Blackouts, bill-shock and a lack of base-load power. These are seemingly the catchwords of Australia’s current electricity market. With the release of Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s review, the issue of energy security has again come to the fore of political debate. As of last year, 76% of electricity in the national energy market came from coal. Under Mr Finkel’s projections, coal would still generate over 50% of base-load power in Australia in 2030. This is far too large a proportion, but it then begs the question: if not coal, what? It is perhaps one of the biggest flashpoints in Australian energy policy over the past half century; but we need to consider far more seriously the option of nuclear power. Those two words are enough to get much of our nation’s environmentally conscious up in arms. But is the furore something that is based in valid, deep-seated concerns or in naivety as to the issue?
It must be admitted that the societal angst towards the nuclear option has been compounded by historical disasters. Three-Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and more recently the Fukushima disaster in 2011. While these events were calamites, they are not likely to be repeated. Chernobyl was caused by inherent design flaws of a Soviet-era reactor, Three-Mile by human-computer design oversights and Fukushima from a freak tsunami. 21st century reactor technology means that nuclear power generation is safer than it ever has been. It is also noteworthy that the Australian landmass does not lie on any fault lines, and therefore does not experience severe earthquakes or tsunamis; making nuclear power a geographically sound proposition.
It is also easy to conflate the issue of nuclear power generation with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The historical enmity towards nuclear power in Australia has links with the British weapons testing during the 1950’s and the French tests in the pacific in the 1960’s and 70’s. A generation of Australians grew up with the lingering shadow of mutually assured destruction. It is important, however, to separate these two issues. Australia has never had nuclear weapons ambitions, deciding against such a course in the early 1950’s and is a ratified member of The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The advancement of nuclear energy generation in Australia would not result in a nuclear-armed Australia, and such claims are naïve and inflammatory.
One of the remaining objections to nuclear power is the issue of waste. It is argued that nuclear power negates any possible environmental benefit from the reduction of CO2 emissions. For me, whenever I think of radioactive waste, I think of leaky green barrels and Mr Burns from The Simpsons. The reality is however, as made clear by the World Nuclear Association, that the entire plants high-level waste per year is about as much as a two-storey building the size of a basket-ball court. Considering this is for all 449 plants worldwide, the amount that would be produced in Australia would be minuscule, and despite its potentially hazardous nature, it is a far more attractive prospect than the potential effects of climate change.
This brings me to the obvious benefits of nuclear power. Australia is blessed with a wealth of natural resources; this includes a third of the world’s uranium deposits. The proponents of coal make the argument that we have a plentiful supply, and therefore we should use it. However, the same can clearly be said for uranium and nuclear energy. The clearest benefit is the ability to provide consistent, reliable base-load power to the Australian market that is essentially CO2 emission free. This would enable Australia to become a world leader in green technology by having a strong, stable renewable-nuclear generation mix.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that we are already experiencing the first effects of a global temperature rise. Record weather events are the norm in weekly news cycles. If we are to avoid irreversible damage to our planet, we need to act quickly and decisively. Up until this point, one of the few areas not explored when it comes to our energy security has been the nuclear option. I believe this is a serious error. Nuclear should feature more prominently in the debate about our energy security, and it is up to those of us who believe in nuclear to make our voices heard by our national parliamentarians.