The prospect of nuclear power in Australia has been a topic of public debate since the 1950s. While we have never had a nuclear power station, we do have 33% of the world’s uranium deposits and we are the world’s third largest producer of it. Periodically, as with the changing of the seasons, various individuals appear in the media singing the virtues of nuclear energy onshore – claiming it is the only option for clean and reliable electricity in Australia. In fact, nuclear power in Australia makes no sense and wasting time and energy debating it is a distraction from genuine climate action.
read CSIRO’s latest explainer on the question of nuclear here
Why doesn’t nuclear power make sense for Australia?
- Nuclear power stations can’t be built anywhere in Australia. They are banned in every state, and in every territory. Such bans were introduced because of community concerns about the health and environmental risks. Many parliamentary inquiries at a federal and state level – see this Victorian Inquiry, this Federal Inquiry, and this South Australian Inquiry for instance – have been held into nuclear, and all have concluded that nuclear power makes no sense in Australia.
- Nuclear power stations are expensive and take too long to build. CSIRO says by far the lowest cost way of producing electricity is with solar and wind even when factoring in storage. In contrast, the costs of building and operating nuclear in Australia remain prohibitively high. Further, analysis conducted by the nuclear industry itself shows nuclear power stations take an average of 9.4 years to build – compared to 1–3 years for a major wind or solar project. Australia needs to replace its ageing coal-fired power stations as quickly as possible, and should be slashing its emissions by 75% this decade. As shown in the Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated System Plan, by far the cheapest and quickest way to do this is to ramp up renewable energy paired with storage like pumped hydro, and batteries.
- Nuclear power poses significant community, environmental, health and economic risks. Radiation from major nuclear disasters, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, have impacted hundreds of thousands of people and contaminated vast areas that take decades to clean up. Even when a nuclear power station operates as intended it creates a long-term and prohibitively expensive legacy of site remediation, fuel processing and radioactive waste storage. They are also water hungry – requiring massive quantities of water for ongoing operations.
- Nuclear power is not renewable. Uranium is a finite resource just like coal, oil and gas. It needs to be mined which can have widespread effects – contaminating the environment with radioactive dust, radon gas, water-borne toxins, and increased levels of background radiation.
Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest countries on earth, with enough renewable energy to power resources to power our country 500 times over. Building large-scale wind and solar projects is the cheapest way of producing electricity here, even when paired with storage. It is also low risk, renewable and non-polluting. The bottom line is – nuclear power is the slowest, most expensive, most dangerous and least flexible form of new power generation for Australia. It makes no sense. So let’s stop wasting time, and get on with building more renewables.
Nuclear Power Plant Isar II, Bavaria, Germany. Photo by Flickr user Brewbooks licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0)
What is a nuclear power station?
Nuclear power stations run on uranium. When the nucleus of a uranium molecule is split inside a reactor, heat is produced. This process is called nuclear fission. The heat produced from this process is used to create steam from water. The steam drives a turbine that powers a generator. The generator creates electricity.
Unlike coal and gas, no greenhouse gas pollution is created in the operation of the nuclear reactor. However, all other steps involved in producing nuclear power – from mining, to construction, decommissioning and waste management – result in greenhouse gas pollution.
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Case study: Hinkley Nuclear Power Station, United Kingdom
When this project was first being promoted, the CEO of British energy company EDF Vincent de Rivaz predicted that the Hinkley C nuclear power station could be switched on in 2017. It is currently slated to open in June 2026, almost a decade late even if this extended deadline is met.
Around the same time, the UK government priced the project at 4 billion UK pounds. It is now expected to cost between £22bn and £23bn.
The price for Hinkley’s electricity was fixed in a so-called “strike price” at £92 per megawatt-hour, rising with inflation. This won’t rise, even though the costs of building the project have gone up. However, that is still expensive energy when the latest offshore UK wind farms have agreed to strike prices of less than half that (around £40 per megawatt-hour).
Read more: BBC News
Meeting the climate challenge means taking bold and decisive action this decade with the technologies that are ready to go in Australia today. The significant limitations nuclear energy faces means that there is no real prospect of it playing a role in reducing Australia’s emissions.