Why not 90% nuclear for Australia?

09 September 2009

The nuclear debate in Australia has been stepped up by a declaration from Ziggy Switkowski that there is no impediment to the country using 50 reactors for power by mid-century.


The level of the political nuclear debate in Australia has lagged behind that in media and business circles, with many commentators wondering about the contradiction of the country's position: Nuclear power is forbidden even though the country is the world's leading exporter of uranium and officially recognises the mineral's benefits in climate protection. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of power is generated from coal and the country is among the highest per capita carbon emitters.


As chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto), Switkowski took an opportunity to increase his advocacy when speaking in front of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia business group in Melbourne yesterday.


He said the landmark UMPNER report he chaired in 2006 is now too conservative. Instead of 25 large reactors by 2050 to provide one third of power, Australia should now plan for 50 because "it solves our greenhouse gas challenge in the electricity sector completely."


The first reactor should be planned to come online in 2020, with ten operational in 2030 to meet 25% of electricity needs. By 2050, the 50 large reactors would be meeting 90% of demand, producing hydrogen for a variety of uses and charging electric vehicles overnight.


Between 13 and 25 locations would be required to site all those reactors, Switkowski said, suggesting the most energy-intensive states of Victoria and New South Wales. These have a total land area of over 1 million square kilometres - almost the size of Britain, France and Japan put together. This makes the siting task simple, said Switkowski.


And waste disposal is no problem either. Some 95% of the huge, dry continent is suitable for geologic disposal and a facility to hold the waste wouldn't be required until around 2060, given each reactor's capability to store its own fuel during its operational life.


Switkowski's vision extends beyond Ansto's recommendations to the government as part of an energy white paper consultation. Ansto called nuclear power an option to be considered "in a well balanced and forward-looking approach to energy supply" and added that with current policies there is no second option for clean baseload if capture and storage of coal pollution cannot be commercialised.


Switkowski concluded his speech with a call for government to be clear on energy strategy and goals, achieve bipartisan support for nuclear and begin preparing an appropriate regulatory structure for a nuclear sector to grow.