It’s time?

The Hansard reports of Senate Estimates hearings can at least sometimes make for interesting reading (and just as often serve as a cure for insomnia). I trawl them for energy-related discussion because occasionally they throw up a point worth noting.

One such in May was the quiz of officers of the Department of Environment & Energy with Senator Simon Birmingham (the Education Minister and manager of government business in the Senate) sitting in for Josh Frydenberg (who belongs to the “other place.”)

What caught my eye was an exchange on nuclear power with Liberal senator Eric Abetz wanting to know if anyone in the department was looking at the technology? And, he was quick to add, at high efficiency, low emissions coal generation?

Short answer: no. (Although, officials pointed out, when such issues come up, the minister – Frydenberg – may call for a briefing.)

It needs to be noted here that the government is, of course, engaged in a raft of activities relating to energy supply and climate change policies – but, despite its potential to deliver non-emitting electricity, not nuclear power even though we are the planet’s third-largest producer of uranium.

The last time I saw Frydenberg say anything on the technology was back in January when he answered a newspaper inquiry by stating that pursuing it would require bipartisan support – which doesn’t exist. Last September he told The Australian:Any investigation would need a long-dated timeframe and would unlikely address the more immediate issues of affordability and reliability.”

This short-term outlook at government level – and some will argue it is a short-sighted attitude that should not endure – perhaps can be set alongside the current initiative overseas to promote the use of nuclear by the US, Japan, Canada, Russia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Poland, Argentina and Romania, a clique that doesn’t (at least yet) include France or China. This was launched at last month’s gathering in Copenhagen of the Clean Energy Ministerial – an international talking shop to which Australia belongs and whose 24-nation members plus the European Union are responsible for 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It can also be evaluated alongside an International Energy Agency commentary that notes 33,000 megawatts of new nuclear power has been connected to grids around the world in five years (with China accounting for two-thirds of this) while 18,000 MW has been shut down permanently. The IEA expects the Chinese to approve eight new reactors this year and says it is likely total global capacity will be 438,000 MW by 2020 although more uncertain that this fleet can then be expanded to 490,000 MW by 2025 as was previously being foreseen, largely because of retirements of aged reactors.

(I see reported elsewhere that China has named exporting its nuclear skills as one of 16 national science and technology priorities.)

The IEA also comments on the efforts being made to reduce barriers to nuclear development by cutting back investment risk, increasing safety features and promoting small modular reactors (the generic name for plants of 300 MW or less which offer greater opportunities for factory fabrication).

Five SMRs are under construction around the world at present and May saw GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy announce that it and Dominion Energy (one of the largest US electricity and gas utilities) are to pursue work to commercialize its BWRX-300 reactor, which it declares will be “more efficient, simpler, safer and needing a fraction of the footprint of the current fleet of light water plants.”

GEH asserts that this SMR could require 60 per cent less capital cost per megawatt than other water-cooled designs “which would make it cost-competitive with combined cycle gas and renewables.”

Given the amount of angst here and overseas about nuclear power safety, it is also worth pointing out that SMRs are designed not to melt down; they shut and cool off in an emergency.

The issue at home, it seems to me, is not whether there should be some sudden lunge here to build nuclear plants, of whatever size, but whether there should continue to be a blanket ban on even considering doing so?

Part of the political block against this rests on the belief that there are “deep community objections” to the technology’s use here – but is this really the case? Feedback from colleagues – admittedly interested parties strongly favoring nuclear – suggests there is quite a lot of support in the community for at least considering lifting the ban.

How to test this is an issue for political leaders and they are for the most part missing in action in this space. The question they should be asking themselves is how well the long-term national interest is being addressing by shying away from this debate?

The advice I get is that, if the legislative roadblock is cleared away, the first SMRs could be in operation here by 2030 – which is the time horizon of choice for a whole raft of stakeholders wanting to see Australia on a different carbon emissions path.

Between 2030 and 2035, according to overseas commentaries, global installation of SMRs could lie between 55,000 and 75,000 megawatts.

It’s also being suggested to me that SMRs could be twinned with pumped hydro in Australia in an approach to expand “clean” power as the existing coal-burning fleet reaches closing time.

Whatever, it is surely time for the issue of nuclear energy in Australia to again be given some serious thought at leadership levels rather than to continue to be the plaything of theoretical discussion littered with ideological baggage.

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