Let’s talk NICE

“Members of government, federal and State, would prefer that I was not here tonight,” New South Wales Acting Premier John Barilaro told an Energy Policy Institute of Australia forum in Sydney on Wednesday evening.

Why? The National Party leader and State Deputy Premier was speaking about nuclear power and his Coalition colleagues, it seems, had been in contact to say they would prefer not to have an additional wrinkle added to an already fraught energy debate.

Barilaro, who will pursue re-election in the NSW poll next March in the seat of Monaro where he has a 2.5 per cent margin, is unabashed by their concerns. “We would be crazy not to have a conversation about nuclear,” he declared at the EPIA forum.

But he was equally blunt in telling the institute audience that those favoring inclusion of nuclear in the generation mix – or as EPIA’s Robert Pritchard points out, calling for a technology-neutral stance that does not explicitly ban nuclear – can’t expect the running to be made by politicians; supporters will have to generate a public attitude to banish the ban that influences action in Canberra (it is federal legislation that bars the fuel) as well as NSW, Victoria and Queensland (collectively home to most electricity use) where there are also laws effectively prohibiting nuclear power.

There is actually a private member’s bill (put forward by conservative Cory Bernardi) in the Senate at present proposing amending the federal legislation but nuclear proponents are not especially hopeful it is going anywhere.

Barilaro’s view echoes that of a former Coalition federal minister, Ian Macdonald, who told the Senate last November when the bill was being discussed: “Any decision to establish a nuclear power plant would, given the way the Australian political system works at the moment, require bipartisan support and community acceptance. I would imagine that community acceptance could be garnered if the debate were truthful, but you will have the Greens political party and those on the left of the Labor Party coming out with horror stories about what nuclear may or may not do.”

Barilaro, who went to a conference in Atlanta, Georgia, recently, bases his own pro-nuclear stance on the view that the developments in technology on show there – notably moves towards commercial viability of small modular reactors, plants of 300 megawatts or less capacity – offers Australia an opportunity to “delink” the debate from past fears and inhibitions. His selling point seems to be the newest nuclear technology is still five to 10 years away from being ready for installation here, bearing in mind the regulatory changes that would be needed, and we should take advantage of this time to ensure that Australia is ready to embrace the best generation arrangements to meet our “political, environmental and energy needs” in the next decade.

Hailing the “national energy guarantee” (focus of a critical CoAG Energy Council debate tomorrow) as an appropriate strategic tool that doesn’t seek to push any particular technology, he asks “why, then, wouldn’t you have nuclear as part of the consideration?”

Barilaro peppers his conversations about the nuclear option, including a number of recent radio interviews, with references to the very different approach to the issue in Canada.

As it happens, I have just been reading a report about the federal government there using its Natural Resources Canada agency to launch a process to prepare a roadmap (to be published later this year) for on- and off-grid applications of small modular reactors. NRC is charged with developing policies and programs to enhance the contributions of the natural resources sector to the Canadian economy.

The Trudeau government is also launching a “NICE Future” initiative next month. “NICE” stands for “nuclear innovation clean energy” and the program is a joint effort involving Canada, Japan, the US, Argentina, Poland, Russia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

The Trudeau regime says “nuclear energy is an important part of Canada’s clean energy and climate change initiatives and, beyond energy, the nuclear sector contributes to a wide range of other scientific and economic activities such as medicine, human health and safety, material testing, food safety, even space exploration.”

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, a key player in this new technology push, sees SMRs as being the sector’s future internationally, arguing that they can be employed in places where their behemoth ancestors simply can’t get a foothold, that they have relatively low up-front costs and that they can be linked with other forms of energy production, including intermittent renewables, as well as with water desalination.

Running supportive public relations, the Canadian Nuclear Association lobby group argues that, as well, when considering the entire power life cycle, including construction, mining, operations and decommissioning, nuclear is one of the cleanest power technologies available. (Canadians, by the way, get 15 per cent of their electricity from large nuclear reactors today – compared with the European Union depending on the technology for 25 per cent of its power.)

Where all this is going locally remains to be seen. Pritchard, a lawyer who is chairman of a company called SMR Nuclear Technology as well as executive director of EPIA, says “if the community doesn’t want (nuclear), we are not going to have it – end of story.”

Barilaro’s message last night is that those in the resources sector who believe nuclear power must be reconsidered as part of the Australian power scene should get their skates on and work harder to promote the facts about the technology and its usefulness in addressing our “energy crisis” to enable planning for NEM’s post-coal era to take it in to account.

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