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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Dr John Tierney

We must find a path through the roadblocks to nuclear energy

Sixty kilometres south of my family home on the NSW south coast, the initial circular earthworks for a nuclear power station began in September 1969, near Jervis Bay. This was an initiative of the Gorton Coalition government, but Prime Minister McMahon deferred construction in June 1971 because of increased cost. It was never built.

This was five years before environmental politics began to take hold in Australia and was possibly the last chance for the country to produce significant amounts of nuclear baseload power without CO2 emissions. But the window of opportunity was lost.

Since then, nuclear power has been anathema to the powerful green lobby and those on the left of the political spectrum, especially in the Greens party and in the ALP left-wing.

In 1984 this anti-nuclear stance reached its zenith when the export of Australian uranium ore was banned by the Hawke government, except for the three existing mines.

Australia is one of the top three uranium ore producers in the world. So, this radical new policy was great news for countries like Canada, which was happy to take over some of Australia's market share and the associated jobs.

If our country had started nuclear power generation using our uranium ore, as initially planned in the early 1970s, our dependence on coal-fired power this century would not have been as significant. Also, our greenhouse gas challenge might not be so overwhelming.

In 2021, with this alternative history, nuclear power, would have put Australia well on the way to net-zero emissions. Some other countries with more forward-thinking policies solved their greenhouse gas challenge this way decades ago.

In France, 70 per cent of its power generation produces zero greenhouse gas because it is nuclear. France adopted this policy in the 1950s. Currently, 26 per cent of the European Union's electricity comes from nuclear power plants.

Even with the original nuclear power technology, which began in 1954, worldwide in 30 countries, there have been only three serious atomic accidents at their 443 power plants: Three Mile Island USA (1979), Chernobyl USSR (1986) and Fukushima Japan (2011). Yet, despite these disasters, nuclear still has the best safety record of any significant energy source.

What happened at these three plants would not occur with the current generation of small modular reactors (SMRs). According to President Bidden: "they are affordable, game-changing technologies that are smaller, safer and more efficient". SMRs have a minimal "footprint", are quicker to build, are water efficient, and don't need to be on the coast. They would be a good fit for Australia's electricity grid.

Reflecting the reality of this shift in technology, the possibility of a move towards baseload nuclear power in Australia was revived by some on the right of the political spectrum, including Prime Ministers John Howard (2007), Tony Abbott (2015) and now by Scott Morrison (2020).

So, with this amount of support at the top of government, why hasn't there been any progress in Australia with the development of a nuclear power industry over the past 15 years?

Towards the end of the Howard government, a plan to begin the long road to producing nuclear baseload power was floated.

The opposition response ahead of the 2007 federal election was to produce a map of "suitable locations" for building nuclear reactors in critical marginal seats. That really alarmed the "NIMBY" voters.

Although the possible development of nuclear power using SMR technology was included in last year's "road map" to zero emissions, the Prime Minister has conceded that it will need bipartisan support to happen.

Unfortunately, the Coalition government scored an own goal in a 1999 deal with the Greens when parliament signed off on the next generation medical nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney.

The Greens agreed to pass this and other unrelated bills if the Howard government supported a legislated ban on nuclear energy. This was agreed to at the time because nobody thought it would matter. But now it does, and this roadblock must be cleared.

Policy decisions by past governments that seem minor at the time can often have enormous consequences decades later when circumstances change and governments face new and unforeseen challenges.

We now need to find a path through the roadblocks to nuclear energy within the next decade to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

With the demand for electricity expected to double between now and the target date, only nuclear power is scalable to take up the baseload gap left by coal-fired power shut down. The good news is this can be done safely, while at the same time reducing greenhouse emissions and keeping the lights on, with electricity generated by SMR nuclear power plants.

Newcastle East's Dr John Tierney AM is a former Hunter-based federal senator

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