Shortcuts / 09 May 2024

The nuclear power debate

Nuclear power has been back in the news lately, with the Coalition announcing it wants it to be part of Australia’s energy mix. It’s far from a new idea, and while many countries have embraced it to generate their power cleanly and cheaply, Australia is still debating it. So we’ll look at what nuclear power is, how it could work in Australia, and whether it could be a realistic solution for our energy needs.

Nuclear power isn’t a new issue…

No, it’s not. This has been bubbling away for decades and the Coalition has pushed several times in the past for nuclear power to be a part of Australia’s energy mix. We know Anthony Albanese’s government is all about transitioning from coal to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But Coalition leader Peter Dutton has again raised the possibility of nuclear power for Australia by building nuclear reactors on the sites of existing coal stations. 

I’m a bit vague on nuclear power…

Fair. Let’s start with what it is and how it’s produced. This will be a bit of a chemistry lesson, so lab coats at the ready… Nuclear energy is found in the nucleus (or the core) of atoms, which are the tiny particles that make up all matter in the universe. To make electricity, energy has to be released from those atoms.

How is that achieved?

In two ways: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. The one we’re interested in is fission and that’s where the atoms are split apart and turned into heat, which boils water and produces steam. The steam then turns huge turbines which drive generators to make electricity. 

Cool, then what?

Afterwards, the steam is cooled back down into water, which can be used again and again. One of the good things about nuclear-generated power is that it produces no harmful greenhouse gases and it’s extremely efficient. One tiny uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one tonne of coal, 560 litres of oil, or 13.5 cubic metres of natural gas.

Tell me more about uranium…

It’s used because its atoms are the easiest of all the elements to split during fission which is done in a nuclear reactor with lots of safety measures in place. 

Safety is a big issue, right?

Yes, safety is a thing that comes up over and over again in the nuclear energy debate… Basically, the uranium needs to be kept cool because if it melts it can cause radioactive material to be released. That’s extremely toxic and dangerous to people and the environment. So the waste produced by that process is radioactive and has to be carefully stored. 

Sounds a bit scary…

The world’s grappled with how best to do that, and plenty of options have been investigated – at one stage America even looked at launching it into outer space. But the safest agreed way is to store it underwater for at least 5 years and after that in dry storage deep underground. And despite the dangers, more than 50 countries around the world get at least some of their electricity from nuclear energy. 

Oh really,?

Yes, so 32 of those countries operate their own nuclear reactors and some import the energy from their neighbours. Countries who’ve embraced nuclear energy include the UK, America, Canada, China and Russia. But only 5 nations – Ukraine, Slovakia, Belgium, Hungary and France – use their own nuclear power plants to generate the majority of their electricity needs.

Who’s the most into it?

France has the highest output, with nuclear covering 70% of its power generation. When you add it all up, around 10% of the world’s electricity is now sourced from nuclear power plants. And some nations are looking for more…

Like who?

This year, the US, India and the United Arab Emirates are getting in on the action with new or expanding nuclear power programs, and more reactors are scheduled to be built in China and Russia next year. It’s worth nothing that the countries that operate nuclear power plants have a raft of protections in place and most have signed on to an international agreement called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That stipulates the peaceful use of nuclear energy and prevents the spread of nuclear weapons.

What is the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons?

The main thing to note is the process of making nuclear power produces a by-product called plutonium which is used in nuclear weapons – and some anti-nuclear campaigners believe the spread of nuclear power plants puts the world more at risk of another nuclear attack.

That would be bad, right?

Er yes, that would be catastrophic. If you’ve watched Oppenheimer recently you’ll know why. It depicts the development of the nuclear warhead used by the US in the horrific bombing of Hiroshima at the end of WWII which killed 200,000 Japanese people. And there have been other nuclear-related disasters not involving weapons…

When did that happen? 

In 1986, an explosion in a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, killed 28 people and injured 100, while the UN has predicted that up to 11,000 people could die from cancers caused by radiation sickness linked to that disaster. And in 2011, a radiation leak at a reactor in Fukushima, Japan, contaminated the environment and forced 164,000 people to relocate.

Sounds like nuclear energy is dangerous stuff… 

It can be, and the uranium used to generate it is a non-renewable resource, meaning there’s only so much on the planet. Australia happens to have a lot of it, so there’s long been debates about Australia getting into nuclear power. 

Do we use nuclear power now?

At the moment we don’t use nuclear power at all for electricity here in Australia. In fact, there are laws against it. So instead, we get around 61% of our power from coal and gas, and renewables like wind and solar make up the remaining 39%. 

What does that mean for our emissions target?

There’s still a lot of work to do if the government is going to hit the target of net zero emissions by 2050. And on that – the Albanese Government has committed to cutting our emissions to 43% of those in 2005 by the year 2030. 

So we’re all agreed on that? 

Not quite. Coalition Leader Peter Dutton has stopped short of agreeing to that 2030 target, but he says they’re committed to achieving the 2050 goal of net zero emissions. Dutton says switching to nuclear power would rapidly cut Australia’s emissions and cost of living, while saving us from falling behind the rest of the G20 – which is a group of nations that represent some of the world’s major economies, all of which are using nuclear power to generate at least some of their electricity. 

Why are we the odd ones out?

This isn’t the first time the idea of nuclear power has been floated in Australia… It’s been debated since the 1950s when our first – and only – nuclear reactor was built in Lucas Heights, NSW. In 1970, the Coalition government under John Gorton was set to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay in NSW but the price tag (an exorbitant $2.4 million) put off governments that followed, and the plan was axed in favour of coal-powered generation plants. Then came the Chernobyl disaster… So the world was a bit spooked and attitudes against nuclear power in Australia hardened. 

Was that a turning point?

Yep. In 1998, Greens Senator and environmentalist Bob Brown lobbied the Howard Government to ban any future development of nuclear power plants in Australia through an amendment to our nuclear law.

So what goes on at the Lucas Heights reactor?

It’s a working nuclear facility that doesn’t produce power. It’s mostly used now for research and making the radioactive dye that is used to diagnose cancers and other diseases. And there are plans to turn it into a large-scale nuclear medicine factory by the mid-2030s. It’s also where the majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored.

So what does Dutton want?

Well, none of that is to the scale that Dutton has in mind – but we don’t know a lot about the Coalition’s nuclear policy. There’s not a lot of detail available, other than the Coalition backing a plan to replace the current network of coal-fired power stations with small, modular nuclear reactors. That’s certainly what Dutton originally said but lately he’s widened that to conventionally sized reactors – and most of them are earmarked for seats currently held by Liberal or National MPs. 

So there’s a list of where these might be located?

Not yet, and look, not all of Dutton’s colleagues are happy about that… There have been reports saying some Coalition MPs won’t support the policy, or for that matter, a nuclear reactor in their electorates if their constituents are against it. 

But Dutton is still committed? 

Yes, Dutton believes community attitudes to nuclear energy have changed. He’s banking on poll results that show young Australians aged 18 to 34 support the use of small nuclear reactors to replace coal, and an average of 55% of all voters are in favour of the idea. But the government’s not onboard… 

Oh really?

Energy Minister Chris Bowen says Dutton’s plan is “fantasy wrapped in a delusion accompanied by a pipe dream” and there’s no way Australia can make nuclear happen in time to meet our climate targets. 

What does the Coalition say about the targets?

Dutton says we can go nuclear by the mid-2030s and he’s used the United Arab Emirates as an example of a country that’s taken 10 years to build its new reactor. But experts in the field have pointed out that the UAE is an autocracy that brought in workers from undeveloped countries to achieve that. 

Ooh, that sounds bad…

Yes, there are a lot of hurdles to clear and a lot of ifs involved, and we’re not going to know the finer details of Dutton’s energy plan until after the May Budget. So for the moment, the nation is forging ahead with the Albanese government’s plan of replacing coal energy with renewables and keeping nuclear power restricted to a few submarines we’ve ordered. 

What submarines?

They’re the nuclear submarines being built for Australia through the AUKUS security deal. They’ll be powered by nuclear energy using small onboard reactors to generate power, without relying on diesel fuel or batteries. 

Subs with nukes?

To be clear – they’re not going to contain nuclear weapons. But the deal does require Australia to manage and store the nuclear waste generated from the subs. The government says that will be done at defence sites around the country. 

Squiz recommends:

This article by Michelle Grattan published in The Conversation and the ABC gives a bit of historical context for the Coalition’s nuclear policy and why it’s an unusual one for Dutton.

The podcast episode: Could Australia Go Nuclear? from The Guardian’s Full Story gives a good idea of the numbers and the time needed to go nuclear.

Chernobyl on Binge is a great series from a few years ago that really explains how that disaster unfolded. Or of course, Oppenheimer on Netflix if you haven’t seen that yet.

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