South Australia calls inquiry on nuclear future

09 February 2015

UPDATED: This story has been updated to include comments made on 10 February by WNA director general Agneta Rising.

The state of South Australia is to carry out an in-depth investigation into its future role in the nuclear fuel cycle in a first-of-a-kind Royal Commission.

Announcing the commission, state premier Jay Weatherill said it would create the foundations for further discussions within the community. "The Royal Commission will be the first of its kind in the nation and will explore the opportunities and risks of South Australia's involvement in the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.

Australia is a major producer of uranium, but has no nuclear energy. South Australia itself is home to the Olympic Dam uranium, copper and gold mine, which produced 6% of world uranium output in 2013. Weatherill said that it was time for the state to engage in a "mature and robust conversation" about its future role in the nuclear industry. "We believe South Australians should be given the opportunity to explore the practical, financial and ethical issues raised by a deeper involvement in the nuclear industries," he said.

The issue of whether or not Australia, which currently relies heavily on coal for its own electricity generation, should consider using nuclear power has been a subject for increasing debate over recent years. A 2006 expert taskforce called by then-Prime Minister John Howard, known as UMPNER (Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review), concluded that the country could have nuclear power plants up and running within 15 years, but found that nuclear would only become competitive for the country if low-to-moderate costs were imposed on carbon emissions. Nevertheless, bodies including the Energy Policy Institute of Australia (EPI) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) have continued to call for Australia to keep the door to nuclear energy open.

An opinion poll conducted by market research company ReachTel on behalf of the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy in April 2014 found that more South Australians supported the use of nuclear energy than opposed it. Over half of those polled felt that nuclear power will eventually be introduced into Australia.

The commission is to be headed by former governor of South Australia Kevin Scarce, who said that he had an open mind on the issue. "I have no pre-conceived views on what the future should hold for South Australia and its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle."

A Royal Commission is a public inquiry, and Weatherill has called for community input to determine its terms of reference, a draft of which will be released on 23 March. He said that the Australian federal government had expressed its full support for the proposal and had committed to provide its own submission to the commission. Independent experts will also be engaged to assist the work of the commission.

Dan Zavettiero, executive director for uranium at the Minerals Council of Australia, described Weatherill's policy announcement as "bold", reflecting the contribution that nuclear energy could potentially play in Australia. "It is clear nuclear power will play a critical role in sustainably producing electricity in the world in the 21st century," he said, pointing to the nation's long-established and highly regulated uranium industry.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) noted that the Royal Commission would lead to an objective assessment of the facts about nuclear energy and enable the entire country as well as South Australia to identify the most realisable economic opportunities on offer while formally recognizing the potential savings in greenhouse gas emissions offered by nuclear energy. "It is only natural that a technologically sophisticated country like Australia should seek to make expanded use of the nuclear fuel cycle as it attempts to address its climate and energy challenges," WNA director general Agneta Rising said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News