Why Australia Could (And Should) Become A Major Nuclear Power Producer
Australia is a country nearly the size of the continental US with a population of about 26 million people.
It is a country with vast open spaces. Most of its population is found on its east coast in New South Wales and Queensland, some population centers in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territories and on the island of Tasmania. Most of the larger populations in these areas are in a few cities and their suburbs with lots of open space between them in many places.
The largest electricity grid goes down the east coast and loops over to South Australia. There is another one in Western Australia, albeit a smaller one than on the east coast, and then an even much smaller one in the Northwest Territories. These grids are not connected.
Why is this important for nuclear power?
If we are thinking about big reactors, they can only be deployed in areas where the market can support them. If we are thinking about small modular reactors, SMRs, then there are other uses for smaller cities in less densely populated areas.
Australia is energy-rich. It is the largest coal exporter in the world. It’s one of the major gas exporters, and previously even was the largest LNG exporter in the world. It has massive wind, solar, geothermal, wind, tidal, and wave energy potential. It has significant hydroelectric resources, but recent droughts have put those into question. Given its low population and vast energy resources, about 2/3rd of its energy production is exported. It is an increasing net importer of oil and refined oil products. Oil, however, is a weak spot in Australia’s energy security and resilience.
Australia’s primary energy consumption is overwhelmingly fossil fuels. About 80 percent of its electricity is still from fossil fuels, with black and brown coal dominating, but renewables have been growing in importance, especially since 2008.
Overall electricity generation grew nicely until a flattening out also in 2008. It is still growing, but not nearly as quickly as it once was. There are considerable differences in fuels and methods used to produce electricity across its territories and states. New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland use mostly coal. Western Australia is dominated by gas. South Australia uses mostly gas and a much larger percentage of renewables than any other area. Tasmania is mostly hydropower. The Northern Territories is almost dominated by an even mix of gas and oil. Except for South Australia, renewables are not a large part of electricity generation elsewhere in the country.
Hydropower has been part of the energy mix in Australia for a very long time. Solar and wind really started to take hold and grow only in the 2000s. Bioenergy is a small percentage, but not entirely insignificant. Overall, for the country, coal use in electricity has been in decline. Natural gas and renewables have been increasingly used in electricity generation.
In terms of energy production, Australian coal has been on a steep growth path for some time. Oil has been in decline. Natural gas has grown greatly in recent years. In the overall big picture in energy production renewable energy is a coat of paint on top of the others. Coal dominates energy production and natural gas is a far second.
The main use of nuclear power is for electricity. However, the only nuclear reactor in Australia is in Sydney. It is a tiny 20 MW reactor that makes nuclear isotopes for medical purposes. Nuclear power can be curative in a medical sense. Many know this from personal experience.
Nuclear power is controversial in Australia. Importantly, “Nuclear power production is currently not permitted under two main pieces of Commonwealth legislation—the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (the ARPANS Act), and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). These Acts expressly prohibit the approval, licensing, construction, or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant; a nuclear power plant; an enrichment plant; or a reprocessing facility. There is also a range of other legislation, including state and territory legislation, which regulates nuclear and radiation-related activities.”
There are also state and territory laws strictly regulating it, and in some cases, such as in Victoria, it is outright banned. So, there are many legal levels with hurdles for nuclear power.
Australia has the largest known reserves of uranium on the planet. It is the third-largest exporter of uranium. Yet is has no nuclear power plants to produce electricity. There is a possibility that the new strategic cooperation deal with the UK and the USA, the AUKUS agreement, that includes Australia getting help from the UK and the US to develop and deploy nuclear submarines, could create more conversation and debate on nuclear power. These nuclear submarines will require increasing nuclear expertise in Australia. There will be a need for that nuclear expertise to maintain and develop this fleet of nuclear submarines. In the US, many of the people working in nuclear power plants are Navy nuclear experts and engineers.
Some in Australia see the nuclear submarines deal as a marker to restart the debate on having nuclear power in the country. Others are vehemently against nuclear power. Many laws and regulations are still in place to put a check on nuclear power in the country. However, as climate change concerns continue to increase, there could be an increasing drive towards nuclear power in the country.
Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions. The major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nuclear fuel cycle is in uranium mining. Australia has very high per capita greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the emissions from its massive energy exports are added to the equation. Most of its domestic emissions are from the burning of coal, natural gas, oil, and oil products.
Environmentalism is growing in Australia. Recent droughts, fires, floods, and heatwaves are spurring this on. The options for lower emissions fuels do not include coal and oil, unless there are gigantic, and very expensive, programs for carbon capture and storage, CCS, and carbon capture and utilization, CCU.
The energy transition in Australia may include further moves towards natural gas, but that would cut into one of its greatest exports, LNG. The energy transition in Australia will likely include renewables, for which it has massive potential. However, renewables are intermittent and there will be a giant need for energy storage and demand management if Australia decides to take this path.
With nuclear power as part of its energy transition, Australia would have another way of reducing its carbon emissions. Nuclear power is a baseload that runs 24/7, except during refueling and maintenance.
Nuclear power can have capacity factors well into the 90s. Renewables are not even close. Nuclear power could help stabilize the electricity grids of the country. It could help with the energy security, energy reliability, and energy resilience of the country. Nuclear power is over time, and on average, contrary to many media and other reports, one of the safest and least polluting sources of energy.
Retiring coal plants, and many are scheduled for retirement and have been retired, can be repurposed as nuclear plants in some places. The transition from coal to natural gas and renewables could be complemented with a transition from coal to nuclear power. Nuclear power could increase the diversity of the energy transition.
A nuclear power option that Australia could consider is small modular reactors. These produce smaller amounts of nuclear power than the standard plants. They can be built upon as modular, like building blocks, and when an area needs more power, they can be added in. They can have passive safety features well beyond the standard nuclear power plants. Next to this, they have a much lower proliferation risk.
It could be years before SMRs can be deployed anywhere in the world in large numbers, but many of the questions about standard reactors can be answered with SMRs. They are not the perfect answer, but in a world increasingly concerned about the effects of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane, for many countries, nuclear will be close to a requirement in their energy transitions. Australia has lots of renewable energy potential, but it may be worth it to bring up nuclear once again.
Australia needs energy security, energy reliability, and energy resiliency. It also needs environmental security, environmental reliability, and environmental resilience. Australia has had some very rough times with fires, floods, droughts, storms, and more. Climate change is happening. Australia can be part of the problem or part of the solution.