Nuclear power: The elephant in the room

Image credit: IAEA Imagebank (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Once deemed the most promising solution for decarbonising the world’s energy supply with reliable baseload electricity, nuclear power has found itself blacklisted in many countries worldwide. Following nuclear disasters in Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), at home, nuclear is the alternative energy source that none dare name. Yet, it is a peculiar moral, economic and environmental position that we find ourselves in where we are prepared to supply uranium, but not use it. Although this position is our current reality, there are signs that the headwinds ought to change.

Last month, Australia officially joined an international group focused on developing future nuclear energy systems, with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) welcomed into the Generation IV International Forum Framework (GIF) agreement. The agreement aims to develop next-generation nuclear power systems, and focuses on six different nuclear reactor designs that provide power and ‘stringent standards in relation to safety and non-proliferation’. However, with no nuclear power program, ANSTO made it clear that the purpose of the partnership was to leverage expertise and Australia’s research and development skills, rather than advance the nuclear power agenda back home.

But one needs to look no further than the signatories to the France-led GIF agreement to comprehend the value of nuclear power. In France, nuclear power constitutes approximately 75% of the country’s total electricity, and while new policy to encourage diversification of renewables is leading to a decline in this percentage, the low cost of electricity generation via nuclear has allowed the country to become the world’s largest net exporter of electricity. Nuclear is both a reliable baseload renewable energy source and a source of revenue of more than €3 billion per year for the country.

Globally, the epicentre of nuclear power is shifting. Nuclear power hubs such as the United States and the United Kingdom are now facing nuclear power plant closures, and in the world’s emerging major economies such as India, China and Russia, nuclear power is thriving. In the US, while the Trump administration is eager to maintain leadership in the industry, nuclear is facing increased competition from the surge in domestic natural gas. In China, 174 nuclear power plants have been proposed, with 21 already under construction, to add to the nation’s 36 existing plants. This figure is even more remarkable when one considers that there are 448 nuclear power plants operating worldwide today, according to the world nuclear organisation.

Back home, the Turnbull government, which has largely turned a blind eye to nuclear, is facing increasing pressure from business and lobby groups. In a new paper titled ‘Removing the Prohibition on Nuclear Power’, the Minerals Council of Australia has called for a change to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act that currently prohibits the use of nuclear power. The council argues that nuclear is both affordable and safe, and offers zero emissions, base-load energy that can run day and night.

This call has come at an important junction in Australia’s energy policy. Following the Chief Scientist’s review of the electricity sector, the Turnbull government is currently grappling with how, or whether, to implement a post-2020 clean energy target as recommended by Alan Finkel. Ultimately, Australians are acutely aware of the hazards posed by the radioactive materials involved, and the topic of nuclear is considered by many politicians as political suicide. While the push for renewables and world-leading battery store technology is commendable, building a low-emissions electricity sector via this approach alone may be a precarious path.

Recently, the Australian Energy Market Operator warned that diesel generators might have to be called in to some states over summer due to the absence of reliable baseload power. Moreover, with power cuts looming over the east coast, former prime minister Tony Abbott continues to generate instability and play politics, claiming that ‘the government needs to pick a legislative fight with Labor, as well as a rhetorical one’. The Chief Scientist Alan Finkel remains the antithesis of Abbott and is well known to be technology agnostic over the chosen mechanism to reduce emissions, having supported nuclear in the past.

Australia has the world’s largest known uranium reserves, but it’s the only country in the world’s top 20 largest electricity users that does not have, or is not planning to have, nuclear power plants. When it comes to the government’s energy policy, there is certainly an elephant in the room.

Tom Perfrement is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.