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Submission to “the inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia”

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The World Nuclear Association is grateful for the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry into what it would take to make nuclear energy a viable option for Australia.

We believe it is only natural that a technologically sophisticated country like Australia should seek to make use of nuclear energy as it attempts to address its energy, environmental and economic challenges. While it may seem like a big step, in fact Australia is already a nuclear nation in many ways. It is home to one of the most advanced nuclear research and medical facilities in the world at Lucas Heights and is also one of the world’s largest suppliers of uranium. Several new nuclear technologies have also been developed with the assistance of Australian scientists. The country has a long and proud nuclear history and is well placed from a technical, regulatory and social standpoint to start a nuclear power program.

We are pleased to see that the Committee will take note of the important work carried out by the 2016 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission and the 2006 Switkowski nuclear energy review. However, the international climate and energy dialogue has evolved significantly in the intervening years. There have been several recent authoritative intergovernmental reports published which we would like to bring to the Committee’s attention.

Firstly, the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5 °C report, published late in 2018, considered the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and presented pathways by which greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced to keep warming below that threshold[1]. While there are substantial differences between models and across the IPCC pathways, on average nuclear generation increases by around 2.5 times by 2050 from today’s level in the 89 mitigation scenarios considered, and by 5 times in the scenarios with increased electricity consumption.

Next, the IEA’s recently-published report Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, clearly articulates the current, and growing, importance of nuclear energy for meeting climate goals. The report states that “nuclear power today makes a significant contribution to electricity generation, providing 10% of global electricity supply in 2018. In advanced economies, nuclear power accounts for 18% of generation and is the largest low-carbon source of electricity[2] .” It further mentions that “A range of technologies, including nuclear power, will be needed for clean energy transitions around the world”. While achieving a clean energy transition without nuclear is conceivable it would require an extraordinary – and essentially impractical – effort. By contrast, adding nuclear power “can contribute to easing the technical difficulties of integrating renewables and lowering the cost of transforming the electricity system.”

Detailed energy modelling conducted by the OECD NEA led it to similar conclusions[3] . The agency found that while a diverse range of low carbon technologies is needed for a generalised country to achieve decarbonisation of the electricity system, a mix relying primarily on nuclear energy is most cost effective. “Based on the cost assumptions used in the main scenarios, this study shows that a mix relying primarily on nuclear energy is the most cost-effective option to achieve the decarbonisation target of 50 gCO2 per kWh.” In fact, even it is assumed that variable renewable technologies become much cheaper than today, 40 – 60% of electricity would still be supplied by dispatchable low carbon technologies – like nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage – in the cost-optimised case.

From the above it is clear that any advanced economy which is serious about addressing climate change should be developing nuclear energy if it wishes to increase the speed – and reduce the costs – of deep decarbonisation. Nuclear energy is a complementary partner to renewables and helps to ensure a reliable and resilient electricity supply, which is the backbone of any modern society.

In an Australian context, the near-term retirement of a significant portion of the country’s baseload coal generators poses serious challenges[4]. Australia has in the past enjoyed some of the lowest electricity costs in the developed world, but the sudden spike in wholesale electricity prices which accompanied the close of Hazelwood power station in 2017 is an event likely to be repeated as other large baseload stations close. To address this, Australian policy makers should be able to consider all low emission and affordable power sources, including nuclear energy.

Low-carbon energy technologies have also evolved in the last few years. While much is made of the rapid price declines in wind and solar, nuclear technology has also progressed considerably. The IAEA notes that currently there are more than 50 small modular reactor (SMR) designs under development for different applications, and that three demonstration projects are in advanced stages of construction and expected to be operational within a few years[5] . “SMRs show the promise of significant cost reduction through modularization and factory construction which should further improve the construction schedule and reduce costs. In the area of wider applicability SMR designs and sizes are better suited for partial or dedicated use in non-electrical applications such as providing heat for industrial processes, hydrogen production or sea-water desalination.” Some SMR designs will be available in the 2020s while a wide range of designs will become commercially available during the 2030s.

Innovation is also improving currently available gigawatt-scale nuclear reactors, making them cheaper and easier to construct (for example through using advanced concrete solutions, additive manufacturing technologies, better project management and contract structuring) as well as improving operational performance (examples including accident tolerant fuels and robotics). We would encourage Australia to keep an open mind with respect to nuclear technology selection at this stage. Gigawatt-scale nuclear reactors should not be ruled out in any comprehensive plan.

More and more countries are embarking on nuclear energy programmes based on gigawatt-scale nuclear reactors. The list includes Bangladesh[6] , Belarus[7] , Egypt[8] , Turkey[9] , UAE[10] , and Uzbekistan[11]. It is striking that with the exception of UAE, these are all countries with lower GDP per capita than Australia, and all score lower on the human development index. Introducing nuclear energy into Australia would create important development opportunities, boosting regional economic growth and supporting science, engineering and key trades. Today, about two-thirds of the world's population lives in countries which benefit from the reliable, affordable and clean electricity that is generated from nuclear energy.

Whether or not Australia decides to join the list of embarking nuclear newcomer countries as a result of the several inquiries now taking place, we hope to see the Committee recommend the revision of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 and Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act of 1998, both of which currently prohibit nuclear power plants and certain other nuclear fuel cycle facilities from being constructed in Australia. The prohibitions are outdated and simply have no place in a modern, data-driven society striving for a sustainable future. 

In this submission we broadly address the Committee’s terms of reference, drawing upon international experience.

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[1] IPCC, 2018, Special Report Global Warming of 1.5C
[2] IEA, 2019, Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System
[3] OECD NEA, 2019, The Costs of Decarbonisation: System Costs with High Shares of Nuclear and Renewables
[4] Minerals Council of Australia, November 2018, Submission to the Department of Environment and Energy’s Underwriting New Generation Investments consultation paper, p. 3
[5] IAEA 2018, Advanced in Small Modular Reactor Technology Developments
[6] World Nuclear News, 1 Feb 2019, Construction progress at Bangladesh plant
[7] World Nuclear News, 8 April 2019, Commissioning starts at first Belarus unit
[8] World Nuclear News, 10 April 2019, Site approval for Egyptian nuclear power plant
[9] World Nuclear News, 14 March 2019, Basemat of Turkey's Akkuyu 1 completed
[10] World Nuclear News, 8 July 2019 First Barakah operators receive regulatory certification
[11] World Nuclear News, 12 July 2019 Uzbekistan adds second plant to nuclear power goal 


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