19/11/2009 - 00:00

Nuclear option must be on the table

19/11/2009 - 00:00


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Australia should aim to have its first reactor by 2020, and even small towns and mine sites could have their own modular units.

REPRESENTATIVES from the 192 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will gather in Copenhagen in December to try and reach agreement on global action to combat climate change for the period after 2012 - the successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

What will our delegates learn when they arrive in Copenhagen?

• 15 per cent of global electricity is already produced from nuclear power at 440 reactors in 31 countries.

• Two thirds of the world's population gets some of its electricity from nuclear reactors, and most of the other one third aspires to a similar position.

• Countries which had paused in their deployment of nuclear power - Sweden, UK, Italy, US - are reactivating their programs, while others such as Germany and Spain have reopened debate.

• In eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Finland - are increasing their nuclear networks, and others like Poland and Belarus are about to start down this path

Elsewhere, the UK is committed to accelerate its nuclear-build program, replacing its current fleet of 19 reactors as its chief energy adviser forecasts 35-40 per cent share of electricity generation in the 2030s, double current levels.

In Latin America, Brazil has announced an ambitious construction program and Argentina has restarted its deployment of small scale systems

At Copenhagen, the US delegation will echo President Obama's view that the US cannot meet its climate change goals without more nuclear power

The countries with the most ambitious nuclear outlooks are China, India, Brazil and Russia. The most dynamic developer of uranium resources is now Kazakhstan. Some of these countries present interesting geopolitical challenges and opportunities for Australia.

With the exception of Italy, which can purchase nuclear electricity, no economy of Australia's size or larger is without nuclear power (14 countries).

Indeed, Australia now stands alone among the world's top 25 economies in excluding consideration of nuclear power in our long term energy and climate change strategy.

Scenario for Australia

With coal considered a dirty fuel, and barring any consideration of nuclear energy as an option, our policy makers may be shaping an energy future dependent upon technologies that may compromise the reliability, productivity and low cost of our current electricity system.

Viewed from afar, our energy strategy seems to be more about nuclear avoidance rather than embracing solutions.

This is very frustrating, as we may be pursuing a complex, high risk, speculative path when international experience points to a simpler road forward - augmenting our proven coal- and gas-fired facilities with equally proven nuclear power, initially to meet growth in energy demand, and eventually displacing fossil fuel infrastructure at the end of its working life.

This should be the plan for the next 50 years.

The Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review study of 2006 described a scenario where Australia installed its first reactor during the 2020s and built a fleet of 25 reactors by 2050, which could then provide a third of our electricity needs.

This outlook is now too conservative.

With nuclear and environment regulators around the world striving for consistent, simplified rules and reactor vendors introducing more standardised, efficient and safer designs, an estimate of 15 years to commission Australia's first reactor is overly cautious.

Australia could and should plan for its first nuclear reactor by 2020, aiming for a fleet size of 50 large reactors producing 75 gigawatt electric by 2050.

With a moderate amount of hydroelectricity, renewable and residual coal/gas, this could meet all Australia's electricity needs - reliably, safely, cleanly, and cost effectively.

And with the arrival of small, 50-200MWe gas-cooled reactors around 2015, these modular units (some compact enough to fit in a shipping container) could contemporaneously be deployed to meet the needs of towns not reached by the main grids, industrial sites such as mines, smelters, and our growing number of desalination plants.


Most countries confronting the challenge of adding new and clean energy capacity have concluded that nuclear power must be in the mix because:

• nuclear technology is well established, available off-the-shelf today, and not dependent upon heroic assumptions of cost or technology breakthroughs in the future;

• nuclear electricity is truly base load, optimised for full-time operation, and couples into national electricity grids just as gas or coal fired power does;

• whole-of-life (from uranium mining to reactor decommissioning and long-term storage of spent fuel) greenhouse gas emissions are very low and similar to solar and wind;

• generating costs are comparable to coal and gas in most of the world, and even here with moderate carbon costs ($A15-40 per tonne of CO2/year); and

• the nuclear power industry in most economies fully funds its lifecycle costs including decommissioning and waste management.

Of course, all energy technologies have some undesirable side effects, risks or special challenges.

Choice requires balancing risks with social values, costs etc.


• Management of long-lived radioactive waste.

• Costs of nuclear power - high capex upfront, low running costs

• Timeliness - 10 years to first reactor

• Location of reactors.

• Proliferation and threat of terrorism.

• Possibility of catastrophic accident.

• Insurance.

• Use of water.

• Lack of bipartisan political support - sovereign risk.

Next steps

Our current national debate about greenhouse gases and an emissions trading scheme is the first step of a larger agenda.

The main game is to design an evolutionary path along which the Australian economy progressively reduces its dependence on fossil fuels while enhancing its productivity and competitiveness.

Assembling a range of novel, niche energy technologies is inefficient when better industrial-grade solutions are available.

Nuclear power must be in the mix, and we should be prepared for it to be most of the answer within a few decades.

n Ziggy Switkowski is chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. This is an edited extract from his speech to the University of WA's 'In the zone' conference, held last week.


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