Australia’s stance on civil domestic nuclear power has taken asurprising turn in recent days, with the announcement by the Energy Minister ofa federal government inquiry into the “prerequisitesfor nuclear energy in Australia”.
Australia is the world’s third largest uranium producer (afterKazakhstan and Canada) but has traditionally steeredclear of introducing nuclear as anenergy source, instead relying on its reserves of coal and natural gas, whichprovide some 60% of its energy supply (33% is from oil, 4% biofuels, 1% hydro,1% renewables).
There have been several attempts to bring the nuclear discussion to thefore over the years, although these have never materialised. The last federalinquiry into the issue was held in 2006. Its chair, Dr Ziggy Switkowski, theretired chairman of Australia’s Nuclear Technology and Science Organisation(ANTSO), has now said that he thinks nuclear power could coexist with whatever “generation ofrenewables and batteries might exist into the future”.
In March 2015 theSouth Australian Government established the Nuclear Fuel CycleRoyal Commission “to undertake an independent and comprehensiveinvestigation into the potential for increasing South Australia’s participationin the nuclear fuel cycle.” It reported in May 2016 on four main areas: exploration, extraction andmilling; further processing and manufacture (of nuclear fuel); electricitygeneration and the management, storage and disposal of (radioactive) waste.
The idea of SouthAustralia hosting an international disposal facility was found to deservefurther analysis, plus the Commission recommended that existing prohibitions onnuclear power generation be removed. However, the Commission’s variousproposals did not gain the bipartisan support necessary to be taken forward.
The New Inquiry
This is being held by the cross-party HouseStanding Committee on the Environment and Energy, and has todeliver its findings “by the end of the year”.
The background to the inquiry recognises that Australia has to fulfilits emissions reductions obligation, and that there continues to be abipartisan moratorium on nuclear energy. However, it recognises the emergenceof new technologies and changing consumer demand, with the Minister having specificallyasked the inquiry to consider Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Other aspects ofthe Terms of Reference include waste management; transport and storage; healthand safety; environmental impacts; energy affordability and reliability; economicfeasibility; community engagement; workforce capability; security implications;national consensus and “any other relevant matter”.
The inquiry will also have regard to the South Australian Nuclear FuelCycle Royal Commission and the 2006 Switkowski review.
The inquiry has very ambitious timescales and we will watch how itdevelops with interest!
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