20 july 2020
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Visiting Fellow, Crawford School, Australian National University
- Nuclear electricity provides around a tenth of world electricity
needs, with only a few other applications in the energy sector. It is the
second largest source of low carbon electricity after hydro. However, recent
capacity additions in OECD countries have been few, and growth is now outside
OECD countries, dominated by China and India.
Australian electricity options are short briefings on the principal energy sources and storage options being debated in Australia, including: coal, natural gas, wind, nuclear, photovoltaics (PV) and pumped hydro energy storage (PHES).
The global COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences mean that statements and projections about future demand and pricing of energy options may no longer be reliable. Readers should note that some figures quoted in these briefings may pre-date the pandemic.
Nuclear energy production
energy is deployed to produce electricity by harnessing the heat produced
in the fission, or splitting, of radioactive isotopes of uranium or plutonium
in a reactor. In the majority of cases, water is used to transfer heat to steam
turbines. Reliable supplies of cooling water are essential to the operation of
large-scale nuclear plants. Nuclear energy is also deployed in military
applications, notably submarines for power and propulsion, but also other
shipping, including aircraft carriers and icebreakers. Nuclear plants are
generally characterised by large capacity and output, high capital cost, and long
construction times, but relatively low operating costs and almost zero
emissions to air from their operation.
energy is used to produce electricity in 31 countries from some 450 nuclear
reactors, providing around 10 per cent of global electricity. Production
is concentrated in OECD countries, where nuclear provides almost one-fifth of
total electricity output. More recently, new construction has been dominated by
non-OECD countries, notably China, but also India and states of the former
Soviet Union, accounting for a large share of the 52 reactors currently under
Major nuclear power countries
States accounts for around one-third of global nuclear electricity,
providing just under a fifth of US generation. The nation has almost 100
reactors, but most of these entered service more than 30 years ago. Only two
reactors are being built, supported by measures enacted in the Energy Policy
Nuclear power peaked in Japan around a
decade ago, providing nearly a third of electricity generation. However, after
the devastating disaster at Fukushima in 2011, all plants were closed down.
This resulted in severe electricity shortages, managed largely by increased
imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal, demand management measures,
plus enhanced solar generation. Subsequently, reactors are slowly re-entering
service, but nuclear generation seems set to play a diminished, if still
important role in Japanese electricity supply.
produces around three-quarters of its electricity generation from 58 reactors,
but again, the majority of its reactor fleet entered service before 1990. This
generation enables France to be one of the world’s largest net exporters of
electricity. Only one new reactor is under construction at Flamanville,
Normandy. With construction having started in 2007, the plant is well behind
its projected schedule and well over budget. Construction of a similar plant
was started in 2005 in Finland,
and has yet to enter commercial service, and is also well over budget. In OECD
Europe, only these two reactors, plus two smaller ones in Slovakia,
and one in Turkey
are being built. Germany,
Europe’s largest economy, produces around a seventh of its electricity from
nuclear reactors, down from a quarter a decade ago, having closed a part of its
fleet after Fukushima. Further plant closures have been foreshadowed, with all
nuclear power plants to be shut down by the end of 2022. Solar and wind now
generate more electricity than nuclear in that country.
China has a
very active nuclear program as part of its rapid shift to diversify its
electricity sector away from coal. However, its 48 reactors currently account for
less than four per cent of electricity supply. Even with its current building
program, this share is only expected to increase to around eight per cent of generation
International Energy Agency (IEA) projections show that
nuclear generation will broadly maintain its current share of global power
markets, on the basis of non-OECD output growth—especially in China and India,
which will account for around 90 per cent of the net growth. The declining
contribution of nuclear power in advanced economies and its interaction with
carbon emissions is examined in the 2019 IEA report Nuclear Power in a Clean
Advantages and disadvantages
The key advantage of nuclear power is that its operation
produces no greenhouse gases and no significant emissions of other air
pollutants. However, power plant construction, transport of nuclear waste, and
decommissioning does result in emissions. Despite this, whole-of-life analysis
shows that nuclear power is much more ‘greenhouse-friendly’ than burning
hydrocarbons such as coal, peat, oil and natural gas. For this reason, there
have been calls to expand nuclear power to help mitigate climate change.
Disadvantages, apart from the high up-front cost mentioned
above, centre around the safe storage and disposal of high-level radioactive
waste, with only a few countries having built permanent repositories for this
waste. The United States identified a site in the 1980s for such a repository
in Nevada, but local opposition has slowed progress. Negative perceptions
towards nuclear power, especially around the safety of waste and the
possibility that an accident could release radiation into the environment, also
persist in Australia.
Other nuclear technologies
Other nuclear technologies include fast breeder reactors
(which produce more fuel than they use), thorium
reactors (under research and development, notably in India), and the
still-distant possibility of controlled, clean fusion power, which draws on the
energy of fusing hydrogen nuclei. Smaller scale fission reactors are also being
In the case of breeder
reactors, a large scale prototype was built in southern France, but has
been closed for some years in the face of major technical and mechanical
problems. For fusion,
decades of research have yet to lead to a useful power reactor. Experimental
work continues in several locations, with the largest being a multinational
experimental fusion facility in France (ITER),
but this is at least ten years away from demonstrating commercial feasibility
of the technology. The ITER facility has not been designed to capture any
energy produced as electricity, but as an experimental unit to test and
demonstrate the technology. Smaller scale fission technologies are also under
active research, but have yet to be demonstrated. Advanced reactor designs are
the focus of the Generation IV
International Forum collaboration (which Australia joined
Prospects for Australia
Australia holds almost one-third of the world’s proven
uranium reserves, which has underpinned
exports of around 7,000 tonnes per year. This represents about 10 per cent
of global supply and makes Australia the third-largest uranium producer.
Uranium ore is mined and processed into uranium oxide before being exported,
with no enrichment into nuclear fuel undertaken in Australia. There are three
operating uranium mines in Australia—Olympic Dam and Four Mile (South
Australia) and Ranger (Northern Territory).
Australia’s identified uranium resources
Geoscience Australia, Australian energy resources assessment, 2018
Nuclear power production is currently not permitted under
two main pieces of Commonwealth legislation—the Australian
Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (the ARPANS Act), and
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). These
Acts expressly prohibit the approval, licensing, construction, or operation of
a nuclear fuel fabrication plant; a nuclear power plant; an enrichment plant;
or a reprocessing facility. There is also a range of other legislation, including
state and territory legislation, which regulates nuclear and radiation-related activities.
In recent years, a number of inquiries have been undertaken
into nuclear issues in Australia. The Australian Parliament House of
Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Energy held an inquiry
into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia and reported
on 13 December 2019. The NSW
Parliament conducted an inquiry into uranium mining and the potential of
nuclear power in NSW (report
tabled in March 2020). The Victorian Parliament also has an inquiry into
nuclear prohibition (submissions closed in February 2020). South Australia held a Royal Commission
in 2015 and 2016 into expanding its nuclear industry.
Australia has one nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights (south of
Sydney). It is one of over 200
research reactors located around the world and is used chiefly for the
production of medical isotopes—it is not used to generate electricity. The
facility produces tens of cubic metres of low and intermediate level
radioactive waste each year. Despite efforts over some decades, a permanent
repository has yet to be developed for this waste, which is currently held at
Lucas Heights, Woomera, and other sites. Australia is currently working to
establish a National
Radioactive Waste Management Facility for the permanent storage of low-level
waste from nuclear medicine and research activities and the temporary storage
of intermediate-level waste. This is progressing under the National
Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012. The Government has identified a
site near Kimba in South Australia to host the facility and this selection has gone
before Parliament in the National
Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and
Other Measures) Bill 2020.
In almost all OECD markets, new nuclear reactors have
struggled to establish a business case in the last two decades (with the
exception probably being South Korea). The long lead times and high capital
costs, plus the technical and economic inflexibility of nuclear plants, have
mitigated strongly against new construction unless there has been sufficiently
strong policy support (such as for the proposed new reactor in the United
Kingdom). New power plants over the last two decades in OECD countries have
generally been gas fired (based on high-efficiency gas turbines) and more
recently based on new renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, where costs
have declined sharply and lead times are short and costs known more accurately.
Experience in other countries where nuclear reactors are
introduced indicates that initially costs and lead times may exceed
expectations. A skilled work force is required to construct, operate and
maintain the facilities. In addition, any reactor construction in Australia
would likely need to be in a coastal location to assure cooling water. In due
course, a permanent repository for high-level reactor waste would need to be
identified, constructed and operated, quite distinct from current efforts to
develop a repository for low and intermediate level waste. The example of the United
Arab Emirates, where a Korean consortium is building four reactors, may
prove instructive in how a modern nuclear industry could function.
International Atomic Energy Agency, ‘Power Reactor Information System’
International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook
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