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OPINION: ‘Our Own Nuclear Disaster’

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Twenty-two years ago in December 2020, something very strange happened in the Australian Senate. Political opportunism and pragmatism combined to place a permanent prohibition on nuclear power generation in Australia. It is time to correct that mistake and the constraints it now places on our capacity to deliver reliable and affordable energy to households and industry alike.

In the late 1990s, nuclear generation could not have hoped to compete with cheap, base-load coal generation and there was little appetite for it in the investment community. But as our coal generators age and approach the end of their economic lives, more questions are emerging about whether, like gas generators, modern nuclear plants could help to provide the firming power needed to allow more renewable energy into the electricity system, while also keeping the grid stable and energy prices down.

So, while the deals John Howard did with Greens and Democrats more than two decades ago must have seemed benign at the time, they are anything but now.

Australians may never develop a greater appetite for nuclear generation. But beyond unreliable opinion polls and politically motivated protests, it’s hard to accurately measure levels of community support. That’s because the nuclear prohibition prevents us from testing it. It prevents investment proposals and therefore, community and regulatory consideration of any such proposal. We can currently debate a principle, but not the merits of a particular project.

Parliamentary bookshelves around the country are full of committee, Royal Commission, and other expert reports which recommended the embrace of nuclear generation in Australia. Notwithstanding, you can imagine the political opportunism which would dominate parliamentary debate if a government sought to repeal the two 1990s legislative prohibitions. In the national interest, those games and attitudes have to change.

Nuclear power stations provide around 10 percent of the world’s electricity supply. There are 450 nuclear generators in 31 countries including the United States (95), the United Kingdom (15), Russia (38), China (49), Canada (19), India (22), Sweden (7), and France (56), where 70 percent of the electricity supply comes from nuclear generators. Hundreds more are being planned or constructed.

The 1990s prohibition wasn’t about keeping us safe. Rather, it was about politics. At the time anti-nuclear sentiment in Australia was high. Activists were mischievously conflated nuclear weaponry with civil nuclear uses and waste disposal. Throughout the preceding decade the flames of protest had been fanned by French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific and the subsequent bombing of Greenpeace’s flagship the Rainbow Warrior. The search for a safe and permanent home for waste from Lucas Heights provided the activists with further propaganda material. Desperate for Senate support for his GST, John Howard was in an accommodating mood and the political deals with the Greens and Democrats were done dirt heap.

Australia is endowed with one third of the world’s uranium reserves, more than any other country. We export our product to the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. We do so absolutely confident it won’t make its way to weaponry or to terrorists, and will provide safe, reliable and affordable electricity for the householders and manufacturers of those regions.

The International Energy Agency has identified the important role nuclear generation will play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia, it could also create hundreds of thousands of jobs along the nuclear fuel cycle. Further, building a nuclear energy industry and its associated workforce would also open employment opportunities in other sectors.

Every year Australian industries with relatively high risk-profiles successfully and unsuccessfully negotiate scientific studies and significant government regulatory and approvals processes. Anyone proposing a nuclear generator should face the same processes and the same processes only. The prohibition on a particular technology makes no sense.

In many countries where nuclear generation has existed for a long time, sophisticated new models and processes have been developed to enhance community participation in the consultation and consent processes. Indeed, in some countries community investment partnerships have been formed. We could do those things here too.

The latest generation of nuclear plants are smaller, enabling faster, safer, less expensive, and more standardised construction. No longer dependent on large amounts of water for cooling purposes, they can be built in remote locations, well away from our predominantly coastal communities. Indeed, they can be built underground. These new technologies have the potential to overcome what may be the greatest barrier to local nuclear generation in Australia, the “not in my backyard” syndrome.

Not content with scare campaigns over safety, investors who profit from the subsidised renewables sector argue nuclear generation is too expensive.  Plenty of parliamentary inquiries, Royal Commissions and think tanks have said otherwise. But in any case, it’s not for governments or regulators to make these judgements. That’s a matter for those prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Thankfully, we don’t let politicians or public servants decide what offers a reasonable return on investment and what does not.

Earlier last month, the Energy Security Board warned of trouble ahead on the electricity reliability front. It’s time to ditch the political opportunism and scare campaigns. It’s time to remove the legislative prohibitions on nuclear generation to give investors the opportunity to test community support for the latest and best technology through world’s-best consultation and science-based approvals processes.

Hon Joel Fitzgibbon MP

Federal Member for Hunter

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