Nuclear – already a viable option for many countries

An increasing number of countries around the world are turning to nuclear power to meet growing demand for electricity, avoid use of fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and diversify their energy mix away from a dominant supplier. Australia is following a different path. Does this make strategic sense?

Dr Ziggy Switkowski
Dr Ziggy Switkowski

Thirty-one countries representing two-thirds of humanity currently use nuclear power to produce some of their electricity. Fifteen per cent of electricity worldwide is nuclear- generated – 23 per cent within the OECD and 31 per cent of the European Union.

Nuclear power is a mainstream technology with a 53-year history in civilian hands and now entering a period of revival as a key energy platform for the low-carbon era ahead.

Following the establishment of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in 1953, research in nuclear science and engineering, and associated policy development, flourished for nearly two decades, badging Australia as one of the world’s leading countries in the nuclear field.

However, in 1970 the Gorton Liberal Government abandoned plans to construct the country’s first power reactor. In 1983 the Labor Government limited uranium mining to the then three operating mines. The catastrophic accident in Chernobyl in 1986 put a stop to further development of nuclear power globally – a pause which has ended only in recent years.

Today Australia has one research reactor at Lucas Heights. OPAL was opened in 2007 and offers the promise of a world-class research instrument and production facility for radiopharmaceuticals.

When it comes to the generation of baseload electricity – the 80 per cent of electricity that needs to be always available to power our refrigerators, washing machines, plasma TVs, PCs and air conditioners – the options in front of us include use of coal, gas, oil, hydroelectricity and nuclear power. If fossil fuels are excluded, and the risks to hydroelectricity from water scarcity considered, then the only presently available clean option for baseload electricity is nuclear power.

Of course, there are high hopes that renewable energy sources will make a significant contribution in the decades ahead, and elsewhere in this issue of Focus the cases are presented for solar, wind, geothermal, wave and so on. But the deployment of nuclear power has special appeal for the following reasons:

  • the technology is available, off-the-shelf, today – there is no requirement of future breakthrough innovation to make nuclear power work cost effectively. There are 443 power reactors in operation around the world today and the number is expected to grow to 1000 by 2050;
  • it is truly a baseload technology – optimised for high-uptime, 24/7 operation;
  • it belongs to the group of near-zero greenhouse gas emitters even when the full lifecycle, from uranium mining to reactor decommissioning, is included. There is little difference between nuclear, solar and wind on this scale, each of which has about a tenth of the GHG footprint of fossil fuels;
  • generating costs will compare favourably with coal or gas in Australia at moderate carbon costs of about $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide. In some European countries, nuclear is already the least expensive option; and
  • any domestic nuclear industry would build upon our nearly 40 per cent of global uranium reserves and a legacy of leading nuclear engineering capability, albeit depleted in recent times.

A national debate around nuclear power began in 2006 with the report of the Prime Minister’s Review of Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy. The purpose of this review was to update our understanding of the facts of nuclear energy, its status internationally, and to provide an objective commentary about possible scenarios involving nuclear power in Australia. After a 20-year absence of any public discussion, this report placed nuclear power back on the agenda.

In doing so, it acknowledged the still long list of concerns that Australians have about nuclear energy. This list includes:

  • management of long-lived radioactive waste and spent fuel rods;
  • upfront capital costs of nuclear reactors, which are the highest of all energy alternatives;
  • the 15-year interval until the first reactor could be operational – in the 2020s;
  • location of reactors – NIMBY issues;
  • proliferation risk;
  • terrorism;
  • possibility of a catastrophic accident like Chernobyl;
  • access to property and life insurance;
  • provisioning for the costs of storage of spent fuel rods, and final decommissioning of the reactor;
  • use of water; and
  • lack of bipartisan support – sovereign risk.

All energy technologies have some undesirable side-effects, risks or special challenges. Our choices result from balancing such risks within our personal values and against costs, environmental impacts, and society’s larger aspirations.

In the case of nuclear power, the current nuclear population is expected to grow to 50 countries by 2020. The citizens of each new member of the nuclear community confront a similar list of reservations and, as they move forward, each will have to be persuaded by the solutions that are available to these questions, and the risk-adjusted rewards that promise the lowest-cost, cleanest and safest electricity in a carbon-constrained world.

The direction of research in this field is clear. Generation lll technology, expected from 2010, promises better fuel utilisation and enhanced safety features and would be the technology of choice for new entrants, such as Australia. The subsequent Generation IV, to phase-in around 2030, should extract 50 times more energy via a different fuel-burn cycle, which will involve the abundant U-238 isotope.

In parallel, alternatives to water cooling are being developed, as well as smaller, simpler 100 to 200MWe reactors, which are compatible with the needs of 100,000 population towns, desalination plants, and remote industrial sites such as smelters and mines.

Of course, the possibility of fusion energy remains on the horizon, but still needs to overcome formidable technical challenges.

Today’s policy architects claim there is no scenario that will require nuclear power in Australia, but:

  • deep GHG emission reductions will almost certainly prove beyond the capability of existing technologies and renewable energy platforms to deliver in the time allowed;
  • our lights will go out when investment in clean baseload energy generation stalls in an uncertain regulatory environment and the nuclear alternative is not validated; and
  • in a carbon-limited future, nuclear-powered economies overseas exploit their cost advantages for clean energy in competing with Australian products burdened by embedded carbon costs.

There are still some people unconvinced about climate change, but the debate has moved on and attention is now focused upon strategies to mitigate global warming and adapt to it. Similarly, there remain people against the introduction of nuclear power but, globally, that debate has moved on as countries plan a significant expansion of nuclear energy around the world.

Australia’s current energy and environment strategy assumes that a focus upon renewables, carbon capture and storage, and energy conservation will provide a better answer than nuclear power.

But I doubt it.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski FTSE is chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). In 2006, he chaired the Prime Minister’s Review of Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy whose report re-introduced nuclear power into Australia’s energy debate. He is a former chief executive of Telstra, Optus and Kodak (Australasia). Presently he is a non-executive director of Suncorp, Tabcorp, Healthscope and Opera Australia.

This article first appeared the in Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering’s (ATSE) Focus Magazine. Contact the SMC if you wish to republish this column in your publication.