Kickstarting a conversation

A comment by Josh Frydenberg as the Coalition government surfs the new political waves created by the emergence on its backbench of the “Monash Forum” devoted to lobbying for investment in coal-fired power deserves to be highlighted but not for the reason he intended.

Interviewed on Sky News, Frydenberg, apart from emphasizing the ongoing role for existing coal-burning generation in the grid, declared “unless we capitalize on new innovations and technology we won’t be able to ensure a more reliable system.”

The federal Environment & Energy Minister, of course, is referring to a variety of renewables-related technologies, but the quote begs another question and one that is likely to be a bit more high profile before April is over.

That question is “why not nuclear?” (still a “prohibited technology” in this country) and the Energy Policy Institute of Australia is staging a forum in Sydney mid-month to promote a new approach – with the New South Wales Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, as the keynote speaker.

EPIA asks “can small modular nuclear reactors be a game-changer for our power system?” This is an issue that is also getting attention in North America, France, China and elsewhere as we travel in to the third decade of the century and along the energy transition brick road.

Barilaro is just back from a nuclear conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The event was notable for Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology organization, announcing that it plans to be a world leader in advancing SMRs and to have at least one operating on a CNL site by 2026.

The organization sums up the SMR case in just two paragraphs:

“As a low-carbon source of energy, small modular reactors are well-aligned with global desire to reduce our carbon footprint; both smaller in size and in energy output. SMRs are considered ideal for deployment both on-grid and off-grid in remote locations such as mine sites as well as communities reliant on diesel-fueled generators for electricity. In addition, these technologies can be utilized in other industrial applications such as production of hydrogen, local area heating or process heating systems.

“Increasingly over the past decade, SMRs have also been recognized as a potential alternative to large-scale nuclear reactors. They offer several advantages over traditional technologies, including a reduced size and power output better suited for some applications; the ability to purchase and construct in a modular way, which decreases up-front capital costs; simpler, less complex plants; and a reduced staff complement. SMRs retain the positive attributes of traditional nuclear reactors, including the safe and reliable production of energy with limited emission of greenhouse gases. There are many different SMR concepts, ranging from technologically mature advancements of today’s water-cooled reactors to more advanced reactors based on Generation IV nuclear technologies.”

Put still more succinctly, the case for SMRs is that they offer carbon-free power 24/7 with a relatively tiny land footprint and can be operated safely and flexibly to integrate with weather-driven renewables.

Barilaro, who also visited the US Department of Energy on his trip and talked to American companies working on Generation IV technology, told the Atlanta meeting that Australia needs to have a new discussion about nuclear power “and we need to have it now.”

It won’t come as a huge surprise that NSW Labor see this as another opportunity for wedge politics, declaring a shift to nuclear “will tarnish the State’s clean and green image” and demanding Premier Gladys Berejiklian rule out recourse to the technology. As well, Federal Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon contends that introducing a nuclear option in to the current debate “will only confuse and defer the policy settlement.”

The Minerals Council of Australia, meanwhile, is campaigning for the country to be open again to the use of nuclear power, arguing that a single amendment to federal legislation now banning it is all that is initially required – followed by work under our federated system on a regulatory pathway for adoption of the technology.  The MCA will be participating in the EPIA forum.

At the heart of the council’s approach is the principle that national energy and climate policy should deliver power at least cost in pursuing agreed abatement goals. “This means applying a technology-neutral approach to all energy sources while avoiding subsidies, quotas or other non-market-oriented interventions,” it told the Turnbull government as part of its submission on the 2018 federal budget.

Like everything else to do with electricity supply at present, discussion of prospects here for nuclear power (of the SMR variety) is mired in politics but I am ad idem with a friend with long experience in the energy sector at senior executive level who emailed me back in January on this particular issue: “I realize that any government with a one-seat majority does not have a lot of political capital it can put at risk but this is not about trying to fix immediate short-term issues such as the NEG, looming shortages in supply, etcetera – it is really about trying to remove an anti-science, anti-knowledge, authoritarian impediment to proper investigation of what just might turn out to be a vital part of our economic future. Many other countries, especially in the developing world are doing exactly this.”

Barilaro said something similar in a Facebook commentary last October when he declared that “fear of media backlash” is crippling political leaders’ capacity to have tough public conversations on big issues such as energy security and affordability. He called for governments to be prepared to discuss all solutions “without fear of political repercussions.”

There hasn’t been a public discussion that enables the community to be better aware of nuclear technology advancements, he added.

This month’s EPIA forum will be doing its bit, with Barilaro’s support, to kickstart a new conversation on the issue.

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