Should – or will – Australia’s decision to operate nuclear-powered attack submarines lead to a nuclear electricity industry?
The nuclear debate has flashed back onto Australia’s radar. The decision to buy eight nuclear-powered attack submarines has sparked the obvious question: if subs are okay, what about nuclear powerplants?
The “no” case was quick off the mark.
In an essay published in The Conversation on 20 September, Griffith University Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe made his stance clear: “The technology makes no sense for Australia, economically or politically, and would not be a timely response to climate change.” (Lowe’s quotes following come from this essay.)
But Australian Nuclear Association president Dr Joanne Lackenby says the science of splitting the atom hasn’t been sitting still. The debate, she says, has moved on.
Reactors are getting much smaller. New technologies have built-in fail-safes. Waste is being drastically reduced. Meanwhile, nuclear’s overwhelming advantage remains the same – stable, scaleable, low-carbon electricity supply.
With Australia falling behind on its carbon emission commitments and a federal government scrambling to balance internal dissent with international pressure, Lackenby says nuclear energy needs to be put back on the table.
There are plenty of hurdles to be overcome, but none, Lackenby says, are insurmountable.
“Australia seems fixated on renewables while most other nations talk about low carbon,” she says. “That gives the impression that renewables are all there is in the fight against climate change. That’s not true.”
“Australia is blessed with a bounty of sun and wind, and is well on the way to achieving 50% renewable energy by 2030, even without government help,” argues Lowe.
Lackenby agrees – to some extent.
“I’m pro-nuclear,” she says. “But I’m also pro- any power that can actually demonstrate it can reduce emissions.”
The devil is in the detail.
The leading climate-friendly energy source right now is hydro-electric. But Australia doesn’t have enough flowing water for that to be a national solution. Nuclear power comes in second. Wind generators aren’t all that far behind. Solar sits some way back.
Carbon cost aside, there’s still the need for a reliable electricity supply: that’s the argument being put forward to maintain coal and gas generation. But so-called “clean” gas is still 40 times more carbon-intensive than the nuclear option.
Lackenby says nuclear has the same advantage as gas, at a fraction of the carbon cost. “In the US, reactors spend 93% of their time operating at full capacity. Wind generates viable output just 35% of the time.”
It’s not always windy. It’s not always sunny. And banking the electricity from solar panel and wind turbines is proving to be both complex and limited.
“How do you provide enough wind and solar power backup to last days?” asks Lackenby. “What if there’s a big, lingering storm?”
The assumption that renewables automatically translate to low carbon is also problematic, she says. “Nations like Germany have moved to back up their wind supply with fossil-fuel generators. Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of the exercise?
“My position is we need both nuclear and renewables. We can’t have all our eggs in one basket. Nuclear gives diversity and stability in supply.”
Lowe argues that nuclear power plants are expensive to build, and the economics of operating them is deteriorating. “By contrast, renewables continue to come down in price,” he says.
“As I wrote in my new book Long Half-life: The Nuclear Industry in Australia, global average prices for new power last year were 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour for large solar, 4.1 cents for wind, 11 cents for coal and 16 cents for nuclear.”
Lackenby says that’s not the whole story. “It took investment and government subsidies to bring the costs of wind and solar down to commercially viable levels. The same needs to be done with nuclear.”
Nuclear power plants are expensive to build. But, Lackenby says, once complete they are relatively cheap to operate and maintain. And they have operational lifetimes of more than 60 years.
“That’s an important consideration,” she says. “Renewables such as solar and wind generators have about a 25-year lifespan before they need replacement.”
Coal and gas struggle on high renewable output days. They struggle to power up and down, and even idling comes with a carbon cost.
“On good days, when solar and wind are saturating the grid, nuclear power can switch to other jobs,” argues Lackenby. “There’s desalination. There’s splitting water into hydrogen fuel. You don’t want to be using fossil fuels for those, either.”
And renewable energy can come with hidden costs. Storing electricity for a rainy day is key to its success. And that may need expensive, extensive projects – such as pumped hydro or molten salt storage – to make it practical.
Even batteries may be problematic, says Lackenby. These need lithium, which is getting more and more expensive as demand soars. If it’s mined, as it is in Australia, immense amounts of water are needed to process it.
Lowe counters: “And the water use of a nuclear power industry, needed for cooling, would be a fundamental issue on the driest of all inhabited continents.”
Test of time
“It would also take at least 10 years to build one nuclear plant in Australia. So it’s clearly not an adequate response to the urgent challenge of climate change,” Lowe argues.
Lackenby agrees nuclear plants take time to build. But she says it’s the same story for industrial-scale renewable energy.
The Star of the South is a proposed offshore wind farm: $8 to $10 billion worth of turbines scattered across 500 square kilometres of the Tasman Sea. It’s touted as being able to supply 2.2 gigawatts – enough to meet 20% of Victoria’s power demands – in 10 years time.
“That sounds like a nuclear-scale project,” says Lackenby. “Take into account how much it costs, how long it takes, how long it lasts… and then compare its size to that of a reactor.”
Meanwhile, despite decades of effort, carbon-capture technology is still to live up to the promise of cleaning up the fossil fuel industry.
“There’s a difference between cost and value,” Lackenby says. “A nuclear plant may cost more to establish, but once it’s operational – that’s where it proves its value”.
Meanwhile, time is of the essence. “It may take ten years to get a small modular reactor up and running,” Lackenby says. “It would need planning, regulating, consultation. But so does every other project.
“Once it’s up and running, though, it will be helping us to reach net zero for many decades to come.”
And what of waste?
“A nuclear industry in Australia would need a solution for the safe storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste – this appears unlikely, given the public opposition to establishing a site to dispose of even low-level nuclear waste,” argues Lowe.
History’s on Lowe’s side, but Lackenby says times are changing.
Positive attitudes towards nuclear energy collapsed after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, prompted by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. But recent Australian polling shows 70% of the population is open to considering its merits.
“People know it’s imperative we act soon, as climate change is affecting their lives now,” Lackenby says. “If we want a real solution, it will need a massive systemic change. And nuclear will need to be part of that change.”
There will be waste, she says. But not much of it. Nuclear fuel is immensely energy dense. For example, it would take 900kg of coal to match the electricity generated from one 7 gram uranium pellet.
“The waste from coal and gas gets dumped into the atmosphere,” Lackenby says. “For nuclear, it’s tightly regulated.”
In the past, a spent fuel rod could be expected to take tens of thousands of years to decay back to the same radioactive state as the uranium it was refined from. Next-generation reactors are being designed to use nuclear waste as fuel. This could cut back the decay time to just 300 years.
“It can take the same amount of time for a nappy to break down in landfill,” Lackenby adds. “And don’t forget, wind and solar produce waste. What happens when solar panels start coming off the roofs? Will they be recycled? I hope so. Right now, we don’t know.”
Zero to hero?
Any Australian nuclear industry will require effort. It will require focus. It will need early decisions.
“We would need all the regulatory requirements put in place and we’d need to choose the type of reactor we want,” Lackenby says. “Like any big infrastructure project, it will take time.”
Australia’s already well placed on the world stage to do so. Of the international laws and treaties relating to responsible activity, Canberra’s already signed most of them. The only documents it’s yet to sign relate to liability.
And Lackenby says our home-grown talent pool runs much deeper than many believe. “We’ve been operating research reactors for some time now. We had three. The first two are no longer operational. But OPAL [the Open Pool Australian Lightwater reactor operated by ANSTO] is one of the best – if not the best – research reactors in the world”.
Rapidly upskilling a workforce would be a challenge, but others have already done so successfully.
“In 2009, the United Arab Emirates decided it needed a nuclear program,” explains Lackenby. “It had no nuclear capability whatsoever. By 2020, they had their first reactor on the grid. Their second reactor joined the grid in 2021. The next two aren’t far away.”
Australia’s nuclear expertise starts with a much stronger base, she says. “We have training courses in nuclear physics and engineering. These can scale up. We have the knowledge base to stand more courses up at our universities.”
Lackenby says that climate change has become noticeable – that we’re already experiencing the greater frequency and severity of extreme events that climate scientists have been warning us about – and that unstable weather will also likely impact wind and solar output.
Lowe says the debate is already over: “The world has obviously made its decision on nuclear: last year 192 gigawatts of renewables came online, compared with a net 3 gigawatts of nuclear power.”
Lackenby points out that of the G20 nations, of which Australia is one, 18 use nuclear-generated power. Saudi Arabia is developing nuclear power for its critical desalination plants.
“Even the International Panel on Climate Change calls for more nuclear,” Lackenby says. “Nuclear is a vital part of the carbon reduction plan, if we’re to keep warming on the 1.5°C to 2°C pathway.”
Meanwhile, fossil-fuel generated electricity accounts for one-third of Australia’s carbon emission total. “Electricity generation is the easiest sector to decarbonise,” she says. “Industrial, agriculture and transport are the biggest challenges.”
As Lackenby sees it, nuclear power offers a fast track to make a noticeable dent in our carbon output.
“Nuclear’s not perfect, but neither is any other energy source,” she says. “We need to balance the benefits of each one of them to ensure we get the low carbon emissions we need while producing reliable, affordable energy.”
Paradoxically, the for and against arguments could both make sense to the nearly 80% of Australians in favour of government setting a net-zero emissions target for 2050. What’s currently unknown, but may well niggle at a lot of those people, is the thought of a military/defence imperative – not an energy/climate/zero-emissions one – driving the establishment of an Australian nuclear power industry. “That really is the military tail wagging the electricity industry dog,” says Lowe.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.