Banish the ban

One of the best (or worst) examples of our national inability to think straight about a reliable electricity strategy for Australia in a world hell-bent on reducing carbon emissions is the ongoing legislative ban on any form of nuclear energy production despite years of safe operation of a 20 megawatt reactor at Sydney’s Lucas Heights (for medicinal and research purposes).

John Howard had a stab at turning things round in 2006 with a task force chaired by Ziggy Switkowski which told him that nuclear power here could become competitive with fossil fuel-based generation in Australia if based on international best practice and with the introduction of low to moderate pricing of carbon dioxide emissions. Without a carbon price, such generation would be 20 to 50 per cent more expensive to produce than coal-fired power. The panel also said that, with deployment starting in 2020, it was conceivable a third of national power supply could be nuclear by 2050.

As we know, Howard lost office the following year and, for a time, we got a carbon price but there was no way that federal Labor (ever looking over its shoulder at the Greens) would embrace nuclear energy.

Then the Fukushima fiasco in Japan in 2011 made any such idea politically untenable here for years, but more recently a royal commission in South Australia proposed that the local legal prohibitions on nuclear power should be removed, suggesting the technology has potential to contribute to supply after 2030.

Commissioner Kevin Scarce recommended in 2016 “the development of a comprehensive national energy policy, which would enable all technologies, including nuclear, to contribute to a reliable, low-carbon electricity network at the lowest possible system cost.”

It would be fair to say, I think, that the nuclear bit did not gain even tepid consideration in the mainstream energy debate and then the “energy crisis” swept us all in to fresh fields.

Last year’s Finkel panel report, sparked by the South Australian blackout, irked advocates of a new approach here to nuclear energy by, in effect, failing to acknowledge it could have a role – but the New South Wales Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, subsequently caused a minor stir by declaring a debate on the issue was “crucial.” (Interestingly Premier Gladys Berejiklian, while saying she was “not convinced” reactors could play a role in NSW, declared she was open to discussing the issue at CoAG.)

The Minerals Council is maintaining pressure for a change of approach, telling the Turnbull government in its latest pre-budget submission that the ongoing ban is “hampering debate about future energy and climate change management,” noting that the policy is “at odds with Australia’s export uranium mining industry.”

The MCA adds that small modular reactors could offer a long-term stable electricity supply to underpin household and industrial needs in mining and other remote towns. The association argues that a new generation of venture-capital backed nuclear start-ups are coming through, with designs for smaller reactors with significantly reduced up-front costs.

This led the Sydney Morning Herald to run a story last week asserting that both critics and supporters of nuclear power “see little future for large-scale (generation) in Australia’s energy mix,” quoting Switkowski as acknowledging that “the window (here) for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed.”

And this led my friend Barry Murphy to pen a short letter to the SMH which apparently has been ignored.

This is what Murphy, former chairman and CEO of Caltex Australia and former chairman of Delta Electricity, an advocate for the use of small modular reactors, wrote: “It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry about Australia’s confused position on nuclear power. The Minerals Council’s call to have the federal ban on this technology lifted makes good sense. The (energy) minister apparently agrees with this position, but bipartisan and State support is “…not evident right now. “  So nothing happens.

“The continuing obfuscation on this issue is putting Australia’s long-term clean energy portfolio at risk. Current developments with solar and wind (both dependent on electromagnetic radiation from nuclear reactions on the sun) and batteries will all play a part, but issues of scale, timing, cost and reliability will have to be assessed for the longer term. Deliberately refusing to look at how nuclear technology in its modern, smaller, modular form could provide a secure base for these renewables is a mistake. No one in their right mind would put a realistic proposal on the table while ever the ban remains in place. Memo to COAG Energy Council: banish the ban.”

I’m with Murphy on this – and also with the Energy Policy Institute when it argues (as it did in the wake of the Finkel report last year): “Recourse to all new technologies should be part and parcel of strategic energy planning.”

Nuclear power poses a particular dilemma for energy planners, EPIA says – it is a dispatchable, base-load form of zero-emissions power but its deployment in Australia is subject to a moratorium. “One might have thought that each State wishing to introduce a new technology, such as small modular reactors, should have the right to do so with appropriate safety and environmental regulation.”

EPIA executive director Robert Pritchard suggests that places like Ipswich, Mount Isa, Broken Hill, Olympic Dam and the Pilbara could all host SMRs a decade from now if the ban is banished. He says the start of a discussion here should not be about the technology – “that’s a given” – but about community support. “We now realise that politicians will follow the community view,” Pritchard said. “We have to get out and get the community on side.”

Sydney-based SMR Nuclear Technology, of which Pritchard is a director, sent a submission to the Energy Security Board in November declaring it will be “imprudent” not to factor the technology in to its thinking.

SMRs with unity capacity of 50 to 300 megawatts would be particularly suitable for the east coast grid, the company says, arguing that the current national legislative prohibitions were put in place “at a time when there was no real appreciation of the contribution that modern, safe nuclear power plants could make to energy security, affordability and emissions reduction in Australia,”

It seems to me that the appropriate launching pad for a discussion specifically about SMRs in the NEM is the CoAG Energy Council when it next meets in April and the appropriate vehicle for pursuing further consideration is the Energy Security Board.

Time to end the obfuscation?

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