Chapter 2Support for the bill
2.1The committee heard evidence in submissions and at its public hearing in support of the removal of nuclear prohibitions from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (ARPANS Act) and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Some of the key arguments included:
that new developments in nuclear technology address previous concerns relating to nuclear energy;
the ability of nuclear energy to broaden Australia’s energy optionality;
that nuclear power is a cost-effective source of energy;
that nuclear is an environmentally sustainable source of energy; and
the shift in public support for the use of nuclear power in Australia.
New developments in nuclear technology
2.2Some evidence drew attention to emerging nuclear technologies to demonstrate the improvements in the safety and cost of Generation IV reactors and small modular reactions (SMRs) compared with existing nuclear energy technology. Some submitters argued that the prohibition should be lifted to enable companies to explore opportunities for bringing these new technologies to the Australian market.
2.3According to Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)—a statutory authority that provides expert and technical advice on matters relating to nuclear science, technology, and engineering—Generation IV reactors:
…represent the next iteration in nuclear power technology and promise to use fuel more efficiently, reduce waste production, meet stringent standards for safety and proliferation resistance, and to be more economically competitive against other electricity generation technologies and previous generation reactor designs.
Enhanced features include inherently safe designs that would be considered by nuclear safety regulators to be ‘walk-away safe’; the ability to ‘burn’ radioactive waste to close the fuel cycle; the ability to supply high-temperature process heat to decarbonise industrial activities; the reduction in reactor build costs and construction times; and strengthened non-proliferation mechanisms.
2.4SMRs can be built with Generation IV reactor designs. SMRs are generally defined as nuclear reactors producing less than 300 MWe, in comparison to larger plants that can produce more than 700 MWe. A sub-class of SMRs outputting less than 10 MWe is commonly referred to as MMRs which are ‘designed for remote deployment to service hard-to-reach communities or mining operations, for space applications, or for mobile deployment into disaster areas’. ANSTO noted that the build time for SMRs is much quicker than large-scale nuclear plants, taking between 2.5 to 4 years compared to large reactors which can take between 6 to 8 years to build.
2.5The Australian Academy of Science (AAS), an organisation of Australia's top research scientists which provides independent and authoritative scientific advice, described SMRs as a smaller type of nuclear reactor than a conventional reactor that:
…are designed to be manufactured at a plant and transported to the site to be assembled. This allows for reduced construction time, increased containment efficiency and increased security of nuclear materials, including waste. Some SMRs are fast reactors with high fuel burn up rates, which reduces the amount of waste produced. Others are designed to run on an alternative fuel cycle using thorium, which offers significantly reduced long-term waste radiotoxicity compared to the uranium cycle. Because of these characteristics, SMRs require less land space compared to conventional nuclear power plants, fossil fuel and some renewable alternatives.
2.6According to ANSTO a number of companies ‘are currently working on the development of Generation IV SMR systems, which are expected to be deployed [overseas] within a decade’.
2.7Similarly, Silex Systems Limited (Silex), an Australian nuclear and silicon technology commercialisation company, submitted that there ‘are more than 70 SMR designs in development, and some of these designs are likely to be deployed commercially in the Western Hemisphere in the next decade or so’.
2.8The AAS noted that whilst SMRs are in the early stages of development and construction, they ‘potentially offer a safe, reliable and low emission option to [a] conventional nuclear power plant’.
2.9The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) outlined how Australia could benefit from SMRs:
As Australia looks to decarbonise its energy networks, small modular reactors (SMRs) offer advantages as they provide constant and variable energy to support grid resilience and can be deployed near existing transmission infrastructure … Low emission SMRs enable the redeployment of existing energy generation skills and capabilities, provide high-value employment and support the economic viability of regional communities; all near valuable and expensive existing transmission infrastructure.
2.10A 2015 World Nuclear Association report notes the potential of SMRs in a number of areas, which was summarised by the MCA as follows:
because of their small size and modularity, SMRs could almost be completely built in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module, improving the level of construction quality and efficiency;
their small size and passive safety features make them suitable to countries with smaller grids and less experience of nuclear power;
size, construction efficiency and passive safety systems (requiring less redundancy) can lead to easier financing compared to that for larger plants; and
moreover, achieving ‘economies of series production’ for a specific SMR design will reduce costs further.
Safety of nuclear energy
2.11The committee received some evidence suggesting that the dangers of nuclear energy generation had been exaggerated, particularly given the improvements made in recent years developing SMRs. Mr Alan Lawrenson, previously an executive of a peak science industry body, submitted that new generation nuclear power ‘is completely safe’.
2.12SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd, an Australian nuclear technology consulting company, agreed, stating:
Modern SMRs are designed to be inherently safe, avoiding Chernobyl-type or Fukushima-type accidents. A modern nuclear power plant would have survived even the extreme Fukushima accident…
Modern SMR designs have now become a game-changer for nuclear safety. Although traditional reactors are safe, SMRs take safety to a new level of “walk-away safety”.
2.13A number of submitters asserted that nuclear power is the safest form of electricity generation available. For example, the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) submitted that nuclear energy generation has ‘the best safety record globally of any power source’, despite ‘a small number of high-profile safety incidents’.
2.14Similarly, SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd stated:
Nuclear energy has the lowest incidence of death and accidents amongst all energy production technologies, comparable to renewables. It is many times lower than fossil fuels. There has not been an accident leading to a radioactive release offsite from any reactor built in the last 35 years.
2.15Dr Sundance Bilson-Thompson, a theoretical particle physicist, described the poor reputation of nuclear power as undeserved in terms of safety, comparing it to other energy sources:
In reality, when deaths per terawatt hour of energy generated are evaluated (due to accidents and air pollution), nuclear power is just as safe as wind and solar. Wind power is responsible for 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour, nuclear for 0.03, and solar 0.02, in comparison with brown coal which accounts for 32.72 and oil at 18.43 deaths per TWh…
It should also be noted that modern nuclear reactor designs incorporate “passive” safety systems, meaning that in the event of a mishap the laws of physics themselves cause the reactor to shut down.
2.16Mr Neville Rutter, a project manager in the engineering and resources management industry, suggested that the enhanced safety features of SMRs, ‘if communicated honestly to the Australian public, can remove the historical fear and horror of nuclear power’.
2.17The Fusion Party also stated that nuclear power is one of the safest forms of energy available, ‘on par with solar and wind, and significantly safer than fossil fuels’. It suggested that further reassurance on the safety of nuclear power could be achieved by:
Clarifying that the [ARPANSA] would be responsible for regulating any nuclear power installations;
Ensuring that ARPANSA is properly resourced to maintain nuclear safety;
Reviewing relevant legislation to ensure that any nuclear power installation that would prejudice national security is disallowed; and
That Australia reaffirms its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
2.18Similarly, the AAS noted that ‘Australia currently has a robust radiation protection framework’, but added:
That framework will need to be revised for commercial nuclear power plants. While Australia currently has a preparedness and action plan against nuclear disaster, adjustments to the guidelines will need to be made to cover the operations of commercial nuclear power plants, and actions to take in the case of a catastrophic event.
Australia has regulations in place to monitor the nuclear industry, but these must be improved… These regulations would need to be improved to include nuclear power plant operations to ensure compliance with international safety rules and regulations... Finally, there will need to be separate regulations for different reactor types as a 'one-size-fits-all approach' may not be a safe and effective means to ensure compliance with nuclear power plant regulations.
Australia’s energy optionality
2.19A number of submitters argued that the Government should consider all available energy options to ensure the most cost-effective, efficient and reliable energy mix is secured for Australia’s future.
2.20William Shackel, founder of a youth-led campaign called Nuclear for Australia, stated ‘Australia's clean energy transition is by far one of the nation's most ambitious undertakings and we need every credible solution, including nuclear energy, on the table’.
2.21The AAS noted that ‘Australia has capability gaps in nuclear and radiation science’ and submitted that removing the prohibition on nuclear energy would ‘facilitate investment to address this weakness’. It added:
Australia is significantly lagging behind our peer nations in national nuclear and radiation science capability, leading to high demand for the existing workforce and risking our ability to address current and future national needs.
2.22The Fusion Party agreed that ‘the current prohibition on nuclear energy unnecessarily restricts Australia’s ability to conduct research and development in this field and our nation’s future energy options’. It added:
The legality of nuclear power in Australia is locked in a culture war struggle which harms our national interest. The ban should be reexamined on its merits; while we believe the ban was well-intentioned, it does not serve the interests of the Australian public today.
2.23Ms Helen Cook of Global Nuclear Energy (GNE) Advisory, a law practice specialising in the civil nuclear sector, was of the view that the Government ‘should ensure that all low carbon energy generation options are available to Australians in the future’, highlighting:
The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has developed an internationally accepted and universally followed roadmap for countries considering the introduction of nuclear energy generation for the first time, in the form of the “IAEA Milestones Approach”. This Approach is currently being utilised by more than 50 countries that are working to make informed decisions about their energy futures and create energy optionality that includes nuclear energy.
2.24Furthermore, Ms Cook submitted that overturning the prohibitions on nuclear energy was an important step towards securing Australia’s energy optionality as it would:
…signal that Australia is ready to engage in a responsible examination of the potential benefits that nuclear energy presents our country; benefits that are already, or soon will be, available to so many other industrialised nations and our regional neighbours.
2.25Similarly, SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd argued that ‘the legislative prohibitions preclude any serious consideration of the merits of nuclear power generation in Australia’. Furthermore, ‘SMR vendors will not treat Australia as a potential market whilst the prohibitions remain’.
2.26The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy (SACOME) submitted that ‘all low-emission technologies should be considered as part of the future energy mix to ensure both rapid decarbonisation and energy reliability’. SACOME noted:
…the lead time for the development of a country’s first nuclear installation, pursuant to the [IAEA] Milestones Approach, is between 10-15 years. If nothing else, Australia needs to create the optionality for the consideration of nuclear power in the 2030s.
2.27Quoting the International Energy Agency (IEA), Silex submitted:
Policy and regulatory reforms are needed to stimulate investment… The successful long-term deployment of SMRs hinges on strong support from policy makers and regulators to leverage private sector investment… Decisions are needed now for SMRs to play a meaningful part in energy transitions.
2.28The Australian Nuclear Association (ANA), an independent not-for-profit organisation, stated ‘removing the prohibitions is not a decision to build nuclear power plants but a decision to allow nuclear power to be considered on its merits’. At the committee’s public hearing, the ANA argued that it ‘is in Australia's best interest to seriously assess nuclear energy options that are available now and in the near future’:
Step one, remove the ban; step two, use the international framework that provides guidance for countries that are investigating and setting up a nuclear power program. We can start this process now and do it well, or we can wait and potentially rush it in future when we as a nation come to the realisation that we need nuclear energy technology.
If nuclear energy cannot compete with other technologies on its merits, it won't be built—pure and simple. However, we believe that nuclear energy will help achieve net zero emissions in the long term as well as increase reliability and affordability of the energy supply.
2.29The AWU argued that Australia’s industrial sector requires access to affordable and reliable energy and supports ‘a technology-neutral approach to meeting industry’s energy needs while reducing carbon emissions in line with the Australian Government’s commitments’. AWU stated that to meet this challenge:
Australia’s energy future will inevitably involve the replacement of fossil fuels as the foundation of Australia’s baseload electricity needs, and greater use of renewable energy sources combined with storage and peaking generation…
However, under the current legislative prohibition on nuclear power, Australia is not able to realistically assess the extent to which nuclear energy could form a part of this framework. As a result, Australia’s limited nuclear energy debate takes place at an extremely abstract level, without serious analysis of the potential impacts of nuclear energy for workers, communities and Australian economy and society.
The AWU supports the repeal of the ban on nuclear energy in Australia, to begin the process of a serious examination of the role that nuclear energy could play in Australia.
2.30A number of submitters discussed the importance of ensuring Australia’s energy security by supplementing renewables with nuclear energy to guarantee baseload power.
2.31The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) strongly supported the bill stating that:
…the construction and/or operation of nuclear installations would, over the medium-to-long term, expand the availability of usable and reliable baseload power in Australia.
2.32Dr Christopher Kaalund argued that nuclear power ‘will create jobs and stimulate economic growth, and could significantly improve our energy security’:
One of the main advantages of nuclear power is its ability to supply base load power, which means that it can consistently produce energy around the clock, unlike renewable sources such as solar and wind power. This makes nuclear power an essential addition to the country's energy mix.
2.33Mr Lawrenson canvassed the limitations of different sources of energy noting that ‘some technology to reach Net Zero by 2050 does not yet exist or [is not yet] confirmed as being viable’ and stated that this presents risks to Australia’s energy security if Australia cannot ensure affordable reliable power. He explained:
The huge cost and minimum of a 10 year-build time after a lengthy approvals process would not see a large-scale nuclear power plant/s in production until at least 2036 at the earliest. By this date, we will have retired 65% of our present coal fired fleet. In fact, we will almost certainly be in extreme jeopardy as far as affordable and reliable power is concerned. This will present a major national security risk.
We know that renewables (solar and wind) won’t deliver sufficient base load power to keep the lights on… Outside hydro, only gas-generation is affordable and doable before 2030…
This means we must seriously consider small modular nuclear reactors (SMR - power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit).
2.34A joint submission provided by a group of engineers and scientists agreed, submitting:
Reliable 24/7 baseload power generation is an essential requirement for the [National Energy Market] NEM going forward, as it has been in the past. In the NEM, customers require power, when it is needed…
[The Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO)] plan for the future NEM grid, using primarily wind and solar power generation, completely fails to meet any of the government’s stated goals for reliability, affordable costs and low emissions despite claims by the Integrated System Plan (ISP) dated 30 June 2022 and many others. In fact the ISP, as it is now being implemented, will likely cause enormous economic damage to the nation, create massive unreliability characterised by frequent largescale blackouts and risks to national security.
2.35The joint submission argued:
A far more viable approach is to use reliable, proven and efficient baseload power generation which requires no energy storages, no extra transmission lines and provides confidence to all consumers that power will be delivered when required… An immediate start needs to be made on investigating and planning for the introduction of reliable nuclear power generation into the NEM mix, which will further lower emissions. Many other countries have committed to initial installations of small modular reactors by the end of this decade by which time costs and technical issues will be well known.
2.36Women in Nuclear Australia also submitted that nuclear energy ‘is an important part of the energy mix to meet Australia’s growing need for reliable, affordable and clean power’, stating:
Nuclear energy is the densest energy solution available and its investment in ongoing scientific research and development means as an energy solution it is technologically advanced. Small modular reactors and Generation IV reactors provide highly capable, scalable power solutions with an increased focus on accident resistance and a reduced threat to nuclear security. These reactors can service entire cities—through to small remote towns—with reliable and stable power supply; on a reduced footprint in comparison to other energy forms. Therefore, allowing Australia’s precious land to be preserved for agriculture, industry, population growth or for wildlife and conservation areas.
Cost-effective energy production
2.37Some submitters argued that nuclear power is a cost-effective energy source, pointing to its high capacity factor, low operating and maintenance costs, ability for SMRs to be installed on existing transmission network infrastructure, and that Australia already has regulators and workforce experience in operating nuclear reactors, as well as abundant uranium resources.
2.38Dr Dave Collins, an environmental engineer, asserted:
The total 60y capital costs to achieve Net Zero 2050 based on AEMO ISP (2022) total $1,246B. To deliver the same firm energy generation with 100% nuclear was costed at less than half the cost of AEMO of $594B.
2.39At the committee’s public hearing, Mr Tony Irwin, Technical Director at SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd, noted it would cost $5 billion for a SMR reactor which would produce 12 terawatt-hours a year, and compared this with the cost of solar:
To get the same actual generation out of a solar plant, you would need 11 of the big Darlington Point solar plants. They're $450 million, so 11 comes out about the same. You're talking about the costs of nuclear and the costs of solar being basically the same, but then for the solar you've got to add on the storage. You've got to add on the local transmission. You've got to add on the interstate transmission. The lifetime is 25 years, compared to 60 years. If you look at the actual costs of solar in the system, it's about double the cost of nuclear.
2.40Nuclear for Climate Australia argued that the prohibition on nuclear energy prevents the NEM from being able to ‘provide the lowest cost, low carbon secure electricity generating system’. It explained:
Systems which incorporate nuclear energy have, according to research carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by Electric Power Consulting (EPC) in Australia, the lowest system levelised cost of energy (SLCOE).
EPC’s energy model was used to assess the costs of the Australian Electricity Market Operator’s (AEMO) Integrated System Plan (ISP) in the year 2050 and ultimately to a future decarbonised electricity sector. The results demonstrate that a system using nuclear energy will have much lower costs and achieve deeper carbon reductions more quickly than those based exclusively on wind and solar. It will achieve these cost benefits, in part, by eliminating the need for large amounts of energy storage and the expansion of the existing transmission and distribution system.
Nuclear power’s capacity factor and low operating costs
2.41Silex explained that nuclear power ‘has the highest capacity factor of any electricity generation technology (meaning that it is the most reliable and consistently available source of electricity)’.
2.42The Citizen’s Party also referred to nuclear energy’s capacity factor, noting that wind and solar are intermittent:
The reliability of different power sources can be compared via their respective “capacity factor”, the ratio (expressed as a percentage) of a generator’s actual output, over a given period, to what it would have produced running at full capacity over the same timeframe…
Nuclear’s capacity factor is so high because depending on type and size, most reactors are designed to be able to operate continuously for years or even decades with only brief interruptions for routine maintenance, before eventually requiring a lengthy shutdown for refuelling. Pebble bed [SMR] reactors, however, have a capacity factor close to 100 per cent because they can be refuelled while operating.
2.43Silex added that nuclear power:
has very low lifetime and system costs;
accounts for the costs associated with waste management in its levelised cost of electricity and generates low waste volumes, which are able to be managed effectively and safely; and
has low material input requirements.
2.44The Citizen’s Party critiqued the assumption that firmed renewables are cheaper than nuclear, stating:
…whilst it is true that wind turbines and solar panels incur the lowest up‑front cost to install, it is universally acknowledged that the costs and timeframe of the accompanying “firming”—i.e. building the battery or pumped hydro storage to smooth out their intermittent output lest they completely destabilise the grid—will be several times that of the generators themselves. Furthermore, [the] intergovernmental body, the International Energy Agency (IEA) cautions that projections of global demand for the minerals required to support a “transition” to firmed renewables “are subject to considerable uncertainty, with different levels of climate ambition and various technology development pathways resulting in a wide range of mineral demand.” Among other things, lithium demand in 2040 is projected [to] increase by between 13 and 51 times over today’s levels, and cobalt and graphite by 6-30 times, “depending on the direction of battery chemistry evolution”. Prices of these and other minerals are already soaring as a result; moreover, there are serious doubts that sufficient reserves of some of them, particularly lithium, even exist.
2.45Furthermore, the Citizen’s Party submitted:
Nuclear, by contrast, has a relatively high upfront cost; but its lower operating and maintenance costs, exponentially higher efficiency, manifold greater longevity and practically inexhaustible fuel supply make it far cheaper in the long term.
A report published in June 2021 by the University of Queensland (UQ) titled What would be required for nuclear energy plants to be operating in Australia from the 2030s…shows that through the use of SMRs, nuclear can replace not only all of Australia’s current fleet of coal-fired power stations, but its wind turbines and solar panels too, far more cheaply and efficiently than any other current or prospective technology, with effectively zero greenhouse gas emissions beyond those incurred during fabrication and construction. The report shows that the short lifespan of wind and solar generators means their low upfront cost is very much a false economy…
Further adding to the expense of “renewables” is that they must be built mostly on new (“greenfield”) sites in remote areas, necessitating expensive new transmission infrastructure to connect them to the grid. SMR complexes, on the other hand, with their small footprint and greater inherent safety compared to large conventional nuclear plants…could take advantage of existing infrastructure.
Utilising existing infrastructure and expertise
2.46The AAS, in reference to an Australia Institute report in 2007, stated ‘nuclear power plants could be sited near current coal power plants to use [existing] transmission networks’. JDC Electrical & Communications agreed, stating ‘the best sites suited to nuclear generation in Australia are at the sites of existing thermal coal and gas power stations’.
2.47Mr Lawrenson explained:
Given their smaller footprint, SMR’s can be sited on locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants. Prefabricated units of SMRs can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, making them more affordable and much quicker to build than large power reactors. Another benefit of SMRs is to locate them at former sites of coal-fired stations, so that their power distribution infrastructure can be utilised.
2.48Furthermore, Dr Collins submitted:
If nuclear power stations are collocated with existing operating coal power station sites…then the land area required by nuclear is effectively zero. In addition, the existing transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure can be reused, and existing engineers, tradesmen and operators can be employed, and existing local businesses and communities can be supported.
2.49Similarly, Mr Irwin proposed:
An ideal application would be to replace retiring coal-fired power stations with small modular reactors; reuse the infrastructure, particularly the transmission connections; and, importantly, retrain the staff and save the communities. This is what Bill Gates is doing in the USA with his Natrium project in Wyoming.
2.50The MCA also described the experience in the United States as an example that Australia could draw upon in utilising the infrastructure and workforce from retiring coal-fired power plants in nuclear facilities:
Over the next 25 years, communities across Australia will face workforce challenges as existing coalfired generation exits the market. However, the proposed changes to the two Acts could facilitate transition to local roles within a replacement nuclear energy project.
While current government policy prevents the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) looking at nuclear as a potential solution, the US situation is starkly different.
In September 2022, in the report Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants, the United States Department of Energy identified that ‘hundreds of coal power plant sites across the country could be converted to nuclear power plant sites’ that would ‘dramatically increase the supply of firm and dispatchable clean electricity to the grid and deliver huge gains to the nation’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050’.
The report notes that by replacing coal-fired capacity with nuclear, ‘jobs in the region could increase by more than 650 permanent jobs for the NuScale (SMR) design example in the case study’.
Given the structure of Australia’s east-coast energy market, there is similar opportunity to transition communities and existing workforces supporting fossil fuel generation across to a low-emission technology with a long lifespan.
2.51JDC Electrical & Communications, an advocate of fusion nuclear technology, stated that a future industry would offer:
…a range of employment opportunities with many transferable [skills] from the existing fossil fuel [industry]… For example, workers [in] thermal coal and gas power stations already have skills and experience operating much of the same machinery at a nuclear fusion power station.
2.52The ANA agreed that a ‘coal-to-nuclear transition at sites of retiring coal plants would provide continuing roles for coal plant workers’.
Australia’s uranium resources
2.53Additionally, some submitters observed that Australia is well-positioned to develop a nuclear industry due to its substantial uranium resources.
2.54Dr Collins noted that Australia has ‘about 30% of the known global reserves, more than 3 [times] greater than the uranium resources of any other country’. Dr Collins added that:
…we know that the quantity of materials that would need to be mined to support renewables is greater [than] the quantity of known reserves, i.e., deployment of renewables globally as a solution to climate change is impossible.
In contrast, the uranium resources associated with nuclear energy will in practical terms never run out within the lifetime of the technology.
2.55Furthermore, Ms Tania Constable, Chief Executive Officer of the MCA stated:
Australia has the world's largest reserves of uranium—28 per cent—and the fourth largest uranium production—7 per cent—with 4,933 tons in 2021-22, a strong legislative framework to manage a domestic nuclear energy sector, safeguard agreements and treaties for the peaceful use of nuclear technologies, government agencies to manage nuclear safety and radioactive waste, more than 60 years experience in safe operation of nuclear research reactors and a multibillion[-dollar] commitment to acquire nuclear powered submarines.
In 2021-22 our uranium miners exported material for 178 terawatt hours of zero-emission nuclear energy, equivalent to 67 per cent of Australia's domestic energy production that year… By 2040 global demand for uranium will almost double to 100,000 tonnes per annum, a lot of which could be Australian uranium.
2.56Dr Christopher Kaalund stated that ‘Australia has a distinct advantage over other countries in terms of nuclear power potential due to its geological stability and abundant uranium deposits’. Additionally, these ‘resources could be used to fuel Australia’s nuclear power plants, creating economic opportunities for the country’.
A ‘clean and green’ source of energy
2.57The committee received some evidence that nuclear energy was a ‘clean and green’ source of energy, which is almost emission-free. Nuclear energy could, it was argued, help lower global carbon emissions by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and assist Australia to meet its commitments to the Paris climate goals.
2.58The AAS stated that ‘electricity generation from nuclear fuel is classified as a low carbon technology’, whereby a ‘1000 MW nuclear power plant offsets about 7–8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year if it displaces coal’.
2.59Silex submitted that nuclear power ‘is the second largest global source of low-emissions, clean electricity after hydro-power’ and ‘has lower life-cycle emissions than concentrated solar power, rooftop solar, utility-scale solar PV, geothermal power, and biomass’.
2.60SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd stated ‘[n]uclear power, like wind and solar, has zero operating emissions’ and referred to a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the life cycle emissions of different electricity generation technologies which reported:
The median value for nuclear is 12g/kWh, the same as wind. Solar is higher at 48g/kWh. The latest United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) report shows nuclear lifecycle emissions have reduced to 5.1–6.4g/kWh due to changes in uranium mining techniques and less energy intensive enrichment technologies.
2.61Additionally, SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd submitted that the environmental impacts of nuclear are less than those of wind and solar because of the high energy density and longer lifetime of nuclear compared to wind and solar:
High energy density requires less materials and less land area per unit of electricity generated. Longer lifetime requires less replacement. The design lifetime for nuclear power plants is 60 years, solar design is 25 years and wind design is 20 years. All the existing solar and wind plants will have to be replaced before 2050. Sustainability is increasing[ly] recognised as an important consideration in energy policy.
2.62Dr Collins added that ‘[r]ecycling of solar panels and turbine blades is not yet viable, and the recycling process, like most recycling, consumes much more energy than is saved when transport and processing is considered’.
2.63The ANA stated that ‘Australia needs access to all available clean zero-carbon technologies to meet the challenge of decarbonising our energy system’, noting that lifting the prohibitions on nuclear energy in Australia was an essential first step.
2.64Dr Bilson-Thompson agreed, submitting that ‘[n]uclear power is a low-carbon energy generation technology which can play a vital role in curtailing the emission of greenhouse gases, while providing stable baseload power’.
2.65Some evidence argued that the use of nuclear alongside renewables would be the most effective way of decarbonising energy markets, rather than using renewables alone.
2.66SACOME submitted that Australia cannot meet its net zero target by 2050 at the speed and scale required with renewables alone:
Nuclear energy offers a zero-emissions energy source with the ability to provide reliable and dispatchable baseload power in extremely large quantities, with the potential to complement the existing use of renewables.
2.67The MCA’s submission included an IEA observation that:
While wind and solar PV are expected to lead the push to replace fossil fuels, they need to be complemented by dispatchable resources. As today’s second largest source of low emissions power after hydropower, and with its dispatchability and growth potential, nuclear—in countries where it is accepted—can help ensure secure, diverse low emissions electricity systems.
2.68Also referencing the IEA, Silex submitted:
Nuclear energy can help make the energy sector’s journey away from unabated fossil fuels faster and more secure…[and a]chieving net zero globally will be harder without nuclear… As an established large-scale low emissions energy source, nuclear is well placed to help decarbonise electricity supply.
2.69Similarly, the ANA stated:
Using nuclear energy in conjunction with wind, solar and hydropower would help provide reliable, affordable low carbon energy system for Australia into the future.
2.70Mr Lawrence agreed, proposing that:
SMRs could be paired with and increase the efficiency of renewable sources in a hybrid energy system…position[ing] SMRs to play a key role in clean energy transition.
2.71Silex concluded its submission stating:
Given the significant, demonstrated environmental and sustainability credentials of nuclear power, Silex believes that there is no reason for the maintenance of the prohibitions on the establishment of nuclear power plants and other nuclear fuel production facilities in Australia. Silex further believes that energy, climate, and environmental policy should be technology agnostic, and that technology solutions should be considered on their merits, free from any ideological biases.
2.72On the issue of nuclear waste, the AAS compared the waste generated by nuclear power plants with that of coal and gas, explaining:
The waste from a 1020 MW SMR amounts to 25.5 tonnes of low-level waste in spent fuel. It does not generate the gaseous waste of a comparably sized coal power plant (carbon dioxide emissions of 7 million tonnes per annum for a 1000 MW plant, sulfur dioxide of 200,000 tonnes, or coal ash of 400,000 tonnes) or a natural gas power plant (nitrogen oxides emissions of 5.5 tonnes per annum for a 1000 MW plant, carbon monoxide of 1.6 tonnes, and particulates of 0.9 tonnes). Unlike gaseous emissions, spent nuclear fuel is not released to the environment, but stored in radiation shielded containers according to standards set by the World Nuclear Association.
2.73Nuclear for Australia, a youth-led campaign, submitted:
Storage of radioactive waste should be a major consideration if Australia were to develop a commercial nuclear energy capability but should not justify the ban.
2.74Dr Bilson-Thompson acknowledged the ‘disposal of existing nuclear waste presents considerable challenges around the world’. However, he explained:
Nuclear waste is radioactive because it contains unused energy. If that energy was released and fed into the power grid, the waste itself would become less radioactive. Modern nuclear reactor designs have the potential to use existing nuclear waste as fuel in this way… In this way, Australia could act to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and produce electricity.
There are understandable concerns around mining and nuclear waste disposal in areas of the country that have high environmental value, or cultural significance to First Nations people… Acquiring and using nuclear waste as fuel would reduce the amount of mining necessary to meet Australia’s energy needs.
2.76The Citizen’s Party also noted that used fuel can be recovered to produce new fuel or re-used in fast neutron reactors, and further recognised that ‘Australia has both the world-class waste treatment technology—developed by [ANSTO], which operates the Lucas Heights research reactor in Sydney—and near-perfect geological conditions for long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste if desired’.
Increased public support for nuclear energy
2.77It was noted by some submitters that there has been a shift in public attitudes towards nuclear energy in Australia, with some pointing to various polling results that show increased public support for nuclear energy.
2.78For example, Adjunct Professor Stephen Wilson, submitted that public support for nuclear energy is growing, stating that ‘[f]ar from being banned, the mainstream, centrist, crossparty, non-partisan Australian view is that nuclear energy should be on the table and appropriately considered’.
2.79The Fusion Party highlighted a recent Lowy Institute poll which showed that ‘the existing prohibition no longer has the same social licence it once had, with the majority of Australians supporting removal of the ban’.
2.80The IPA conducted a poll in April 2022 asking whether respondents agreed, disagreed or neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement that ‘Australia should build nuclear power plants to supply electricity and reduce carbon emissions’. The poll recorded the following responses: 53% of Australians agreed with the statement; 23% disagreed; and 24% neither agreed nor disagreed.
2.81Similarly, in July 2022, SACOME commissioned a survey to canvass the views of the South Australian public to ‘see if they were open to a balanced conversation on nuclear energy’:
The survey included 600 South Australians from Greater Adelaide and regional South Australia, with the results reflecting the sentiment of other surveys conducted nationally.
The results found that more than six in 10 adults (63%) agree that given recent cost and reliability issues of the Australian electricity market, all energy sources, including nuclear, should be on the table for consideration.
Importantly, the survey highlights a significant knowledge gap in the community. Of those surveyed, only 22% have some knowledge or understanding of SMRs, and only 31% are aware of the environment and decarbonisation benefits of nuclear energy.
2.82William Shackel from Nuclear for Australia referred to polling conducted by Compass Research in May 2023, stating it ‘found that an overwhelming majority of Australians—70 per cent—want nuclear energy to be explored as an option for meeting our energy, security and emissions targets’.
2.83The next chapter outlines matters raised by submitters and witnesses opposing the bill.