For the large-scale, continuous and reliable supply of electricity the only currently available alternatives in Australia are coal and gas. There is an argument that a suite of different renewable energy sources operating together could be suitable for continuous base-load power, with gas-fired generators for peak load and back-up. Another way to produce a dependable base-load electricity supply is to use nuclear power reactors using URANIUM fuel. 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.

People against a nuclear future for Australia argue that a nuclear power industry would need several decades to become operational. The implication of this is that a nuclear power industry would make little or no contribution to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for those decades, a period during which, they say, great reductions will need to be made. As well, growing difficulties in securing investment in proposed nuclear power plants, during the current financial crisis, along with limited production capabilities of nuclear power-plant vendors, may stall any quick progress.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry and Resources 2006 report Australia's uranium—Greenhouse friendly fuel for an energy hungry world and the 2007 Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce 2006 ('Switkowski report') each made a case for introducing nuclear energy into Australia, mainly to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in the future. They concluded that nuclear power would be 20–50 per cent more expensive than coal without carbon dioxide (CO2) pricing, but roughly equivalent with 'low to moderate' pricing of CO2 emissions.


Here we look briefly at:

The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power for electricity generation
Nuclear power in Australia
Nuclear power life cycle analysis
Australian nuclear policies
Nuclear power stations

The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power

Advantages in using nuclear power include:

  • The provision of a secure energy supply capability for countries that have a low level of natural energy resources. This was one of the key reasons that France, for instance, developed its nuclear energy industry extending from the 1970s.
  • The use of nuclear energy results in the generation of almost no greenhouse gas emissions, after plant construction is complete.
  • The ready availability of uranium in Australia and the technology of uranium enrichment and reprocessing provide a fuel for nuclear-fuelled base-load electricity generation plants into the long term. This contrasts with the declining availability of crude oil.
  • The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry and Resources reported that it received evidence at its inquiry that there are a number of other environmental benefits from nuclear power substituting for fossil fuel-fired generation, principally relief of general air and surface pollution.

Disadvantages include:

• The generation, management, transport, and long-lived storage of radioactive material associated with the use of uranium as a fuel source. Nuclear wastes may need to be stored securely for thousands of years or longer, until their radioactivity is spent. The concern is unintended leakage of radioactive material into groundwater or ecosystems, and thence into the human population.

• The possibility of accidents relating to the use of nuclear power plants. While major incidents such as at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 are rare, a series of minor incidents continue. On the other hand, coal-mining is also hazardous and subject to accidents, although the operation of coal-fired power stations is generally very safe.

• Issues (such as costs and human health) relating to the final decommissioning of power stations. Another factor in managing wastes is the period over which they are likely to remain hazardous.

• The public's perceived image that uranium is dangerous. This has proven to be a major obstacle against any policy consideration of a nuclear alternative in Australia.

• The cost of building and operating nuclear power plants may be prohibitive. Cost comparison results with conventional power generation systems depend mainly on the choice of a discount rate and time. Fuel and technical costs can change in time and may affect the relative comparability of energy generation options. They exclude social and environmental costs, e.g. nuclear waste storage which may be a consideration.

• The high water demand for cooling of nuclear power plants. It should be noted that:

Nuclear power plants need more cooling water than fossil-fired power stations. This is because the steam in nuclear power stations is designed to operate at lower temperatures and pressures, which means they are less efficient at using the heat from the reactor and thus require more water for cooling.

Source: Guy Woods, ‘Water requirements of nuclear powers stations’, Research note, no. 12, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2006–07.

So the current disadvantages of nuclear power include investment and financing risks, long construction times, persistently negative perceptions, especially regarding the long-term safety of nuclear waste disposal, and a possibility of accidents releasing harmful radiation. There is also a need to provide specialist regulatory agencies and detailed safety regimes. Nonetheless, the nuclear industry has a documented safety record, with some 12,000 reactor years of operation spanning five decades. Even a major accident and meltdown in a typical reactor should not endanger its neighbours. Some Soviet-designed and built reactors have been a safety concern for many years, but are much better now than in 1986 as at Chernobyl.

It can be concluded that nuclear power replacement of fossil fuel-fired electricity generation has a substantial scope to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, although it should be understood that nuclear power generation is not entirely a zero-emissions option. Nuclear power may pose other risks related to the safe disposal of highly radioactive wastes for many thousands of years, but it is certainly not a greenhouse risk.



Nuclear power in Australia

There have been suggestions in the past that Australia build nuclear power stations. However the ready availability of coal and a strong public feeling that these technologies were unsafe, following the accidents at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979 and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, meant that Australia chose not to pursue this as an option.

Later however, as it became clear that some action needed to be taken to mitigate climate change, proponents of a nuclear electricity industry in Australia became more vocal and took a greater role in debate on energy sources. In addition, the Howard government made it clear that it had not ruled out a nuclear future.

Indeed, in 2006 the federal government commissioned Dr Ziggy Switkowski to lead a taskforce to prepare a study into the future feasibility of nuclear power generation in Australia. The report of the taskforce concluded, among other things, that the 'challenge to contain and reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be considerably eased by investment in nuclear plants' and that the 'greenhouse gas emission reductions from nuclear power could reach 8 to 17 per cent of national emissions in 2050'.

According to this Switkowski report on uranium mining and processing:

The challenge to contain and reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be considerably eased by investment in nuclear plants. Australia's greenhouse challenge requires a full spectrum of initiatives and its goals cannot be met by nuclear power alone …

Cost estimates suggest that in Australia nuclear power would on average be 20–50 per cent more expensive to produce than coal-fired power if pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions, is not priced …

Under current policy settings, the Australian generating portfolio is expected to remain dominated by conventional fossil fuel (coal and gas) technologies. If there is a shift to low-emission technologies, nuclear power will compete with other low-emission technologies, some of which are still in the development stage. These include advanced fossil fuel technologies with carbon capture and storage (geo-sequestration), geothermal (hot dry rocks) and a variety of renewable technologies including wind, hydro, bio-fuel, solar photovoltaic and solar thermal. The costs and timescales for many of these are more uncertain than for nuclear power and will depend substantially on greenhouse policies. Non-hydro renewables will undoubtedly play an important and growing role in those parts of the overall generation portfolio where they are best suited …

Nuclear power is a low-emission technology. Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power are more than ten times lower than emissions from fossil fuels and are similar to emissions from many renewables. Nuclear power has low life cycle impacts against many environmental measures. Water use can be significant in uranium mining and electricity generation depending on the technology used.

Source: Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Review of uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia, Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy—opportunities for Australia?, DPMC, Barton ACT, 2006

An item of interest is ‘Siting Nuclear Power Plants in Australia: Where would they go?', Australia Institute Research Paper No. 40, January 2007, by Andrew Macintosh.



Nuclear power life cycle analysis

In order to build a nuclear power plant it is necessary to produce and use construction materials that may generate greenhouse gas emissions. Taking these 'intermediary emissions' into account, it is possible to total all the emissions needed in order to get a given quantity of final energy delivered to consumers. This calculation is called a life cycle analysis or 'cradle-to-grave' analysis.

For nuclear power life cycle analysis, again from the Switkowski report, section 7.3.1:

7.3.1 Nuclear power
Nuclear power, unlike fossil fuel, does not generate greenhouse gases directly. While nuclear fuels release energy through fission, fossil fuels release energy through combustion—the fuel (e.g. coal, gas, oil) combines with oxygen, releasing heat and producing CO2. Nevertheless, greenhouse gases are generated during the nuclear fuel cycle. Emissions arise from mining and processing of the fuel, construction of the plant, disposal of spent fuel and by-products, and waste management and decommissioning. Emission estimates vary widely due to the plant characteristics (e.g. type, capacity factor, efficiency, lifetime) assessed. To enable meaningful comparisons, greenhouse gas emissions are expressed relative to the amount of electrical energy generated—either as grams of CO2-e per kilowatt hour (g CO2-e/kWh); or (scaled up) kilograms of CO2-e per megawatt hour (kg CO2-e/MWh).

Most published studies estimate that on a life cycle basis the emissions intensity of nuclear power is between 2 and 40 kg CO2-e/MWh. The average for Western Europe is estimated at 16 kg CO2/MWh for a pressurised light water reactor. Higher estimates generally assume that enrichment is done using diffusion technology, which uses a lot of electricity …

The Taskforce commissioned the University of Sydney to conduct an independent study of the potential life cycle emissions of nuclear power in Australia. Using a comprehensive methodology and conservative assumptions, this study estimated the life cycle emissions intensity of nuclear electricity in Australia to be between 10 and 130 kg CO2-e/MWh. The lower end of this range would be seen if only centrifuge enrichment (rather than a mix of centrifuge and diffusion technology) was used, or if the overall greenhouse intensity of the Australian economy was lower. The higher end of this range would only be seen if extremely low grade uranium ores (i.e. much lower than current grades) were mined.

7.3.3 Global abatement potential
By providing 15 per cent of the world’s electricity, nuclear is already making an important contribution to constraining global greenhouse gas emissions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that nuclear power annually avoids more than 2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions that would otherwise have been produced through burning fossil fuels. Future emissions from electricity generation can be reduced by reducing the amount of electricity used, and by accelerating the uptake of lower-emission generation technologies such as nuclear. Socolow and Pacala estimate that if 700 GW of nuclear power is installed over the next 50 years instead of conventional coal-fired plants, it could deliver a wedge of abatement (i.e. it could reduce global emissions by 3.67 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2050).

Globally, the IEA suggests that expansion of nuclear power could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 by between 1.9 and 2.9 billion tonnes of CO2. This is based on emission reduction scenarios for the electricity generation sector in which nuclear generation grows by between 18 and 170 per cent (to 3100–7300 terawatt-hours) by 2050. In the most optimistic scenario nuclear provides 22 per cent of total electricity generation in 2050.

Source: Review of uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia, Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy—opportunities for Australia?, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Barton ACT, 2006

So in summary, on a life cycle analysis basis, the Switkowski report states (on page 8) that:

Nuclear power plants, unlike fossil fuel plants, do not directly generate greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, some greenhouse gas emissions are generated through mining and processing of the fuel, construction of the plant, waste management and decommissioning activities. On a life cycle basis, greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power are roughly comparable to renewable technologies and more than an order of magnitude lower than conventional fossil fuel technologies. Other environmental impacts of the nuclear fuel cycle, including air pollution emissions, land use and water use are either comparable to or significantly lower than conventional fossil fuels.

Source: Review of uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia, Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy—opportunities for Australia?, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Barton ACT, 2006

By comparison to an overseas situation, in a study (Carbon Footprint of Energy Generation) by the United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the nuclear power lifecycle was evaluated to emit the least amount of carbon dioxide when compared to the other alternatives of fossil fuels and some renewable energy sources, viz:

Nuclear power generation has a relatively small carbon footprint (~5gCO2eq/kWh)*. Since there is no combustion, (heat is generated by fission of uranium or plutonium), operational CO2 emissions account for <1% of the total. Most emissions occur during uranium mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication. Decommissioning accounts for 35% of the lifetime CO2 emissions, and includes emissions arising from dismantling the nuclear plant and the construction and maintenance of waste storage facilities. The most energy intensive phase of the nuclear cycle is uranium extraction, which accounts for 40% of the total CO2 emissions. Some commentators have suggested that if global nuclear generation capacity increases, higher grade uranium ore deposits would be depleted, requiring use of lower grade ores. This has raised concerns that the carbon footprint of nuclear generation may increase in the future….

Source: UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘The Nuclear Energy Option in the UK’, Postnote 208, December 2003.

Future nuclear footprint & global uranium resources issues may then arise:

Some analysts are concerned that the future carbon footprint of nuclear power could increase if lower grade uranium ore is used, as it would require more energy to extract and refine to a level usable in a nuclear reactor. However, a 2006 study by AEA Technology calculated that for ore grades as low as 0.03%, additional emissions would only amount to 1.8gCO2eq/kWh. This would raise the current footprint of UK nuclear power stations from 5 to 6.8gCO2eq/kWh. If lower grades of uranium are used in the future the footprint of nuclear will increase, but only to a level comparable with other ‘low carbon’ technologies and will not be as large as the footprints of fossil fuelled systems.

Source: UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘The Nuclear Energy Option in the UK’, Postnote 208, December 2003.

A more recent POSTnote, November 2008 number 317 – titled ‘Future nuclear technologies’ examines Britain’s options:

The 2008 Energy White Paper announced the government's intention to allow private companies to propose the building of new nuclear power plants. This POSTnote provides an assessment of nuclear power generation technologies. It looks at the designs of any new UK reactors and outlines details of the regulatory design assessment process, with an emphasis on safety, security and waste. It also looks at longer term research into reactor design and waste management.

Source: UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Future Nuclear Technologies, November 2008, no. 317.



Australian Nuclear Policies

The Northern Territory Parliamentary Library provides an Introduction to: The Debate on Nuclear Policy in Australia, 2005-2006. This introduces a series of papers which examines the arguments presented for and against the expansion of Australia’s present engagement in nuclear activities — uranium mining, radioactive waste storage and, potentially, nuclear power generation. The paper gives an overview of debate over the last few years, showing the economic, environmental, and political factors leading to a higher intensity of discussion on these matters since 2005.

Australia does not have a nuclear power industry as such. Australia presently mines uranium at three locations, namely Ranger in the Northern Territory and Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia. Australia exports uranium oxide (yellowcake) to a number of countries that enrich the uranium oxide for use in their nuclear-fuelled power plants. Importing countries must be parties to the IAEA Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and additionally must have bilateral safety agreement with Australia in place. See the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office within the federal government’s Foreign Affairs portfolio for details.

Australia has no nuclear power reactor. However, the nation has one nuclear scientific research reactor (OPAL) at Lucas Heights in Sydney that produces, among other things, isotopes for use in nuclear medicine. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) operates the OPAL reactor, which is a 20 megawatt (MW) plant producing neutrons and low thermal energy. By contrast, a nuclear power plant can be of the order of 800MW or more, and produces high thermal energy.

The Commonwealth’s official list of radioactive waste storage is summarised by type and size at the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism’s Radioactive Waste Management website that provides a listing of waste storage around Australia including that at ANSTO. Australia has approximately 3500 m3 of low-level and short-lived intermediate-level radioactive waste within civilian programmes.

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Nuclear Waste: In May 2010, the Federal Government announced funding to decommission obsolete nuclear facilities operated by ANSTO at the Lucas Heights Science and Technology Centre and the National Medical Cyclotron at Camperdown. The Government will provide $9.7 million in 2010–11 to ensure that Australia complies with international best practice for decommissioning nuclear facilities. This measure follows on from $13.2 million provided in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2007–08 to initiate the decommissioning at Lucas Heights. However, ANSTO is also expected to impose an efficiency dividend on its operations amounting to $2.5 million over four years relating to administrative and corporate costs.

ANSTO staff will finish decommissioning the ‘Moata’ reactor and continue work on decommissioning the ‘HIFAR’ reactor, both at Lucas Heights, and begin the process of decommissioning the National Medical Cyclotron. The funding will be used to dismantle the facilities, support ongoing maintenance and inspections, and manage waste products. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency will oversee the decommissioning projects and ensure that rigorous safety procedures are in place.

The Government will provide $30 million over four years to enable the repatriation of reprocessed nuclear waste from the United Kingdom and France by 2016, as part of ANSTO’s spent fuel storage program. The funding includes provision for an interim storage facility. There was no announcement on the selection of a combined national low and intermediate level waste management facility previously proposed for the Northern Territory although legislation was currently before the Parliament.



Nuclear Power Stations

The links following will assist in locating the geographical position or country information of nuclear reactors/ nuclear sites around the world: International Nuclear Safety Center; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear power reactors; and IAEA nuclear research reactors.

A potted history that documents nuclear energy’s development into a globally prominent energy source is online at the Nuclear Files Nuclear Energy History. The World Nuclear Organisation (WNO) has prepared Information Papers on many topics with an extensive site that should be able to meet demands for more details, noting that it represents the nuclear industry. In particular, the Outline History of Nuclear Energy provides a factual account.

The WNO provides a paper on The Economics of Nuclear Power that is reasonably well argued, but of course nuclear industry opponents would take alternative views, rather than necessarily follow the prognostications of the nuclear industry. Also see publications at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for nuclear technical discussions and statistics.

The 2001 study ‘Nuclear Power in the OECD’, prepared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), provides projected costs for nuclear, coal-fired, gas and other plant types. The Executive Summary outlines positions for countries, both for and against nuclear power options.

Arguments for and against nuclear power are online at the American Wilson Centre. Supporting nuclear, the Institute of Public Affairs provides a brief policy discussion in Nuclear on the Agenda along with views on nuclear waste management. Opposing viewpoints are on offer from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and similar bodies.

The possibility of hidden subsidies as an issue is also relevant in the 2006 report prepared to ANSTO: Introducing Nuclear Power to Australia: An Economic Comparison by Professor John H Gittus, Consultant. In the Synopsis on page 3, the report alludes to the necessity for appropriate finance plans, grants or even subsidies. It says that building a power station immediately would cost about $3.5 billion.

The Library Chronology on Radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel management in Australia details the nature of nuclear waste found here and the long and complex history of the storage arrangements involved. It also covers some of the policies mentioned herein.

As regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is a Federal Government agency charged under the ARPANS Act 1998 with responsibility for protecting the health and safety of people, and the environment, from the harmful effects of radiation (ionizing and non-ionizing). The 2005-06 Annual Report of the Chief Executive Officer of ARPANSA includes a short history on half a century of radiation protection, in part 5 from pages 61 to 67.



Further reading and sources:

H. Saddler, M. Diesendorf, and R. Denniss, A clean energy future for Australia, Clean Energy future Group, Sydney, 2004.

Greg Baker, 'Australia's Uranium', Research Note, no.17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2006–07.

Greg Baker, ‘Thorium in Australia’, Research Paper, no.11, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2007–08.

Barry Brook and Ian Lowe, Nuclear power yes/Nuclear power no, Pantera Press, Seaforth 2010 (Tete Beche).

Martin Taylor, Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy, International Energy Agency/ Nuclear Energy Agency, 2010.

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry and Resources, Australia’s uranium—Greenhouse friendly fuel for an energy hungry world, Parliament of Australia, 2006.

United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘The Nuclear Energy Option in the UK’, Postnote 208, December 2003.

Review of uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia, Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy—opportunities for Australia?, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Barton ACT, 2006.


22 November, 2010