Australia’s stance on civil domestic nuclear power has taken a surprising turn in recent days, with the announcement by the Energy Minister of a federal government inquiry into the “prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia”.

Australia is the world’s third largest uranium producer (after Kazakhstan and Canada) but has traditionally steered clear of introducing nuclear as an energy source, instead relying on its reserves of coal and natural gas, which provide some 60% of its energy supply (33% is from oil, 4% biofuels, 1% hydro, 1% renewables). 

Previous Discussions

There have been several attempts to bring the nuclear discussion to the fore over the years, although these have never materialised. The last federal inquiry into the issue was held in 2006. Its chair, Dr Ziggy Switkowski, the retired chairman of Australia’s Nuclear Technology and Science Organisation (ANTSO), has now said that he thinks nuclear power could coexist with whatever “generation of renewables and batteries might exist into the future”.

In March 2015 the South Australian Government established the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commissionto undertake an independent and comprehensive investigation into the potential for increasing South Australia’s participation in the nuclear fuel cycle.” It reported in May 2016 on four main areas: exploration, extraction and milling; further processing and manufacture (of nuclear fuel); electricity generation and the management, storage and disposal of (radioactive) waste.

The idea of South Australia hosting an international disposal facility was found to deserve further analysis, plus the Commission recommended that existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation be removed. However, the Commission’s various proposals did not gain the bipartisan support necessary to be taken forward.

The New Inquiry

This is being held by the cross-party House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, and has to deliver its findings “by the end of the year”.

The background to the inquiry recognises that Australia has to fulfil its emissions reductions obligation, and that there continues to be a bipartisan moratorium on nuclear energy. However, it recognises the emergence of new technologies and changing consumer demand, with the Minister having specifically asked the inquiry to consider Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Other aspects of the Terms of Reference include waste management; transport and storage; health and safety; environmental impacts; energy affordability and reliability; economic feasibility; community engagement; workforce capability; security implications; national consensus and “any other relevant matter”.

The inquiry will also have regard to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission and the 2006 Switkowski review.

The inquiry has very ambitious timescales and we will watch how it develops with interest!

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