26/11/2008 - 22:00

Shortage of expertise in nuclear power

26/11/2008 - 22:00


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PREMIER Colin Barnett is known to be fond of big, regional projects that offer sweeping vision and the prospect of unlocking value for future generations.

Shortage of expertise in nuclear power

PREMIER Colin Barnett is known to be fond of big, regional projects that offer sweeping vision and the prospect of unlocking value for future generations.

While it may have been an election loser in 2005, the canal from Kununurra to Perth was one such project.

The north-west is rarely short of big development ideas. Since it emerged as a major mining province in the 1960s, the area has consistently delivered projects that have transitioned from hyperbolic promise to reality.

The Pilbara is now a major supplier of iron ore to the world and a significant centre for LNG.

Both required huge foresight from state governments in the form of state agreements and, in the gas sector, take-or-pay contracts that underwrote the industry's formation.

More recently, visionary ideas have included a rail link from the Pilbara to the east coast coalfields, a gas pipeline across the country, and a massive electric power grid to link the huge resources projects with a shared energy pool.

This latter idea is possibly the closest to reality, with government understood to be looking at accessing Kevin Rudd's infrastructure funds for the project's estimated $1 billion cost.

Such a development has been pushed by the state's regional energy group Horizon Power, and gained some currency during the recent state election when it was promoted by Labor, receiving industry backing and qualified support from Mr Barnett.

Horizon believes putting a grid into the north-west would avoid the need for too many small stand-alone power units, which are more expensive and inefficient, by allowing the sharing of bigger power stations.

The grid would upgrade and link existing infrastructure, such as Horizon's Port Hedland-to-Karratha lines and Rio Tinto's Karratha-to-Paraburdoo lines, with new lines to Newman and across to other mine areas creating a transmission circuit.

Before the current meltdown, Horizon estimated that installed capacity needed by 2015 would be 6,000 megawatts without a grid, up from around 2,500MW currently in use. If a grid was installed, that need would be reduced to 5,200MW, a huge saving in costs and emissions.

At that stage BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto were both expected to need an additional 300MW of power, while a proposed magnetite processor was planning a 400MW generator.

While the current economic slowdown may delay the need for some of those new generation needs, that may actually help the grid proposal because the once breakneck rush for development appears to have eased off, potentially opening a window for the powerlines to be in place before the power is required.

A grid has other benefits beyond efficiently sharing power. It would also allow the diversification of energy generation from gas which is rising in cost, best suited for export and, as we discovered this year, vulnerable to supply disruption.

One way to diversify is, dare I say it, using nuclear power.

The north-west's needs are massive and the time horizon might just suit the development of a nuclear power plant, which people like Riverton MLA and former Institute of Public Affairs chief Mike Nahan believe would need as much as a decade to get off the ground.

Mr Nahan is one who thinks the prospect of nuclear power in Western Australia ought at least be debated. And he views the Pilbara as a strong potential location should the state venture into nuclear power generation.

The scale and 24-hour-a-day nature of the miners' and LNG players' operations offer a suitable arrangement for nuclear power, which comes in large scale increments, such as 1,000MW, and works for constant base load demand.

The South West Interconnected System, by contrast, has significant peaks and less demand growth expected from its current generation of a little more than 4,000MW.

"Even with the bust there will be a growing demand for electricity up there," Mr Nahan said.

"It is of a scale, nature and in a place far from a lot of people."

Mr Nahan's point is not lost on anyone who looks at nuclear power as an option.

One of the three big barriers that Verve Energy managing director Shirley In't Veld believes hinders the development of nuclear energy in WA is the public perception.

Ms In't Veld believes the public education campaign would have to be massive, given the general public perception here, which has resulted in laws banning nuclear power production.

Of course, the Pilbara would remove much of the not-in-my-back-yard opposition, with its distance from major population centres and agriculture, not to mention a regional culture that embraces industry.

But it doesn't overcome another of the major hurdles for this energy source - the cost.

Ms In't Veld said not even the biggest proponents of nuclear power - such as Ziggy Switkowski who chaired a prime ministerial taskforce to review uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia - believed this power source would be commercially viable until 2020.

Adding to the cost is the lack of expertise in the area. While there is a spate on new nuclear power stations proposed, the industry has actually been winding down for the past 20 years.

Just trying to find anyone who could be classified as a local expert in this area is a struggle. All those who spoke to WA Business News admitted they lacked detailed knowledge of this energy sector.

But the proposed emissions trading scheme for Australia may change the cost dynamic more quickly than previously expected.

The ETS has energy intensive industries like mining and LNG production running scared by adding huge costs to their energy bills because of carbon emissions.

"Even if the ETS gets put off we still need to at least factor that into decision making going forward," Mr Nahan said.

Of course, there's one other element in this that may have been forgotten.

The state government is committed to the Nationals WA Royalties for Regions policy, so supplying low emission energy to the Pilbara might fit comfortably under that banner, especially if some of the power produced was used to desalinate sea water.

Underwriting the cost of such a project would, in many ways, draw parallels with the development of the North West Shelf.

If that doesn't satisfy our state's need for a big visionary project, I don't know what will.


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