We must seriously consider nuclear power in Australia

Australia's only nuclear reactor is at Lucas Heights near Sydney [Public Domain]

A robust nuclear energy industry must be on the table if Australia is to continue to prosper.

Our energy industry is struggling to deliver clean electricity and there will always be times when the wind doesn’t blow, or the sun doesn’t shine. We have one third of the world’s uranium reserves yet none of it is used by Australia. 

The reluctance to exploit a national advantage for our own purposes is of a bygone era.

The greatest challenge in securing Australia’s energy future is the cost. Carbon capture technology is expensive, unreliable, and, at present, a pipe dream. So too is the potential of hydrogen if its production is to rely on fossil fuels or renewable energy sources. 

Current methods of producing hydrogen are inherently inefficient. While hydrogen as an energy source produces less carbon emissions, the emissions to produce it outweigh the emissions created during its production when using available sources. 

Scaling up wind and solar systems to produce hydrogen is effectively betting on the success of future innovations, as is betting on carbon capture to enable hydrogen to replace coal or natural gas. In many ways, and based on current capabilities, hydrogen is a circular argument that provides the smoke and mirrors to ensure we continue to rely on fossil fuels to produce electricity into the future.

Further, storing energy from renewables is expensive, difficult to dispatch (deliver on demand), and unlikely to support large-scale dispatchable energy demands. We either have dispatchable energy or dispatchable lifestyles (we move to the energy source). 

Our reliance on road transport is such that electric vehicles will come to dominate our logistics future. The electricity must come from somewhere, and with present levels of demand already an issue, future demand is likely to soar.

A shift to nuclear energy requires major cultural and philosophical change. We must accept that relying on coal or gas to generate electricity does not reduce carbon emissions, nor do renewables sufficiently scale up to meet demand. 

Nuclear power is the only existing technology that provides clean energy capable of meeting the demands of the future. And we have an abundance of the raw materials to make nuclear power a reality.

Making such statements in Australia has traditionally been shunned. But as the geopolitical situation has changed significantly, it is time to reconsider what should otherwise be abundantly clear.

Norway provides an example of a so-called green approach that ensures Norwegians rest easy in their use of renewables, particularly hydropower, in meeting domestic demand. At the same time, Norway has major oil and gas reserves that it exports almost exclusively.

There is no moral victory in the climate wars whereby generating domestic electricity using sustainable sources offsets the export of fossil fuels. Australia is in a similar situation in that it exports uranium, backed by unenforceable bilateral arrangements (including with Russia and China) to ensure only the use of uranium for peaceful purposes, while relying on coal domestically.

A switch to nuclear energy would at least give those who continue to look to Norway as the model for Australia’s future some credibility.

As coal has supported Australia’s prosperity in the past, uranium could support Australia’s prosperity into the future. This national advantage should be exploited to address our future energy needs. It will also help to reduce carbon emissions in a tangible, low-cost way.

While initial investment in nuclear power generation may be high, the running costs are relatively low. With coal-fired electricity generation already on the nose and causing diplomatic problems despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nuclear provides a solution that does not rely on an imminent technological breakthrough – it is here already.

Australia either invests in a stop-gap measure such as gas-fired electricity, or it invests in nuclear power generation.

In line with developing a nuclear energy industry, Australia’s research sector needs to redouble its efforts on the national Science and Research Priorities. Transport and energy are key parts of our strategic future, but these cannot be restricted to certain technologies. 

A nuclear industry is a credible solution to Australia’s energy challenges. Nuclear power provides an abundantly scalable and clean way to meet Australia’s energy demands while reducing carbon emissions. But removing the cultural and philosophical barriers is a necessary first step.