Earlier this month Australia signed a defence pact alongside the US and UK to deploy nuclear-powered submarines in its fleets, an announcement that has quickly stirred up the muddy waters of debate. Not only did Australia’s change of allegiance from its original agreement with France cause the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to describe the deal as a ‘stab in the back’, but it has once again given rise to the long-debated subject of whether nuclear power is a viable option for Australia.
While the Australian government has made it clear the new submarine deal is not to be seen as a green light to nuclear power in the country, the decision has understandably opened the floodgates for renewed conversations on the subject. Here, we take a closer look at the debate around this ever-controversial power source, and what Australia could instead turn its attention to when bridging the gap between its current and future energy mix.
Nuclear in Australia
Currently, it is illegal to build or operate nuclear power sites in the country, with the only reactor in Australia (ANSTO’s OPAL reactor) used for medical purposes. Yet at the beginning of this year, the Australian Nationals within the senate announced they would be seeking to amend the government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation bill to allow for investment into nuclear power – a decision that was accused of causing ‘chaos’ in energy policy. While the calls were not picked up, the incident showcased the conversation around nuclear power was far from over, and the recent submarine announcement has caused some supporters to double down on their push for nuclear power to be more seriously explored.
Once fully operational, nuclear plants provide 24-hour power and have life cycles that span decades – offering a low-carbon energy source that proponents say would give stability to the intermittent resources of weather-dependent wind and solar.
“In theory, you can do it all with renewables, but at what cost?” says Professor Andrew Stuchbery, Head of the Australian National University (ANU) Department of Nuclear Physics and Accelerator Applications. “If you use 100% of any one technology, the cost goes up and up if you’re going to ensure reliability. We don’t have storage ability to smooth out the fact that the wind sometimes doesn’t blow and the sun only shines for half a day. At the moment, gas fired power stations are carrying that shortfall.”
Indeed, the question of how to meet energy demands as the country works towards a decarbonised future is valid, and one that needs an answer.
So – is nuclear viable?
Concerns have been raised about the economics of the change to nuclear, as well as the environmental degradation that comes alongside operations’ waste. In 2019 the German Institute for Economic Research found that the 674 nuclear reactors designed for energy generation since 1951 all suffered significant financial losses, with the Institute concluding that ‘nuclear energy has always been unprofitable in the private economy’.
“One of the obstacles to nuclear energy is the upfront cost of construction of the plant,” Stuchbery says. “Once it’s up and running, the fuel cost is relatively small but it needs to run for a few decades to recover the upfront cost. Now, that also means that you need to have bipartisan support in a country like Australia, because nobody is going to invest in a big upfront outlay for a nuclear power reactor if there’s a change in government and the money that’s been spent is then wasted.”
“I think if Australia did go down the path of nuclear, it’s likely to be with small modular reactor technology,” he adds. “But for things to go in that direction, you would need the social license – that would be the key factor.”
Gaining this social license hinges perhaps most significantly on finding an adequate means of disposing of nuclear waste. While this is often not produced in large quantities, the toxic nature of what is produced proves problematic.
Disposing of nuclear waste
While the waste is worrying, Stuchbery says researchers are working on reducing the risk.
“People are working on the next generation of reactors. There’s a lot of research going into making fast reactors safe and economical,” he says. “You can actually use the waste from the current generation of nuclear reactors as fuel in those reactors and burn your ashes, which are more manageable than our current ashes.”
Yet these solutions are not currently available. Dr Mark Diesendorf, renewable energy researcher and honorary associate professor at UNSW Sydney says; “There isn’t a single operating facility anywhere in the world for managing high level nuclear waste from nuclear power stations in the long term.”
While somewhere like France re-processes its nuclear fuel (offering a level of circularity), such a method has significant links to nuclear weaponry – and carries a heavy social taboo.
“It’s positively discouraged by the UN and the US because it’s the same technology that’s used to extract plutonium to build nuclear weapons,” says Stuchbery. “In principle it may seem like a good idea, but to do that reprocessing is always open to the accusation of building nuclear weaponry.”
Implementing regulatory safeguards has therefore been acknowledged as a crucial means of ensuring safe practice.
“To ensure the safety of nuclear power, you need an international agreement with teeth – putting any uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel under international control,” says Diesendorf. “But there has been no attempt to do that.”
If not nuclear, then what?
According to Diesendorf, balancing Australia’s grid is a need that can be fulfilled with technologies such as battery storage and hydroelectric power – technologies with much potential but that are still in need of acceleration.
“There’s a limited amount of money floating around for financing new projects. And if nuclear were to be introduced, it would take some of that money away from building a renewable energy system,” he says. “We need to create an energy system with broad interconnections between different regions. Because if the wind isn’t blowing in South Australia, then it may well be blowing in New South Wales or Queensland.”
“Another place where money needs to be spent right now is to provide new charging stations for electric vehicles, because they are going to be one of the big areas driving growth in renewable energy,” he adds. “Finally, we need government policies to give confidence to investors to go ahead and speed up the energy transition.”
While renewable technologies are going from strength to strength, targeting the problem of their intermittent nature remains unfulfilled, and as Diesendorf says, government action is needed for this to change. Until the need is met, we may well expect to see the option of nuclear power raised again and again, and it is a debate where neither side is backing down.