Chapter 4 - Committee view

Chapter 4Committee view

4.1The committee thanks the individuals and organisations who took the time to provide evidence to the inquiry. The committee appreciates that there is a broad spectrum of views on the viability and appropriateness of establishing a civil nuclear industry in Australia.

4.2It is the committee’s view that there is no basis for lifting the legislative prohibitions on nuclear energy for civilian use for a multitude of reasons. Eight key points are outlined below.

4.3Point one: nuclear energy is expensive. Australia has access to plentiful, affordable, and readily available renewable technologies. The latest CSIRO GenCost report into the cost of electricity generation based on technology type found that firmed renewable energy was the cheapest option for Australia, while nuclear technology was the most expensive.

4.4Similarly, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water advised the committee that due to Australia’s access to abundant, low-cost renewable energy and related options for firming the electricity grid, in combination with the timeframe it would take for nuclear technology to become feasible in an Australian energy market context, nuclear technology options are not costcompetitive.

4.5In addition, the committee received reports that nuclear projects overseas frequently experience significant cost overruns, indicating that the risks and challenges of building nuclear power plants are often underestimated. As such, introducing nuclear power into Australia’s electricity network would only drive up power prices, causing additional economic pain for everyday Australians who are already struggling with the cost of living pressures.

4.6The committee notes that the Australian Government is implementing plans to capitalise on Australia’s significant natural advantages to become a renewable energy superpower. This will not only help achieve Australia’s emissions reduction target of 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050, but also opens a variety of valuable export opportunities.

4.7In the electricity sector, these plans include elements of the Powering Australia Plan and investing in renewables through the National Reconstruction Fund. In addition, the Australian Government recently announced that it will legislate a national Net Zero Authority to support workers, industries and communities to benefit from the opportunities presented by Australia’s net zero transformation.

4.8Point two: next generation nuclear technology is unproven. The committee notes that many proponents of establishing a nuclear industry in Australia promote small modular reactors (SMRs). However, SMRs remain an unproven technology and, globally, there are no commercially operational SMRs. It is clearly not possible for Australia to develop a nuclear power sector with SMR technology which is not commercially available.

4.9Point three: assuming the technology were currently commercially available—given the very considerable lead time that would be involved in establishing a new nuclear industry in Australia—by the time one was established, its contribution to the electricity market would likely be negligible given Australia’s projected 83 per cent uptake of firmed renewables by 2030. Beyond cost and commercial availability, ARPANSA advised the committee that it would take between 10 to 15 years to have an operational nuclear plant in Australia. This is due to the need for a significant review of regulations, including consideration of cross-jurisdictional complexities, establishing an appropriate and rigorous national regulatory framework, as well as a skilled workforce, in addition to construction time. Similarly, the assessment of the CSIRO’s GenCost 2022-23 report indicated that there is no prospect of SMRs being deployed in Australia before 2030. Within this timeframe, the Australian Energy Market Operator projects that the National Electricity Market’s generation capacity will comprise of 83 per cent renewables by 2030, without any contribution from nuclear energy. The committee recognises that addressing climate change requires immediate action and pursuing nuclear energy would only be a distraction from Australia’s 2030 target and broader efforts to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

4.10As noted above, a civil nuclear industry in Australia would require the establishment of an appropriate and rigorous national regulatory framework, as well as developing and attracting the workforce expertise necessary to support it. ARPANSA advised the committee that it would take at least three to five years just to conduct a thorough review of current regulations, noting that the ARPANS Act currently regulates Commonwealth entities and Commonwealth users of radiation and nuclear technologies, and does not capture the licencing and regulation of private entities. Cross-jurisdictional challenges and complexities would also have to be resolved. Beyond these regulatory hurdles, significant workforce capability development would be required as Australia lacks the specialised workforce, including nuclear engineers, to support the establishment of a civil nuclear industry. Fostering such a workforce would require significant investment and time and funding—resources which the committee believes would be better invested in supporting regional communities and energy sector workers, and their families, transition to secure sustainable and skilled jobs.

4.11Point four: nuclear power is inflexible. The energy output of nuclear power plants lacks the flexibility required to meet the needs of a modern electricity market. Proponents of nuclear energy often point to concerns about the baseload capacity of renewable energy. However, the committee received evidence that baseload power reflects an outdated and inflexible model that is no longer suited to modern and dynamic electricity grids which require two-way power flows, due to changes in demand and in generation. As such, firmed renewables are much better suited to the load profiles of modern electricity grids which require greater flexibility, rather than pursuing an energy source like nuclear which is inflexible—needing to operate continuously with high energy outputs to achieve maximum efficiency. Furthermore, the Australian Energy Market Operator reported that Australia’s National Energy Market could be operated securely with up to 75 per cent instantaneous penetration of wind and solar and that, beyond 2025, there are no insurmountable reasons why it cannot operate securely at even higher levels of instantaneous wind and solar penetration.

4.12Point five: nuclear carries inherent and consequential safety risks. The committee acknowledges the concerns raised by submitters and witnesses in relation to the safety and environmental concerns linked to the production of nuclear energy, including uranium mining. The health and safety of the workforce and the public, including First Nations communities, is essential. The mining and export of uranium, and disposal of radioactive waste must be done only under the most stringent conditions, following world best practice standards. Managing the radioactive waste produced by civil nuclear power plants remains a global issue due to its long lifespan, and health and environmental risks. Importantly, the committee also recognises the understandable reluctance of communities across Australia to have nuclear waste sites located in close proximity to where they live. Establishing a civil nuclear industry in Australia would unnecessarily add to the local and global problem of managing high-level nuclear waste.

4.13Point six: a number of submitters raised an issue close to the hearts of many Australians—water scarcity. Nuclear power plants require significant volumes of water from uranium mining and processing, through to reactor cooling. The necessity of locating nuclear power plants near sea water would likely mean the construction of nuclear reactors near densely populated areas and would create additional environmental and security risks. These concerns add to the conclusion that establishing a civil nuclear industry in the drought-prone country of Australia is untenable.

4.14Point seven: pursuing a civil nuclear industry creates potential and unnecessary national security risks. The establishment of a civil nuclear energy industry in Australia could generate regional and global unease due to perceived links between civil nuclear industries and nuclear weapons proliferation, as well as opening the possibility of nuclear reactors being the target of hostiles. Australia continues to be an international advocate of nuclear non-proliferation and the committee supports Australia’s ongoing participation in the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, as well as the international and bilateral nuclear safeguard agreements it has ratified.

4.15Point eight: there is no social license to support the establishment of a civil nuclear industry in Australia. There is a long history of public support for the prohibition on civil nuclear power in Australia, and this support is ongoing. A significant majority of Australians are not comfortable with the prospect of having nuclear power plants, or the radioactive waste they produce, in their backyards. Overwhelmingly, Australians recognise the importance of transitioning to a secure and sustainable energy future, and firmed renewables are the key to achieving that future. The evidence reflects that there is no mandate or broad public support for overturning the laws that protect the health and safety of Australians, and our environment, and have done so for over two decades.

4.16The combination of these material deficiencies has led the committee to its decision on this bill. The committee believes that removing the prohibitions on civil nuclear power from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 would create an unnecessary escalation of risk, particularly given Australia is able to utilise readily available firmed renewable technology to secure a reliable, affordable and clean energy system for Australia’s future.

4.17It is the committee’s position that Australia’s moratorium on a civil nuclear industry in Australia has served the Australian public well and it should be maintained so that it can continue to protect the health and wellbeing of all Australians and Australia’s natural environment.

Recommendation 1

4.18The committee recommends that the bill not be passed.

Senator Karen Grogan