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Australia is poised to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the possibility of pursuing nuclear power, a controversial move in a country where energy and politics are closely intertwined.
“Nuclear energy has evolved since it was last seriously considered in Australia,” said Queensland Liberal National parliamentarian Ted O’Brien, head of the standing committee on environment and energy, in a statement.
“This inquiry will provide the opportunity to establish whether nuclear energy would be feasible and suitable for Australia in the future, taking into account both expert opinions and community views.”
A recent survey by pollster Essential showed community views are increasingly in favor, but still fall below 50%. However, when respondents were asked to consider a reactor being built close to their homes, property-obsessed Australians voted “no” at a rate of 78%, the poll showed.
At the same time, there are few constants in Australian politics and even fewer in the politics surrounding the energy sector, where disagreements on the environment and power have ousted prime ministers and lost elections.
The debate also comes as neighboring Pacific nations, some of which are losing land to climate change-driven rising waters, threaten to downgrade relations with Australia if it doesn’t agree to do more to curb its carbon emissions.
Still, one rare spot of bipartisanship over the years has been opposition to nuclear power, notably in a nation that boasts the world’s third-largest uranium reserves.
In 2009, Australia officially banned nuclear power in response to Japan’s Fukushima disaster. But at the behest of the prime minister, energy minister and conservative members of parliament, it will take another pass at the idea.
The renewed interest is being spurred by Minister for Energy and Emissions Reductions Angus Taylor’s enthusiasm for newfangled small modular reactors (SMRs), which are cheaper, allegedly safer and use less water.
Those reactor-types will be a focus of the upcoming parliamentary inquiry. British engineering company Rolls Royce, for one, is leading a UK consortium involved in developing SMRs aimed at producing affordable energy with a lower carbon footprint.
“Other countries are doing this all over the world. By using the right mix of technologies, including nuclear, the affordability-emissions reduction challenge is completely doable,” Benjamin Heard, founder of Bright New World, an environmental nongovernmental organization, told a resources conference in November.
As nuclear technology evolves, proponents argue there is an opportunity for Australia to become specialized in SMRs, which often only have capacity of 60 megawatts, far lower than the kind of baseload power Australia might need to replace large coal stations, though they can also be deployed in clusters.
That’s a burning issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government.
His pro-fossil fuel government is facing soaring power prices, a reduction of baseload power when AGL Energy’s large New South Wales coal-fired Liddell power station is retired over 2022 and 2023, and endless political drama over Australia’s emissions and their impact on climate change.
A nuclear plant would be a win for Australia’s resources sector but will also reduce emissions, despite general green-leaning dislike of uranium and nuclear power due to concerns over accidents and radioactive waste disposal.
Opposition has come from varied quarters, including from within Morrison’s Cabinet after Environment Minister Sussan Ley said she opposed nuclear power.
When Morrison took power from Malcolm Turnbull last year, before winning this year’s general election, he split the energy and environment portfolio in two, meaning Ley and Taylor must both sign off on any nuclear plans.
During Turnbull’s premiership, a group of 11 MPs from his party called for a review but it effectively went nowhere; however, on the campaign trail earlier this year, Morrison put it back on the agenda, telling a radio host in Launceston, Tasmania, it was “not, not” an option in the government’s proposed underwriting scheme.
This was followed by a push from conservative government parliamentarians including Craig Kelly, James McGrath, and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.
“I am not saying that there is a nuclear reactor coming to a shopping center near you but we have to be able to investigate all options,” Keith Pitt, a parliamentarian, told the Sunday Telegraph. “All I am calling for is an inquiry as to whether it’s a feasible option to ensure we are up to date with the latest information.”
The Queensland Labor-led government – which has huge renewable ambitions, while also signing off on the relentlessly contentious Adani coal mine – is so incensed it released a statement from cabinet minister Cameron Dick suggesting a Chernobyl or Fukushima-like disaster could destroy the state’s lucrative tourism industry.
Dick also says the cost of nuclear is now far higher than renewables, and “will need significant federal government subsidies to be viable, which will distort the energy market.”
Conservative opponents of alternative power sources have predictably said similar things about renewables.
The issue, though one of bipartisan support, has seen varied reviews over the years, with the federal government commissioning a task force to study the idea in 2006. Then, the task force found nuclear would help contain emissions by up to 8%-17% by 2050.
It also found then cost estimates suggested that nuclear power would on average be 20%-50% more expensive to produce than coal-fired power “if pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions, is not priced.”
“No country of Australia’s economic size or larger is without nuclear power and we stand alone among 25 top economies in excluding its use for baseload power supply,” a parliament statement from 2010 says.
It also said that the public’s “perceived image [is] that uranium is dangerous. This has proven to be a major obstacle against any policy consideration of a nuclear alternative in Australia.”
Though Australia has some nuclear capability in nuclear medicine and a reactor at Lucas Heights, even nuclear-powered submarines were barely considered when the navy was looking to replace its six Collins Class submarines with a dozen new builds.
The winning French Shortfin Barracuda design will be a diesel-electric remodel of the original nuclear sub.
Dr Ziggy Switkowski put together a report for then-prime minister John Howard in 2006, but a dozen years later a follow up concluded the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear had closed, though the prospects of SMRs was not covered at the time.
In Australia’s current political climate, where a decade on it still lacks a coherent energy policy, concrete long term plans for cheap baseload power and an east coast gas crisis, nuclear is suddenly appealing.
And it’s being driven by a conservative government which believes its mandate comes from a vote against “climate hysteria” at the May election.
Politicians usually skeptical about emissions are also in favor of nuclear’s zero-emission footprint, which can be powered by digging more stuff out of the ground locally, a usual vote winner.
However, the logistics of a nuclear plant, from social license to staffing, are tremendous and will likely remain uphill work for a government that still lacks a clear energy plan.