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Nuclear Power Would Stabilize the Australian Power Grid

Will the government finally free up the use of this reliable energy source?

By guest author Paige Lambermont
February 23, 2021

While the situation in Texas shows us the necessity of a resilient grid with a high peak capacity and a healthy mixture of energy resources, Australia has been ruminating on a decision that would allow the country to utilize one of its most abundant natural resources. As one of the world’s foremost uranium producing countries, it is strange that Australia does not use uranium for nuclear power production.

Australia does not have any nuclear power stations, and has never had one. Australia has 29 percent of the world’s easily recoverable uranium resources (procured for less than $130 per Kilogram). That is 1.174 million tons of uranium. In 2019, Australia was the world’s third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada. 

Despite these resources, Australia has only ever had one nuclear reactor, and it was not built to generate power. It was a research reactor at Lucas Heights which was initially built as a test reactor to determine the suitability of materials for use in future power reactors. The reactor’s purpose has shifted since its 1958 construction, and it is now used for the production of medical isotopes and for other research purposes. 

What’s Preventing Nuclear Power in Australia?

The Australian government’s ban on nuclear power is enshrined in two laws: the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (ARPANS Act) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act).

The ARPANS Act applies to commonwealth-owned entities and bans certain nuclear installations, namely nuclear fuel fabrication plants, nuclear power plants, enrichment plants, and processing facilities. In order for any commonwealth-owned entity to construct and use any of these facilities, the act would need to be amended. 

The EPBC Act creates similar prohibitions for commonwealth corporations, commonwealth entities, the Commonwealth itself, or other people, which prevent them from taking “a nuclear action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on the environment.” This and other parts of the act would need to be amended to create a framework for licensing projects.

The ARPANS and EPBC acts are products of a sense of national outrage arising after the United Kingdom used Australia and its surrounding waters as nuclear testing sites during the early years of the Cold War. The tests remain a sore spot between the former colony and mother Britain, but they also stained the conversation around nuclear projects with the taste of weapons development and colonial exploitation in Australia.

Understanding that these regulations are anchored in old conflicts now largely moot is the key to challenging them effectively for the good of Australians and the Australian environment today and in the future.

Efforts to Allow Nuclear Energy

In recent years, the impetus to change the law and create a pathway toward nuclear power in the country has grown. In 2019, the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy performed an “Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia.”  The ensuing report made three recommendations.

“Firstly, the Australian Government should further consider the prospect of nuclear technology as part of its future energy mix; secondly, [it should] undertake a body of work to progress the understanding of nuclear technology in the Australian context; and thirdly, [it should] it consider lifting the current moratorium on nuclear energy partially—that is, for new and emerging nuclear technologies only—and conditionally—that is, with aprovals for nuclear facilities to require the prior informed consent of impacted local communities.”

These recommendations show that the tide may be turning for nuclear, and for energy freedom more generally, in Australia.

Australia has some of the highest energy consumption per capita in the world, and its efforts to decarbonize are stymied by its categorical refusal of nuclear power.  It is illogical for a country with such a bounty of a valuable natural resource to preclude its use toward this end. Were a pathway created for licensing of nuclear reactors in Australia, energy developers would have a wider range of options for new power to replace some of the country’s aging coal plants.

The ideal way to determine the most efficient energy mix is to remove as many barriers to market operation as possible, and then allow the wheat to separate itself from the chaff. This requires that there be minimal subsidies and restrictions. Australia has done just the opposite, and that is why its attempt at an “energy transition” has been unsuccessful thus far. Attempting to force decarbonization through wind and solar, while outright banning nuclear power, is counterintuitive. Nuclear is less carbon-intensive than solar, and about as carbon-intensive as wind while using dramatically less land.

Even without allowing the construction of older technologies, if Australia followed the committee’s recommendations, and allowed new nuclear technologies, the added flexibility of technologies like small modular and advanced non-light water reactors will give the country the ability to confront the impending need to add new capacity to its aging grid.

This piece was produced by Paige Lambermont, a Policy Associate at IER