Paving the way for nuclear in Australia

09 September 2014

Australia's potential utilization of nuclear energy is several years away, but a roadmap has been drawn up by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) to clear the path for this, writes Warwick Pipe.

Almost all of Australia's current baseload generating capacity is provided by coal-fired plants, many of which are due to be retired over the next 20-30 years.

ATSE notes nuclear energy offers near-zero greenhouse gas emissions for baseload power supply. Levelised cost of energy modelling by the Australian Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics suggests that nuclear power, in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe, is economically competitive with a broad range of other low or zero emission baseload technologies.

However, despite having the world's largest known uranium resources, Australia has not utilized these for domestic power generation. According to ATSE, "On economic, social and environmental considerations in an international carbon-constrained policy environment, nuclear power should be included as an option for baseload power supply in Australia."

The academy says that nuclear power in Australia "does not yet have a social licence to operate or wide public support." Its use has been actively opposed by Australian governments at all levels for decades, it said. "Should Australia consider deploying nuclear power the need to first address community concerns is paramount," ATSE suggests. "Open public engagement is essential and the process should begin now."

ATSE has drawn up its Nuclear Energy Action Statement that supports its Energy Position Statement published in May. This "sets out the challenges and priority areas for, and a way forward to, low emission energy systems that are affordable, secure and reliable to support Australia's sustainable development and future prosperity." The Action Statement, developed by a team of academy fellows expert in nuclear energy, led by the chair of ATSE's Energy Forum Martin Thomas, seeks to generate open informed debate on the technology and its potential to take a place in the nation's future generation portfolio.

The Action Statement makes seven recommendations to progress nuclear as an energy option for Australia: a comprehensive business/economic analysis should be undertaken; alternative energy scenarios to the 2030-2050 timeframe should be evaluated; and active and open community engagement should commence, while a review of current policies that preclude its consideration is carried out. Current educational and training activities should be built on, including through secondments. It also recommends that regulatory requirements should be examined to determine the actions needed. Lastly, it calls for a strengthening of Australia's current overseas R&D program linkages, for example in thorium fission and hydrogen fusion.

"Australia's adoption of nuclear power generation will require a significantly enhanced regulatory regime, a process that will take several years," ATSE says. "An early start is needed to examine thoroughly the relevant issues to ensure readiness. This includes studies of nuclear power plant siting options, legal and regulatory frameworks, projected skills needs and appropriate educational and training facilities and regimes including seconding qualified Australians for training in overseas nuclear power plants."

"An extensive and openly transparent community engagement process should begin to build understanding of the benefits and safety of nuclear energy including gathering a deeper understanding of the attitudes of Australians," ATSE suggests.

Warwick Pipe

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Warwick Pipe is Deputy Editor of World Nuclear News