Nuclear back-up for renewables

Read CEDA Chief Executives opinion piece on nuclear energy published in The Australian on Thursday 10 November 2011.

As published in The Australian on Thursday 10 November 2011.

With the carbon tax passing the Senate this week, it is critical that Australia gets serious about making sure viable energy options are seriously examined to deliver safe, reliable, low cost and low carbon emission energy into the future.

That means it is time for the political cowardice and uniformed green biases being shown from all sides of politics to be put aside and there to be a real debate on the potential for nuclear energy in Australia's energy mix.

It is true that nuclear energy has not needed to be an option in the past, principally because of Australia's abundant supply of cheap fossil fuel reserves. But if we are going to mitigate carbon, if we are serious about an environmentally sustainable future, Australia needs viable alternatives.


While renewables may be the end game, we are relying on significant technological breakthroughs to come on stream quickly for energy sources that are either unproven on a large scale or intermittent. Currently there are no proven renewable technologies that can reliably replace base-load coal.

This approach is extremely risky and irresponsible. It is essentially playing Russian roulette with energy bills for industry and households.

At the moment renewables are being touted as the fix-all solution that will magically replace our traditional energy sources. While this is a convenient message, scratch below the surface and it becomes clear that our political leaders need to take a reality check about what and when renewables will be able to deliver. Strip away the subsidies and research grants to universities and the reality is somewhat different.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) is currently undertaking a major research study into Australia's Energy Options.  Part of that research has centred on the economics, environmental impact and technological advances associated with the deployment of nuclear power as a long-term solution to meeting Australia's energy needs.

It provides the obvious back-up option. It has almost zero-emissions, its technology is proven and we have an abundant supply of uranium (more than 20 per cent of the world's proven reserves - the world's largest) currently being exported to other countries to use as a low emission energy source.  The obvious question is, if it's good enough for them why isn't it good enough for us?

Understandably events such as at Fukishima earlier this year, cause public unease about potential catastrophic effects from nuclear accidents. However, what needs to be remembered is the Fukishima reactor was based on 1960s technology, and even then no-one died directly as a result of the accident.

Modern nuclear technology has significantly improved, both in terms of producing almost zero waste and safety features that would preclude nuclear accidents of the past.  It is why countries such as China are continuing to expand nuclear power roll-outs, and why other countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and even Singapore are developing their own plans to meet their energy requirements through nuclear technology.

As for Europe, Germany has decided to close most, if not all, of its old nuclear plants on the back of safety concerns and political pressure.  It will instead buy its electricity from France, one of the major users of nuclear technology.

It is the significant advances in nuclear technology, along with the need to ensure that Australia has back-up options to renewables and isn't forced to make rushed decisions or face soaring energy costs or energy shortfalls in the future, that mean nuclear power needs to be rationally debated now.

It is acknowledged that a move to nuclear power would be an enormous shift for Australia and is not one that should be rushed.  However, the reality is that even if it was decided tomorrow that Australia should go down the nuclear path, it would take a decade or more to have an operational plant, allowing for appropriate public consultation, regulatory changes, location selection, commissioning and construction.

That means we need to consider nuclear energy now if it is to be available to provide back-up low-cost low emission energy as we transition from traditional fossil fuel energy sources.  It is why the Government's White Paper on Energy, due to be released by year's end, must seriously consider this question and not confine any comment on nuclear energy options to a boxed paragraph or footnote.

The critical period in transitioning our energy sources to cleaner options will be the two decades from 2020, when energy price rises associated with decarbonising the world really begin to bite. Australia cannot be caught short if the technological breakthroughs required with renewables don't eventuate quickly enough. The damage to Australia's economic competiveness would be significant.

What we need now is political leadership from all sides to allow a rational debate, not one based on vested interests, ideological views or outdated information and technology, but on current and projected technological and economic options.

Nuclear power may be a challenging and uncomfortable topic for our political leaders to tackle, but by having this debate now, it may well save Australian families and businesses from unnecessary hardship in the future.  CEDA's contribution will be contained in its research monograph on nuclear energy options to be released today.

Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin is Chief Executive of CEDA - the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, an independent member-based organisation that provides thought leadership on economic and social issues affecting Australia.

For snapshots from Australia's Nuclear Options click here.