1.1On 27 October 2022, the Senate referred the Environment and Other Legislation Amendment (Removing Nuclear Energy Prohibitions) Bill 2022 (the bill) to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee (the committee) for inquiry and report by 8 May 2023. The reporting date was subsequently extended until 11 August 2023.
1.2The Senate Committee for the Selection of Bills recommended that the bill be referred for inquiry because it seeks to address a ‘complicated issue’ that required consultation with various stakeholders.
Purpose of the bill
1.3Nuclear power generation is prohibited in Australia under two pieces of Commonwealth legislation: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act); and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (ARPANS Act).
1.4In effect, these Acts prevent the construction or operation of nuclear facilities for power generation, as well as facilities for the fabrication of nuclear fuel, uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of nuclear waste.
1.5The bill would remove these prohibitions.
1.6The bill is a Private Senator’s Bill introduced by Senator Matt Canavan, and co-sponsored by eight other Opposition senators. In his second reading speech, Senator Canavan outlined what the bill aims to achieve:
We should support removing the bans on nuclear power because that would be the best way to take advantage of future technological developments that could see nuclear energy as the most competitive carbon free option to produce electricity.
Background to the bill
1.7Nuclear power was banned in Australia in the late 1990s, after more than two decades of debate. From the 1970s, this centred upon opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and uranium mining in the Northern Territory. In the following decades, the anti-nuclear movement gained momentum, including from a global unease about nuclear weapon proliferation, as well as commercial proposals to store international nuclear waste in Australia.
1.8More recently the Parliamentary Library has noted that, apart from the legislative prohibition on nuclear energy, there would be other significant challenges to setting up nuclear generation in Australia. Citing international experience, it commented that:
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.
1.9Established by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act 1987, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) provides expert and technical advice on matters relating to nuclear science, technology, and engineering. ANSTO explained that additional legislation would likely be required, beyond the bill’s amendments, to ‘upgrade the existing regulatory structure so that it is capable of performing the functions required for the licensing of nuclear power reactors’, as well as legislation governing nuclear liability ‘in order to bring Australia in line with international legal norms’. Consideration would also need to be given to:
waste management, transport and storage;
managing environmental impacts;
workforce capability; and
1.10The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) also acknowledged that additional strategies and frameworks would be necessary beyond repealing the prohibitions from the two Acts, including for:
the assessment and management of the health, safety, social, security and environmental impacts of any proposed nuclear power plants or related facilities, as well as for community engagement;
equivalent frameworks for the transport, processing and storage of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste; and
an adequate workforce capability to build, operate and maintain civil nuclear power plants and other related facilities, and to regulate these activities.
1.11Furthermore, DCCEEW noted that the three large east coast states, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, also have legislation prohibiting the construction of nuclear plants within their jurisdictions. Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory have legislation that prohibits the transport or disposal of nuclear waste.
1.12Besides these practical impediments, even advocates for nuclear power recognise that the broader Australian community has an entrenched and persisting anti-nuclear sentiment. For example, in late 2021, the Australian Energy Council commented:
The nuclear industry lacks a social licence in Australia. It has been said that for many Australians their four reference points for nuclear [are]: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and The Simpsons.
Australians have long felt a sense of unease about nuclear power so convincing them that nuclear is safe will be a challenge while the politics will remain fraught. A recent Newspoll in The Australian suggested there may be a shift in attitude with 25 per cent of 1545 voters saying they ‘definitely’ supported developing a domestic nuclear industry with 36 per cent saying it should be considered, although a Lowy Institute poll found 51 per cent remain opposed to removing a ban on nuclear power.
1.13More recently, advocates of nuclear energy in Australia point to Generation IV reactors or small modular reactors (SMRs) as the future of nuclear technology, as they are purported to address many of the concerns that have been raised about nuclear energy in the past. In relation to Generation IV reactors, ANSTO explained that they ‘represent the next iteration in nuclear power technology’ by enhancing fuel efficiency, reducing waste production, meeting more stringent safety standards and proliferation resistance, as well as claiming to be more economically competitive than other electricity generation technologies and previous generation reactor designs.
1.14ANSTO further explained that SMRs are:
…nuclear power plants that generate less than 300Mwe… [and] have the potential to reduce build costs using a variety of strategies, including:
the elimination of costly active safety systems by using passive safety features or inherently safe reactor designs;
shifting the majority of construction off-site to an enclosed factory environment using modular manufacturing techniques;
reducing plant build times from six to eight years for large reactors to two and a half to four years for SMRs via the use of series-production methods;
increasing learning rates to be in line with the learning rates of other industries, such as combined cycle gas turbines, shipbuilding, and aircraft manufacturing, where a high proportion of construction is factory-based;
the use of next-generation technologies, such as reactor coolants with superior thermal characteristics, high-performance alloys, and accident-tolerant fuels; and
innovative delivery and construction models.
1.15Each year, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) works with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) to produce the GenCost report that provides current and projected costs for electricity generation and storage across a range of technologies including SMRs. According to the CSIRO, the report development process:
…is highly collaborative and draws on the deep expertise and knowledge of a large number of energy industry stakeholders. There are opportunities for members of the energy [community] to review the work and then provide prepublication feedback to improve its quality. It's an open, public process that many people can participate in. The report is used by AEMO and others working in energy strategy and policy governance around Australia who need a clear, simple metric to inform their decision-making. Because of that, we provide a levelised cost of electricity analysis that allows for easy comparison of technologies on a common basis. The analysis includes providing a dollar figure per megawatt hour that considers both the initial capital cost of financing the project and any ongoing fuel, operational and maintenance costs.
1.16The latest GenCost report ‘remains consistent with findings from previous years, showing that renewables, led by onshore wind and solar PV, remain the lowest cost power generation technologies’. By comparison, it reported that the Australian energy industry does not expect any SMR deployment here before 2030 due to ‘commercial immaturity’:
Following extensive consultation with the Australian electricity industry, report findings do not see any prospect of domestic [SMR] projects this decade, given the technology’s commercial immaturity and high cost. Future cost reductions are possible but depend on its successful commercial deployment overseas.
1.17The 2021-22 GenCost report states that SMRs are estimated to cost between $136 and $326 per MWh compared with integrated renewables which are estimated to cost between $53 and $82 per MWh in 2030.
1.18On 20 July 2023, the 2022-23 GenCost report was released updating estimates for the levelized cost for electricity generation technologies. In 2030, SMRs are projected to cost $198 to $349 per MWh and integrated renewables, $65 to $100 per MWh.
1.19This section outlines several previous inquiries that have looked at nuclear energy and related matters, including:
the 2006 review of uranium mining processing and nuclear energy in Australia undertaken by Dr Ziggy Switkowski for the Commonwealth (Switkowski Review);
the 2016 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission; and
the 2019 House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy (HoR Committee) inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia.
Switkowski review of opportunities offered by nuclear
1.20In 2006, the then Howard Government commissioned the Switkowski Review into the opportunities offered by uranium mining, value-added processing and the contribution of nuclear energy in Australia.
1.21The key findings of the review included the observations that:
Nuclear power is likely to be between 20 and 50 per cent more costly to produce than power from a new coal-fired plant at current fossil fuel prices in Australia. This gap may close in the decades ahead, but nuclear power, and renewable energy sources, are only likely to become competitive in Australia in a system where the costs of greenhouse gas emissions are explicitly recognised. Even then, private investment in the first-built nuclear reactors may require some form of government support or directive.
The earliest that nuclear electricity could be delivered to the grid would be 10 years, with 15 years more probable. At the outset, the establishment of a single national nuclear regulator supported by an organisation with skilled staff would be required.
1.22The committee notes that Dr Switkowski gave evidence to the HoR Committee in 2019 for its inquiry into nuclear generation (see below for a discussion of the HoR Committee inquiry). Dr Switkowski told that inquiry that he considered the ‘window for large gigawatts to go in nuclear generators has now closed for Australia’. He noted that this view was based on several contributing factors, including: timing; the cost of establishing infrastructure; and that there was still no social license from the community for nuclear power—and unlikely to be so in the future:
Given that the investment in a power station, particularly a big one, would begin at US$10 billion and go up from there, and it would take around 15 years to make it work, you can’t progress without strong community support and bipartisanship at the federal level—and there is not too much evidence of that.
South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission
1.23In 2015, the South Australian Government established a Royal Commission to undertake an independent investigation into the potential for increasing South Australia’s participation in the nuclear fuel cycle.
1.24This Royal Commission reported in 2016, with 12 recommendations and 145 findings. Regarding nuclear electricity generation, it found and recommended:
Nuclear power generation would not be commercially viable in SA under current market rules, but should be considered as a future low-carbon energy source to contribute to national emissions reduction targets.
Remove existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation
Develop low-carbon, technology-neutral energy policy
Monitor developments in new nuclear reactor designs for future consideration.
House of Representatives Standing Committee report
1.25In 2019, the HoR Committee undertook an inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia, on the request of the then Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, the Hon Angus Taylor MP.
1.26The inquiry’s terms of reference noted that there has been a longstanding bipartisan moratorium on nuclear electricity generation, which ‘will remain in place’.
1.27The final report of the inquiry, titled Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia, made three recommendations to the Government, which were summarised as follows in the report’s foreword:
Firstly, that [the Government] consider the prospect of nuclear technology as part of its future energy mix; secondly, that it undertake a body of work to progress the understanding of nuclear technology in the Australian context; and thirdly, that it consider lifting the current moratorium on nuclear energy partially—that is, for new and emerging nuclear technologies only, and conditionally—that is, subject to the results of a technology assessment and to a commitment to community consent for approving nuclear facilities.
1.28The full recommendations provide more detail of the scope of ‘a way forward for nuclear technology’. Most importantly, recommendation three stresses that the Commonwealth should only look into a ‘partial and conditional consideration’ of nuclear technologies, and only with due consultation and prior consent of impacted communities:
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government allow partial and conditional consideration of nuclear energy technology by:
(a)maintaining its moratorium on nuclear energy in relation to GenerationI, Generation II and Generation III nuclear technology; and
(b)lifting its moratorium on nuclear energy in relation to Generation III+ and Generation IV nuclear technology including small modular reactors, subject to the results of a technology assessment (see recommendation 2a) and a commitment to community consent as a condition of approval (see below).
Further, the Committee recommends that:
(c)the Australian Government, in cooperation with relevant state and territory governments, respect the will of the Australian people by committing to a condition of approval for any nuclear power or nuclear waste disposal facility being the prior informed consent of local impacted communities, obtained following extensive consultation with local residents including local Indigenous peoples.
Provisions of the bill
1.29The explanatory memorandum (EM) states that the bill would repeal relevant sections of the EPBC and ARPANS Acts to remove the prohibition of the approval, construction and operation of certain nuclear installations by:
removing the blanket prohibition on the Minister for Environment and Water declaring, approving, or considering actions relating to the construction or operation of certain nuclear facilities as described in [certain provisions] of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, by repealing those provisions; and
removing the blanket prohibition on the construction or operation of certain nuclear facilities as described in section 10 of the Australian Radiation ProtectionandNuclear Safety Act 1998, by repealing that section…
1.30The EM states that the repeal of the sections of the EPBC and ARPANS Acts that currently prohibit certain types of nuclear power generation would not weaken the other protections they contain, leaving unaffected:
the other elements of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, pursuant to which the Minister would assess any application to establish a facility previously named in the repealed provisions;
state and territory powers to protect their citizens and the environment from potential adverse radiation impacts; and
the power vested in the Minister for Foreign Affairs to determine whether or not to issue a permit under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987 for such a proposed facility.
Human Rights Committee consideration
1.31The EM states that the bill is compatible with human rights and freedoms recognised or declared in the international instruments listed in section 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights raised no concerns about the bill.
Scrutiny of Bills Committee consideration
1.32The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills made no comment on the bill.
Structure of this report
1.33The report consists of three chapters:
This chapter provided an overview of and background to the bill, as well as the administrative details of the inquiry;
Chapter 2 summarises the key matters raised by those who support the bill;
Chapter 3 canvasses the main arguments raised in evidence against the passage of the bill; and
Chapter 4 sets out the committee’s views and recommendation.
Conduct of the inquiry
1.34Details of the committee’s inquiry were advertised on the committee’s website, including a call for written submissions by 12 December 2022. The committee subsequently extended the closing date for submissions to 16 January 2023.The committee also wrote to various stakeholders directly, inviting them to make submissions.
1.35The committee received 152 submissions. These are listed at Appendix 1 of this report, and available in full on the committee’s website. The committee also received a large number of form letters, a sample of these has been published on the committee’s website.
1.36The committee held a hearing into the bill in Canberra on 15 May 2023. The witnesses who appeared are listed at Appendix 2 of the report, and Hansard transcripts are available on the committee’s website.
1.37The committee thanks the organisations and individuals that provided submissions and appeared at the public hearing.