption for that year. The current Australian Government has a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target to introduce 9,500 GWh of new renewable generation annually, based on 1997 levels by 2010 and continuing through to 2020. This will increase the share of renewable generation to approximately 20% of Australia’s total generation.
    However even with such a thrust in renewable energy, the variations in peak load in Australia and the proposed drastic cuts in Carbon emissions by 2050 coupled with the vast resources of uranium present would ensure that despite opposition from the current Government, nuclear energy is going to remain at the forefront of the energy debate in the years to come.

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