Nuclear advocates energised despite economic reality

·2-min read

Australia could develop a domestic nuclear energy system within 15 years but it would not be economically competitive, a Senate committee has been told.

A procession of energy experts, and a 16-year-old boy, lined up to give their two cents on a proposal to remove the prohibition on installing nuclear power in Australia on Monday.

Gillian Hirth, chief executive of nuclear regulator ARPANSA, told the committee it would take 10 to 15 years to develop nuclear energy facilities, but regulatory frameworks would need to be established first.

There would also need to be a significant uplift in the capability of the nuclear industry, she said.

While new technologies being developed overseas, like small modular reactors, are safer and produce less radioactive waste than traditional nuclear generation, the committee heard the economics behind nuclear doesn't stack up in the Australian context.

Department of Energy deputy secretary Simon Duggan said work done by the CSIRO found the abundance of low-cost renewable energy in Australia would make it difficult for nuclear technology to compete financially by the time it was ready to be deployed.

The government's focus is instead on getting as much renewable energy, firming and transmission infrastructure into the grid as possible to provide more stability for consumers, Mr Duggan said.

Will Shackel, 16, told the committee he created advocacy group Nuclear for Australia because he wants to encourage the country to have an open mind on nuclear energy and a fact-based debate.

"Young people are energised by the prospect of nuclear energy, yet government is not reacting," he wrote in a submission.

"Despite bids to pander to us with utopian fantasies of a clean energy transition through renewables, young people are calling for the commonwealth government to acknowledge that the only pragmatic solution lies in the tabooed energy generation capability of nuclear energy."

But Dave Sweeney, nuclear policy analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said radioactive waste remains the achilles heel of the industry.

"We get three years with existing commercial reactors of reliable electricity and then we get 100,000 years of an intergenerational carcinogenic, mutagenic waste burden," he told the committee.

"We need to back a winner and that winner is the renewable sector."

Outside of the hearing, Nationals leader David Littleproud argued the amount of new transmission lines required to transition to zero emissions could be reduced by establishing nuclear power plants in existing energy zones.

"Let's make sure we've got the firming to make sure renewables work, that they have a social licence to work and that they're not destroying landscape and we firm it with gas and particularly small scale modular nuclear technology (based) at coal-fired power stations," he told Sky.

"Let's have a national energy summit to get that balance right."

The committee is due to report back by June 15.