The modern nuclear reactor is small, modular, self-contained and safer than any other energy generation method. It provides flexible generation capacity, as it can increase or reduce electricity output to reflect demand.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has acknowledged that all electricity generation options with the capacity to reduce electricity prices need to be considered.
On the same day he made this observation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released another of its doom and gloom reports, claiming climate disaster is nigh. We could debate the merits of that report, but if we accept it, then we’d be foolish not to have on the table as a serious policy option the only method to generate serious baseload energy with almost no carbon emissions.
For too long we have allowed nuclear energy to remain off-limits in the discussion about the security of Australia’s energy supply. What we need is an informed and rational debate that isn’t driven by fear.
While the high capital cost of traditional nuclear reactors makes them unattractive compared to coal and natural gas as a source of dispatchable baseload power, the advent of safer and cheaper small modular reactors (SMRs), for example the NuScale facility commissioned in Idaho, offer a competitive and cost-effective entry point for Australia to cutting edge nuclear energy technology.
The projected levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) of NuScale’s SMR is comparable to other forms of dispatchable generation in the pipeline.
The argument that Australia has “missed the boat” on nuclear energy is one that looks only to the stereotypical large-scale nuclear reactor, which has a high upfront cost and a lead time of 20-25 years for delivery.
Benefits of SMRs
Because SMRs are self-contained, require very little human input and depend for their safety on physical laws rather than mechanical or human reliability, they have the capacity to be much safer even than many of the generation methods in use in Australia.
The self-contained design means SMRs are less vulnerable to attack, and their use of a different grade of uranium to that used for weapons means they need not become targets for terrorist groups or rogue nations seeking the raw materials for weapon development.
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has said a nuclear energy industry built either on SMRs or Generation IV reactors is technically feasible in Australia, but we do not have the necessary expertise available.
That’s not likely to change until we are prepared, as a nation, to countenance it. By lifting the ban on nuclear energy, we could allow the market to decide whether it wishes to invest in the gathering of that expertise.
It’s also worth noting the modular design of SMRs means they are manufactured rather than constructed, therefore in the early stages of the industry they could be imported from jurisdictions high in expertise.
The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act prohibit the approval, licensing, construction, or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, a nuclear power plant, an enrichment plant or a reprocessing facility.
These acts should be amended to enable a nuclear energy industry to develop in Australia.
It’s madness that while we mine and export uranium to nations such as India, equipping them with cheap and plentiful energy, we struggle with high energy prices and poor dispatchability at home.
With just two simple steps – lifting the ban and making a serious investment in acquiring the expertise needed to lead a nuclear energy industry – Australia could take a step towards securing clean, safe and competitively priced energy in abundance.