Coalition Senators' Dissenting Report

Coalition Senators' Dissenting Report

Australia’s nuclear ban is an accident waiting to happen

1.1Australia is one of just a few countries in the world that ban nuclear power. Australia’s prohibition was not established after detailed consideration and debate. Australia’s nuclear ban was the consequence of unseemly horse trading in the Australian Senate a generation ago.

1.2Australia’s nuclear ban was introduced via a Greens amendment in the Senate on 10 December 1998. There was less than 10 minutes of debate on the matter. The Howard Government at the time was seeking legislative support to build a new nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights. With no immediate prospect of a nuclear power station being built, the Government accepted the amendment so it could proceed with the new research reactor.

1.3Of the 20 richest nations in the world only three do not have nuclear power: Australia, Saudi Arabia and Italy. Saudi Arabia is building a nuclear power station and Italy gets much of its imported electricity from France, where over 60 per cent of the electricity is produced by nuclear.

1.4Australia’s status as a nuclear outcast is more remarkable given that our country has the largest reserves of uranium in the world. Australia is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium, and is home to one of the world’s leading nuclear medical facilities just 30 kilometres from the centre of Sydney.

1.5In the 1990s, Australia’s nuclear ban did not impose significant costs because we relied on coal and gas fired power. However, our coal fired power fleet is now old, and governments have not supported constructing new ones because of concerns over climate change. While there was never a justification for banning nuclear energy, this ban is now an accident waiting to happen if we try to move our energy system to one almost completely dependent on the weather.

1.6Australia’s purchase of nuclear submarines makes it even more important to drop our outdated nuclear ban. A lack of a domestic nuclear energy industry risks the success of our nuclear submarine program. Without a nuclear energy industry, we may fail to develop the skills and support industries necessary to support our nuclear submarine endeavour.

1.7The ban on nuclear energy already risks Australia’s energy security. Keeping the ban in place would risk our national security too.

1.8Australia’s ban on nuclear energy was enacted a generation ago, but it is the next generation that will pay the price if we lack the courage to fix this glaring issue. As William Shackel, a 16 year old who has established his own organisation to campaign for nuclear energy, eloquently summed up to the Committee:

For far too long, young people like me have been sold slogans and facades of plans to address these challenges, that we are told to blindly trust. If these untested plans fail, besides dangerous and damaging from fossil fuels, we have no back-up, no redundancy and no plan B.

The stakes have never been higher. Detrimental global climate change tipping points are on the horizon, and, without action, we risk subjecting millions of Australians to devastating energy and financial poverty. Yet the one pragmatic and proven solution that can simultaneously address both issues is blatantly ignored in this country. It is locked away by an outdated ban—a relic of the 1990s—flippantly passed through parliament, in doing so compromising the future of Australia's environment, energy security and economic prosperity.

The consequences of the poor decisions you make now are the consequences my generation will be condemned to. 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.[1]

1.9The clear evidence presented to this inquiry is that it is time to remove Australia’s ban on nuclear energy. The passage of this bill will not allow the immediate construction of nuclear power, it will simply allow our regulators to consider proposals. Indeed, this bill leaves in place the so-called “nuclear trigger” in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and the regulatory oversight provided by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (ARPANS Act). This means that any proposal to build a nuclear power station would still need to navigate detailed and rigorous regulatory processes.

1.10As with any infrastructure development, it will take time to build a nuclear power plant. But this is even more reason to act now, and remove the ban. The old Chinese saying is right: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now.” Now is the time for Australia to remove its accidental and illogical ban on nuclear energy.

What is nuclear energy?

1.11Nuclear energy delivers electricity by harnessing the heat produced in the fission, or splitting, of radioactive isotopes of uranium or plutonium in a reactor. Nuclear energy is also widely used in submarines for power and propulsion, but also other shipping, including aircraft carriers and icebreakers.

1.12Nuclear plants are generally characterised by large capacity and output, high capital cost, and long construction times, but relatively low operating costs and almost zero carbon dioxide emissions from their operation. Nuclear energy is used to produce electricity in 31 countries from some 450 nuclear reactors, providing around 10 per cent of global electricity. Many nations are building new nuclear power plants because they provide reliable, emission free power. There are 54 nuclear power stations under construction.

Figure 1: Nuclear energy reactors, World Nuclear Association.

1.13Over the next 30 years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) predicts that global nuclear power capacity could increase by 80 per cent, and possibly triple in the Asia-Pacific region.

Functions and provisions of the bill

1.14Nuclear power production is currently not permitted under two main pieces of Commonwealth legislation—the ARPANS Act, and 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.

1.15The Environment and Other Legislation Amendment (Removing Nuclear Energy Prohibitions) Bill 2022 seeks to remove the prohibitions in Commonwealth laws—that is for the approval, licensing, construction, or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant; a nuclear power plant; an enrichment plant; or a reprocessing facility.

1.16The ARPANS Act regulates activities undertaken by Commonwealth entities affecting radiation, to ensure that the health and safety of people, and the environment, are protected from the harmful effects of radiation.

1.17This Bill does not affect the ability of the Minister and/or the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) to ensure those protections remain in place. And any proposal to build a nuclear power station would still require both a licence under the ARPANS Act and a permit under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987. Any plant would also need to comply with other state, territory and federal laws. The EPBC Act provides for the protection of the environment, ecologically sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and heritage protection by giving the Commonwealth a role in regulating matters of national environmental significance.[2]

Other previous inquiries of relevance

1.18In May 2016, the final report of the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission recommended that the Commonwealth remove prohibitions on nuclear energy.[3]

1.19In 2019, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy conducted an inquiry into the pre-requisites for nuclear energy in Australia. The Committee considered 309 submissions and undertook a program of public hearings across the country from which it drew three key conclusions:

firstly, the Australian Government should further consider the prospect of nuclear technology as part of its future energy mix;

secondly, the Australian Government should undertake a body of work to deepen the understanding of nuclear technology in the Australian context; and

thirdly, the Australian Government should consider lifting the current moratorium on nuclear energy partially—that is, for new and emerging nuclear technologies only—and conditionally—that is, with approvals for nuclear facilities to require the prior informed consent of impacted local communities.[4]

1.20In May 2023, the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (FADT) conducted an inquiry into the Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 (Naval Nuclear Propulsion bill inquiry). At the conclusion of the inquiry, Coalition Senators stated that:

It is entirely reasonable that Australia has a conversation about whether it is necessary and appropriate to maintain a moratorium on civil nuclear power, considering the push to embrace clean technologies as part of efforts to decarbonise our economy, the fact that Australia will now be developing expertise and industry to support a safe and sustainable nuclear submarine program, and the relationship that exists in other jurisdictions between civil nuclear power programs and nuclear powered submarine programs.[5]

Why nuclear makes sense now

1.21The topic of nuclear energy stimulates both supportive and opposing views. This Committee has received 152 submissions and held a public hearing in Canberra on the matter.

1.22There are broadly two separate sets of objections to removing the ban.

1.23The first involves considerations of the safety and appropriate regulation of nuclear energy. If something cannot be viewed as safe, or we cannot appropriately store the waste or other by-products from it, then there is a case to ban that activity. However, the Committee has not heard strong evidence that either of these conditions have been met.

1.24It is important to note that Australia will have to tackle these safety and waste issues in any case given the decision to acquire nuclear submarines. There is some evidence that developing a nuclear energy industry alongside the purchase of the submarines would help us deliver a successful nuclear submarine program.

1.25The second set of objections involves the costs of nuclear energy, or the time it may take to build a nuclear power station. Even if the critics are right about these matters, they do not make for a sufficient reason to ban nuclear energy. Politicians or regulators are not in the best place to judge the efficiency of different investments. That should be something left to businesses. It is important to note that the Bill before this Committee does not commit any public funds to the construction of nuclear energy. It simply allows proposals to be brought forward regarding nuclear energy.

1.26Nonetheless, it is useful to consider the matters of efficiency and timing of a nuclear power plant. While these matters are more contested than the safety issues, there is a strong case that nuclear energy can provide a competitive energy option especially against the alternative of relying on a firmed renewable energy solution.

Nuclear energy is safe

1.27The fundamental question posed by many submitters was—if the prohibitions were removed would nuclear energy be safe? For example, Mr Trevor Gauld, from the Electrical Trades Union:

What are the safety risks compared to alternatives that are available? The safety is worse in nuclear than in the alternatives.[6]

1.28However, the data does not support the proposition that nuclear is less safe.

1.29Nuclear energy is one of the safest ways of generating electricity. Nuclear energy has resulted in far fewer deaths than that from dam failures, oil rig explosions and the pollution caused by inefficient coal fired power stations or coal fired stoves. According to Our World in Data, the fatality rate of nuclear is almost equal to that of solar and wind energy. So anyone that maintains that nuclear is “unsafe” would need to make the same conclusions about solar and wind energy.

Figure 2: Our World in Data, ‘Death rates per unit of electricity production’,

1.30These data demonstrate that nuclear energy has among 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.[7]

1.31The lived experience of nuclear energy has been safe partly because it is heavily regulated here and overseas. The internationally accepted standards established by the IAEA provide clear guidelines on the regulation of nuclear activities. In addition, most countries have strong, independent nuclear and environment regulators. In Australia’s case, ARPANSA is a world-class regulator established under Commonwealth law. ARPANSA leads the development of industry codes and best practice in Australia.[8]

1.32This point was reiterated by Mr Tony Irwin, representing SMR Nuclear Technology, during testimony at a public hearing held in Canberra on 15 May 2023:

I believe there is a fundamental question that needs to be addressed: the object of the ARPANS Act is to protect the health and safety of people and to protect the environment from the harmful effects of radiation, so, if the prohibitions in the act were removed, would people still be protected? The answer is yes because ARPANSA is a world-class independent nuclear regulator and Australia is a party to all the nuclear conventions and adopts the international best-practice guidance of the International Atomic Energy Agency.[9]

1.33Australia has over 60 years’ experience in safely deploying nuclear technology, including operating research reactors. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) currently operates a 20 MWth OPAL multipurpose reactor (for research and manufacture of medical products) at Lucas Heights, Sydney.[10]

1.34As Dr Rick Tinker from ARPANSA commented to the Committee:

Australia has a robust radiation protection framework in which we have fundamental principles for safety codes and standards which apply to the current framework of dealing with facilities like ANSTO and radioactive material in Australia. To uplift to a civilian nuclear power capability, we would rely heavily on the International Atomic Energy Agency's standards. They have a suite of requirements that we would have to uplift to include into our national framework.[11]

1.35It is understandable that community concerns linger regarding nuclear energy given the high-profile nature of incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. However, these incidents are not materially relevant to the Australian situation. Chernobyl involved the use of Soviet nuclear technology that would not be used in Australia. Fukushima was principally caused by a massive earthquake and related tsunami. The risk of tsunami is infinitesimally small in Australia and any residual risk can be a factor of any proposed nuclear power station as it receives approval.

1.36The Australian Nuclear Association noted recent improvements in safety protocols in its submission:

The nuclear risk and safety of all operating nuclear plant and new designs were reassessed following the Fukushima accident and where necessary upgraded.

The most significant design advancements in modern large-scale 1 GWe nuclear power plants and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are the introduction of safety features which enable these reactors to automatically shut down and remove decay heat using passive controls. This means that many modern reactors remain safe without external power supply or human intervention for an extended time.[12]

1.37SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd, an Australian nuclear technology consulting company, agreed, stating that:

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.[13]

1.38Our regulatory settings should be based on evidence and facts. All the evidence points to nuclear energy being one of the safest forms of energy in the world. There is no safety case to ban nuclear energy in Australia.

Managing waste

1.39The production of nuclear energy generates radioactive waste and that must be processed and stored according to strict guidelines.

1.40Australia already generates radioactive waste from its nuclear medicine facility at Lucas Heights. That waste is sent offshore for processing and the processed waste is stored in Australia, currently at Lucas Heights. Australia has safely managed nuclear waste for over 60 years from the Lucas Heights facility.

1.41Mr Irwin described Australia’s nuclear waste management process:

Day-to-day operation of a nuclear power plant produces only low-level waste. This is things like clothing, cleaning materials, resins, filters et cetera. A NuScale plant, for instance, would produce about two shipping containers of low-level waste a year. That goes into drums, and it goes into a low-level repositor. The only high-level waste is the used fuel. When it's discharged from the reactor, everybody puts it initially into a cooling pond. That provides shielding and removes the heat, because it's still hot and radioactive. It stays in there for a few years. Then you've got four options for it. You can put it into a dry cask and you can keep it there for, say, 100 years. You can reprocess it. The fuel from the OPAL reactor [ie, Lucas Heights] goes to France. It's reprocessed. They extract the uranium and plutonium from it and you get just intermediate-level waste back…We've successfully managed waste for 60 years.[14]

1.42As Dr Miles Apperley from ANSTO commented:

I would characterise Australia's projection into the international nuclear agency as that of a provider of sophisticated and complex small-scale nuclear capability. We are respected and highly regarded in the areas of waste management and waste management solutions, and this is demonstrated by our engagement in a number of IAEA international committees and forums where we actually do take a chair role.[15]

1.43The development of new nuclear technologies could see the simplification of nuclear waste issues. For example, the development of Generation IV nuclear reactors promises to produce much less waste. As described by Mr Irwin:

…the big one for the future is to burn it in a fast neutron reactor—the generation IV reactor. Australia is part of the generation IV forum that's looking at deploying these advanced reactors that'll produce high temperatures, heat et cetera. You can actually burn the fuel from the existing reactors in those sorts of reactors.[16]

1.44The construction of nuclear energy facilities in Australia would require the development of a more sophisticated nuclear waste management framework in Australia. It is unlikely that the high-level waste from a nuclear energy facility could be transferred overseas for processing. So Australia would need to develop the skills and facilities to process nuclear waste here.

1.45In the past, some have used our lack of nuclear waste processing abilities as a reason not to develop nuclear energy in Australia. However, regardless of our decision on nuclear energy, Australia must now develop nuclear processing skills to support the maintenance of nuclear submarines.

Nuclear submarines and nuclear energy go hand in hand

1.46Australia’s decision to purchase nuclear submarines makes it imperative for Australia to drop its ban on nuclear energy.

1.47We should not minimise the challenge we face to successfully develop a nuclear submarine fleet. If we are successful, Australia will become just the seventh country in the world to have nuclear submarines. Every other country with nuclear submarines also has a large domestic nuclear energy industry (see Figure 3).

Figure 33: All countries with nuclear submarines have nuclear energy reactors.

1.48There are clearly large synergies between a nuclear-powered submarine industry and a nuclear energy industry. Many nuclear trained submariners end up getting a job later in life in the domestic energy industry. Indeed, given how tough a career in submarining is, we must provide other, longer-term job opportunities to attract anyone to start a career in nuclear submarines in the first place. How will we attract enough young people to train in nuclear energy if the only job prospect they have for their entire working career is to work on a submarine that takes them away from home and their families for many months of the year?

1.49This is a sentiment echoed by the Australian Academy of Science in its submission, stating:

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. Network mapping suggests that beyond the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, there are as few as three permanent experimental nuclear physics researchers in Australia. These nuclear science capability gaps affect a broad range of fields, including medicine, space radiation, quantum technologies, and defence.[17]

1.50William Shackel also agreed that more opportunities than just nuclear submarines are needed to drive interest from young people to pursue a career in nuclear technology:

Senator CANAVAN: Are some of your school colleagues interested in a career in nuclear science? And, if so, are they excited about the nuclear submarines? Is that something that's potentially driving interest as well?

William Shackel: I'm going to say no. It's because they'd have no options to really do it if they wanted to pursue that field. AUKUS has come out, but what opportunities can they find in Australia? So my answer is no.

Senator CANAVAN: So, if young people are excited about it, they have to think about going overseas at the moment?

William Shackel: Yes, they would. I am sure, from looking at my friendship group—and I know this is anecdotal evidence, but I am sure—that, if there were opportunities, there would be people who would genuinely pursue that avenue because, when you just look around Australia, there's huge interest in STEM, and STEM relates to nuclear energy in many ways. Those skills you acquire through the STEM subjects can be transferred into nuclear engineering and all those different disciplines. So if the opportunity presented itself, if nuclear energy were legalised, if the prohibition were lifted, I'm sure there'd be many young Australians who would put their hand up so they would be skilled and employable in that area.[18]

1.51We should develop nuclear energy so that we can deliver a vibrant nuclear supply chain of workers, skills and experience to successfully support our nuclear submarines. The absence of nuclear energy in Australia threatens the successful deployment of our nuclear submarines and therefore risks our national security.

1.52How is it logical for us to decide that it is safe for nuclear reactors to travel around our coastlines and dock in our ports, yet apparently unsafe for the same type of nuclear reactors to be housed on land? The nuclear reactors in a Virginia class submarine have a capacity of 260 megawatts, equivalent to the size of many gas power stations in Australia.

1.53In its opening statement at the public hearing on 15 May 2023, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) pointed out:

The aims of that bill [the Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023] are very similar to what we are debating today, facilitating construction and operation of nuclear power reactors. Effectively the Navy will acquire Small Nuclear Reactors, expanding Australian’s nuclear sector beyond the exceptional nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights.

That Australia is willing to invest upwards of $370 billion on nuclear technology while intentionally excluding the capacity to reduce emissions and complement renewables is simply extraordinary.[19]

1.54In its submission to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion inquiry, the MCA stated:

The aims of the Defence Bill highlight the absurd inconsistency of using nuclear technology for naval propulsion while intentionally excluding its potential for low- emissions domestic energy generation. In fact, the manner in which this fact is overtly expressed within the bill’s Explanatory Memorandum suggest that the position is political rather than technical or environmental.[20]

1.55The ANA has also pointed out the inconsistencies in the Government approach:

The issues of siting, cost and waste are very similar for nuclear reactors used for propulsion in submarines and for nuclear reactors used for electricity and heat on land. It is disingenuous for the Government in the Memorandum to claim that nuclear power plants are safe in submarines but not on land.[21]

1.56The submission from Save Our Surroundings (SOS) concludes:

Exempting the building and maintenance of our proposed nuclear submarine fleet from the continued outdated ban on nuclear power generation in Australia is a short-sighted decision. SOS supports the repeal of Australia's ban on nuclear power and believes therefore that the proposed Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 is unnecessary.[22]

1.57The Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Innovation and Transformation (CENRIT), Macquarie University, highlights in its submission:

It is illogical therefore that it is permissible that [Nuclear Propelled Naval Vessels] NPNVs with reactors akin to [Small Nuclear Reactors] SMRs to be located alongside docks in ports that are regulated by a civilian regulator, but not permit SMR reactors to generate energy as part of Australia’s essential shift from hydrocarbons to a net-zero future … It is logical that as the defence nuclear program is rolled out in the coming decade, including necessary policy, legal, non-proliferation, workforce, security, and safety arrangements, a concomitant civilian program for similar necessary reforms should also be developed.[23]

1.58Further, the development of nuclear submarines completely removes the argument against nuclear energy that we do not have waste processing facilities in Australia.

1.59As the Department of Industry, Science and Resources confirmed:

…there is quite extensive work being done through the Department of Defence. We are working with the Department of Defence and in particular the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency to consider the waste streams from submarines and the overall management of that waste.[24]

1.60Mr Irwin commented to the Committee:

The first waste from one of our nuclear-powered submarines we will have to manage in 2060. We get our first ones in 2033. It's got a 30-year life, so it's 2060 before we have to manage that spent fuel waste.[25]

1.61While 2060 may seem like a long way away, it has taken Australia more than 40years to find a site to store low level radioactive waste, and that process has not yet finalised. Given that we will need to develop facilities to manage high level waste in less 40 years’ time, our record indicates we had better get moving on that as soon as possible.

1.62Ultimately, there are clear economies of scope between the purchase of nuclear submarines and the establishment of a nuclear energy industry in Australia. As Ms Helen Cook commented to the Committee:

…aren't we building all of these capacities for AUKUS? That we don't have them today is not being used as a reason not to have a military application of nuclear energy, so why is it a reason not to have a civilian application of nuclear energy? Indeed, isn't this how technological, scientific and industrial advancement is achieved—by fostering it and by creating the human resources necessary to implement it, as well as the policies and the legal frameworks necessary to support it?[26]

1.63While there remain concerns about the cost of nuclear energy, given how it could contribute to our national defence, those costs are worth bearing even if nuclear energy was marginally more costly than alternatives.

1.64In any case, there was significant evidence provided to the Committee that the cost of nuclear could in fact be cheaper, or at least comparable, to other forms of low emission power.

Efficiency and cost

1.65The Committee heard concerns that nuclear energy would be more costly than alternatives.

1.66The committee heard from Dr Jim Green from Friends of the Earth Australia:

You haven't heard about the catastrophic costs and the catastrophic cost blowouts with all reactor projects in the United States, the UK, France and elsewhere. In those three countries that I've just mentioned, every single reactor costs A$25 billion to A$30 billion. In the US, if we compare early cost estimates with current estimates, there's a 12-fold increase. In the UK there's an eightfold increase. In France there's a sixfold increase.[27]

1.67In the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water’s (DCCEEW) submission it stated:

In their GenCost 2021-22 report, the CSIRO and AEMO estimate in 2030 the deployment of nuclear power from small modular reactors (SMRs) in Australia could cost between $136 and $326 per megawatt hour (MWh). The report suggests there is no prospect of SM Rs being deployed in Australia before 2030. Other recent modelling by bodies such as the University of Queensland (2021) estimate the levelised cost for nuclear power at $60 to $102/MWh from the 2030s. These differences in estimates are due to variations in data, modelling methodologies and assumptions.

By comparison, the estimated costs in the GenCost 2021-22 report for integrated renewables are between $53 and $82MWh in 2030, depending on the level of renewables penetration and including the costs of additional investment in transmission and storage to manage the variable output of renewable energy generators.[28]

1.68However, others pointed out that the official estimates of the cost of nuclear energy in Australia have not been kept up to date. For example, Mr Irwin commented that:

…one reason that the government gives for not wanting nuclear is the cost. We've all heard Minister Bowen quote $16,000 per kilowatt as the cost of nuclear. This figure comes from the CSIRO annual GenCost report. Every year for this CSIRO report Aurecon updates the costs for all technologies except nuclear. The last time nuclear was updated was 2018. Even CSIRO admit that the source of the 2018 $16,000 per kilowatt is uncertain, but they continue to publish it. The government are not receiving accurate information about the system costs of different technologies to enable them to determine what is the best low-emissions, least-cost energy mix. Until the prohibitions are removed, Australia's power system will continue to be constrained at great cost to the economy.[29]

1.69The key question for Australia’s future is whether nuclear is comparable to other options under consideration, like for example a system that is dominated by renewable energy. The Government’s target is for 82 per cent of Australia’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030.

1.70Some pointed out that even on the Government’s disputed figures, nuclear energy was comparable in cost to renewable energy:

…it was interesting to see [Minister for Climate Change and Energy] Chris Bowen say $5 billion for a small-body reactor. I would agree with that figure, but for that you get 13 terawatt-hours a year. 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. This is what we're not getting at the moment.[30]

1.71It is also unclear why the CSIRO has only calculated costs for small modular reactors. The CSIRO’s costs for nuclear only begin from 2030 even though nuclear has been a commonly used technology for decades, and many countries are turning back to nuclear. As Dr John Harries told the Committee:

Senator CANAVAN: …Do you think the CSIRO should be benchmarking the costs of existing nuclear technologies as well in their reporting to the government and the public?

Dr Harries: It's clear they should, because the costs in the GenCost are a very specific type of new generation SMR. They're not looking at the actual builds happening around the world at the moment. At the present time, I suppose a number of countries are building 1,000-megawatt plants at much cheaper costs than GenCost, and the SMRs, when they become available, will be a similar price per megawatt hour.[31]

1.72The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) calculations for nuclear energy are much lower than the CSIRO’s estimates. For example, in a major report in 2020 comparing the costs of different energy technologies, the IEA concluded that:

The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants remains stable, yet electricity from the long-term operation of nuclear power plants constitutes the least cost option for low-carbon generation.[32]

1.73The IEA estimates the cost of existing nuclear technologies at between $43/MWh and $146/MWh, considerably lower than CSIRO’s calculations. These costs are for a range of including developed countries similar to Australia like the US, France and Japan.

1.74Admittedly, the CSIRO calculations are not directly comparable because the CSIRO only calculate costs for small modular reactors.

1.75However, given the IEA’s findings on the competitiveness of existing nuclear technologies it is strange that the CSIRO has not bothered to make these calculations, or even attempt to incorporate them into their reports. Moreover, given the CSIRO has not even evaluated the cost of existing nuclear technologies, the GenCost report can hardly be used as a basis to continue to ban such technologies.

1.76Recent questions have also emerged about the CSIRO’s calculation of the integration costs for renewable energy. Reporting by Claire Lehrmann in The Australian has forced the CSIRO to admit that some of the costs to support renewable energy have not been included in its 2030 estimates for renewables costs.[33] As Mr Paul Graham, Chief Economist, Energy at the CSIRO commented in The Australian:

All existing generation, storage and transmission capacity up to 2030 is treated as sunk costs since they are not relevant to new-build costs in that year.[34]

1.77Given the cost blowouts that are occurring on major projects like Snowy Hydro 2.0 and the Battery of the Nation, it is not clear that these projects will, or have to, proceed. If Australia instead chose to build nuclear plants, there would be reduced need for large storage or transmission projects like these. Therefore, excluding their costs to compare the relative costs of nuclear and renewables produces a misleading comparison. The bottom line is that the CSIRO’s calculations provide little to no useful information when comparing the cost of nuclear energy to other alternatives.

1.78Putting aside the estimated costs of different energy options calculated by the CSIRO, the actual costs of electricity in countries that have adopted a high penetration of wind and solar energy have been much higher than those that have predominantly relied on nuclear energy. For example, those high-income OECD countries with a higher share of nuclear energy have an average electricity price 25 per cent lower, than those countries with an above average share of solar and wind electricity (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Electricity price by predominant fuel type, Statistical Review of Energy.4

1.79A comparison between two countries like Australia highlights the higher cost of solar and wind electricity in the real world. Germany has adopted aggressive investments in solar and wind electricity through its so-called Energiewende. Germany has also been phasing out its nuclear power plants. Solar and wind electricity now generate a third of Germany’s electricity and its electricity price for households is 54 cents per kWh. In comparison, France has a long history of investing in nuclear electricity and 63 per cent of France’s electricity is generated by nuclear. (Only 12 per cent of France’s electricity is generated by solar and wind energy.) France’s household electricity price is 33 cents per kWh, almost 40 per cent lower than Germany’s electricity prices.

1.80As Mr Irwin further commented to the Committee:

No country in the world has got down to low emissions without either nuclear or unlimited hydro. If we look at the countries that have gone towards high levels of renewables, we found that they’ve got problems with reliability and higher costs. When you look at the costs in Germany compared with, say, the costs in Ontario, Canada—in Canada the price of electricity is about half what we pay in Australia. So there doesn’t seem to be a good correlation between lots of solar and wind and lower costs.[35]

1.81There is also the potential for the costs of nuclear energy to fall with the development of future technologies:

…lots of the costs that are being quoted in Australia right now are builds, particularly in the UK, Finland and the USA. These countries have not built nuclear plants for decades, so in a way they’re building first-of-a-kind plants, but any subsequent plants to be built in these countries will be built more economically, because you have that construction experience.[36]

1.82Whatever the final judgement on the balance between the costs of nuclear and other technologies, an outright ban on nuclear energy can only risk higher electricity costs. If nuclear is more expensive than alternatives, as the CSIRO and others claim, then legalising nuclear energy will not change anything because investors will choose to build the cheaper options. However, if nuclear is cheaper, a ban will prevent investment in a form of power that could bring down living costs. As Mr Voss, Managing Director of Ultra Safe Nuclear Australia Pty Ltd, commented to the Committee:

Some say that nuclear power is too expensive. At the moment, we can't test this because no commercial transaction can even be discussed. If we're too expensive, then no Australian customer will place an order.[37]

1.83The ongoing ban on nuclear energy cannot produce lower electricity prices for Australian families. Removing the ban at least provides the chance that downward pressure could be placed on power bills. Given the now exorbitant cost of electricity for Australian families we should not be unnecessarily stopping options to bring down energy costs.

Nuclear is better for the environment

1.84The impact on the broader environment of different energy sources is not completely factored in by the economic costs discussed above. Nuclear energy has a much lower environmental cost than large scale wind and solar energy.

1.85Nuclear power, like wind and solar, generates only a small amount of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2021, 2653 terawatt hours was generated by nuclear power reactors worldwide (more than ten times the total Australian electricity generation), saving over 2 billion tonnes CO2-e emissions (World Nuclear Association). In 2020/21, Australia exported 6,166 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate (ASNO Annual Report) which would have generated approximately 262 terawatt hours and saved the recipient countries more than 200 million tonnes CO2-e.

1.86In addition, longer lifetime requires less replacement. The design lifetime for nuclear power plants is around 60 years, solar lasts for about 25 years and wind for about 20 years. Carbon emissions are generated through the construction of new nuclear, solar and wind facilities. However, given that a nuclear plant must be replaced much less frequently these emissions will be lower as well.

1.87The broader environmental impacts of nuclear power are less than those of wind and solar because nuclear energy uses less land for the same amount of power generation. Nuclear energy’s high energy density requires fewer materials and less land area per unit of electricity generated.

1.88Nuclear for Australia raised this issue in its submission:

Wind energy also has severe environmental effects. Most significantly is land footprint. On average wind requires 421x more land than nuclear (see Appendix 5) (Environmental Progress, n.d.), with estimates comparing it to the Rolls Royce SMR stipulating 10,000x more land is needed for wind to produce the same output of electricity (Bryce, 2022). In most cases this land is unsuitable for further use with exclusion zones needed to avoid negative health impacts derived from wind turbines. (Metzger, 2011) Moreover, wind has a detrimental impact on wildlife particularly birds.[38]

1.89There are increasing concerns about the impact of large-scale wind and solar energy on our pristine landscape. Voice for Walcha’s submission states that:

The proposed wind farm consists of up to 119 wind turbine generators (WTGs) with a maximum tip height of 230m and ancillary infrastructure, including substations, a battery energy storage system (BESS), new and upgraded roads, overhead cabling and underground cabling. Temporary construction facilities, including batching and crushing facilities will also operate during the construction period.

This Wind Farm and others planned in the vicinity will cause considerable environmental damage, cause significant visual impact, may impact property values, will cause health issues associated with audible noise and inaudible low frequency noise, will cause considerable traffic disruption during construction and most importantly has already caused community discord.[39]

1.90Responsible Energy Development for New England raised concerns about the impact on their community of renewable energy projects in its submission:

Our Community is experiencing the “rollout” of some 14 GW of Renewable Energy Projects which will result in some 2000 Wind Towers and many millions of Solar panels along with new Transmission Lines, new Substations Battery Storage and Pumped Hydro.

If constructed it will result in massive overdevelopment and Cumulative Impact on Prime Agricultural Land, a delicate Ecosystem and a relatively closely settled rural environment. This has resulted in mental stress on neighbours and division amongst small Rural Communities. This area simply has not got the resources to host such massive overdevelopment.[40]

1.91As Mr Irwin commented in regards to the impact of transmission lines:

Senator HUGHES: …For anyone listening, what is the difference between the sorts of transmission upgrades that are required for things like solar and wind versus what sorts of transmission upgrades would be required if, for instance, you moved nuclear into where Liddell was?

Mr Irwin: The big advantage of repowering existing coal-fired power stations is that the transmission system is already there. The problem with solar is that you need such a vast area of land. Darlington Point is 1,000 hectares. You have to put it out remotely. That means that you've got to put in a lot of extra transmission to connect it to where you want it. The other problem is that, with the win not blowing all the time and the sun not shining all the time, the way you try to get around that is moving it around the country, so we're going to need a lot more big transmission links. This is a really big expense. We're seeing this in the AEMO estimates. They're going to need a huge amount of extra interstate transmission as well. It's hardly used; it's not used up to its capacity a lot of the time, so it's not the best investment.[41]

1.92Given that nuclear energy has a smaller environmental footprint than other energy types, it is ironic that nuclear remains prohibited in Australia’s primary laws to protect the environment (the EPBC Act). This is just another reason for why Australia’s ban on nuclear is illogical.


1.93In a nutshell, even the arguments used against nuclear are not grounds for its prohibition. Cost is not grounds for prohibition. There are likely vested interests seeking to kill off a real discussion on nuclear because it will be a direct energy competitor to a number of industries including renewables.

1.94Likewise, safety and waste storage are important concerns, but the lifting of a prohibition would not preclude the existing safeties under other legislation from being enforced on nuclear reactors—further research and technological development would be able to freely occur through the lifting of prohibitions which would allow for safer and more efficient forms of nuclear generation.

1.95On the grounds of work security, a lack of industry, et cetera, these again would not be grounds for a moratorium, as the same case could have been argued when renewable technology was in its infancy.

1.96If we are serious about the reduction of emissions to meet targets, we should explore all low-carbon options—and it is a bonus that nuclear is also a fantastic source of reliable baseload power. Why are we limiting ourselves to renewables and hedging our bets, unless there is a political or financial agenda with the renewable industry?

1.97Nuclear is fit-for-purpose from the moment it is brought online. We are spending billions to Rewire the Nation and pave our agricultural land with transmission lines, because it doesn't work with existing infrastructure. Nuclear does, and not only is it fit-for-purpose, but when we move to the next generation of energy technology it will be a direct exchange, rather than the billions likely to be required to again change the energy infrastructure to future technologies.

Recommendation 1

1.98That the Senate pass the Environment and Other Legislation Amendment (Removing Nuclear Energy Prohibitions) Bill 2022 so as to remove Australia’s outdated and out-of-step ban on nuclear power.

Senator the Hon Matthew CanavanSenator Hollie Hughes

Nationals Senator for QueenslandLiberal Senator for New South Wales

Senator Ross CadellSenator Alex Antic

Nationals Senator for New South WalesLiberal Senator for South Australia

Senator the Hon Richard ColbeckSenator the Hon David Fawcett

Liberal Senator for TasmaniaLiberal Senator for South Australia

Senator Matt O’SullivanSenator Gerard Rennick

Liberal Senator for Western AustraliaLiberal Senator for Queensland


[1]William Shackel, Founder, Nuclear for Australia, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 27.

[2]Environment and Other Legislation Amendment (Removing Nuclear Energy Prohibitions) Bill 2022, Explanatory Memorandum (EM).

[3]See Recommendation 8: Pursue removal at the federal level of existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation to allow it to contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission: Report, May 2016,

[4]House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy (HoR Committee), Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia. Report of the inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia, December 2019, p. 2.

[5]Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 [Provisions] report, Coalition Senators’ Additional Comments, p. 25.

[6]Mr Trevor Gauld, National Policy Officer, Electrical Trades Union of Australia, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 39.

[7]SMR Nuclear Technology, Submission 18, p. 1.

[9]Mr Tony Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 2.

[11]Dr Rick Tinker, Branch Head and Chief Radiation Health Scientist, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ANSTO), Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 54.

[12]Australian Nuclear Association, Submission 4, p. 6.

[13]SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd, Submission 18, pp. 3–4.

[14]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 8.

[15]Mr Dr Miles Apperley, Group Executive, Nuclear Safety, Security and Stewardship, ANSTO, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 53.

[16]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 8.

[17]Australian Academy of Science, Submission 13, p. 1.

[18]William Shackel, Founder, Nuclear for Australia, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 29.

[19]Ms Tania Constable, CEO, Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 16.

[20]MCA, Submission 12, p. 1. See: Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (FADT Committee), inquiry into Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 [Provisions],

[21]ANA, Submission 13, p. 1. See: FADT Committee, inquiry into Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 [Provisions],

[22]Save Our Surroundings (SOS), Submission 14, p. 5. See: FADT Committee, inquiry into Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 [Provisions],

[23]Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Innovation and Transformation, Submission 52, p. 5. See: FADT Committee, inquiry into Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 [Provisions],

[24]Ms Anthea Long, Division Head, Minerals and Resources Division, Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISER), Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 58.

[25]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 8.

[26]Ms Helen Cook, Principal, GNE Advisory Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 10.

[27]Dr Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 31.

[28]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW), Submission 36, p. 2.

[29]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 2.

[30]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 4.

[31]Dr John Harries, Secretary, ANA, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 3.

[33]Claire Lehmann, ‘Why our energy transition needs a price tag’, the Australian,

[35]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 6.

[36]Dr Joanne Lackenby, President, ANA, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 3.

[37]Mr James Voss, Managing Director, Ultra Safe Nuclear Australia Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 2.

[38]Nuclear for Australia, Submission 15, p. 3.

[39]Voice for Walcha, Submission 23, p. 1.

[40]Responsible Energy Development for New England, Submission 39, p. 1.

[41]Mr Irwin, Technical Director, SMR Technology Pty Ltd, Committee Hansard, 15 May 2023, p. 4.