Explanation: Should Australia build nuclear power plants to tackle the climate crisis? | Energy


A few weeks before the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, politicians and commentators once again suggested that Australia consider nuclear energy as part of its future electricity grid.

Although renewables may meet 100% of demand by 2025 at certain times of the day at current rates of advance – a trend that could be reinforced with the active support of the federal government – the prospect of a nuclear power plant Australian still weighs heavily in public opinion. conversation.

Here is what we know about the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power in an Australian context.

Why has nuclear power never been adopted in Australia?

Australian governments have always talked about building nuclear power plants, but never really followed through. While Australia holds 31% of the world’s uranium supply, it has always been cheaper to rely on a sea of ​​cheap coal, gas and oil for electricity. Australia’s only nuclear reactor, at Lucas Heights, south of Sydney, is used for scientific and medical research and produces mainly low-level waste.

Why has the idea been relaunched now?

Nuclear power seems to solve a political dilemma. Since it does not depend on fossil fuels, some who care about the climate emergency see it as the fastest way to deliver zero carbon energy. Others, who rightly point out that the abandonment of fossil fuels will hit workers’ regions hardest, see in the “distributable power” offered by nuclear reactors the basis of a new social pact that will pay high wages while at the same time. “Firming” the network.

On Monday, BHP’s vice president of sustainability and climate, Dr Fiona Wild, called on Australia to consider nuclear due to the urgency of the threat of climate collapse.

“We don’t have time to pick our favorite technologies anymore, we kind of have to take an ‘all of the above’ approach because the challenge is so big and the pace at which we have to move forward is so fast as you want it to be. to make sure all of these options are available, ”Wild said.

Australian newspaper editor Judith Sloan on Tuesday defended the “fate of nuclear energy” by calling for a rational debate on the merits of adopting the technology.

“As an energy crisis affects most of the world, with the prices of gas, coal and electricity soaring, it is certainly time for Australia to have a rational debate on nuclear energy leading to a definitive result, ”Sloan said.

Do the costs and benefits make sense?

The idea of ​​creating a nuclear energy industry has been periodically studied by governments. South Australia did its homework for the rest of the nation in 2015 with a royal commission. A federal parliamentary inquiry followed in 2019.

The results have been mixed. The royal commission concluded that nuclear power was out of reach. The federal inquiry recommended that such a project should only be implemented if there was broad public support – an extremely unlikely prospect. While both reports agreed that the “next generation” reactors hold promise, nuclear power as a whole has remained a sink of time and money.

By 2019, the cost of a nuclear power plant had risen to $ 1 billion per 100 MW of generating capacity. Building a factory on a commercial scale would take at least 15 years. If Australia had started work on a nuclear reactor before the pandemic, it would not be operational until around 2035. The small or “modular” reactors that are considered the future of the industry will not be affordable until 2050.

Could they help reduce emissions?

Nuclear power is not carbon neutral. While the act of generating electricity itself is quite efficient and low-emitting, the process of mining uranium, trucking it somewhere to be refined, and pouring concrete to build it. he factory creates significant emissions. As uranium is a finite resource, nuclear energy is not “renewable” either.

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Renewables, of course, share similar issues as many other systems still rely on fossil fuels – wind towers require steel, solar PV cells need resins, everything relies on diesel to transport it. – but the total CO2 emissions are minimal and the rapid installation speed enables these processes to be better decarbonized more quickly than with nuclear power. With cheap solar PV power and rapid improvements in hydrogen and battery technology, this will only get easier.

What if we stabilize the network?

Critics of renewable energy sources say they lack the ability to meet times of high demand for electricity with “distributable power” on calm, cloudy days because they rely on wind and sun. Nuclear power, it is argued, can be an effective substitute for the industrial scale fossil fuel power plants currently in use that can idle according to demand.

The problems with renewable energies are real, but they are becoming less and less of an obstacle. Plans are already underway to make Australia’s electricity grid more decentralized with a combination of photovoltaic solar panels, offshore wind turbines and onshore wind turbines allowing any slack in the system to be recovered when disconnected. With the addition of battery technology to store and deliver electricity on demand, the business case for nuclear is starting to look pretty slim.

The challenge of renewable energies

With the adoption of rooftop photovoltaic solar power, it is more expensive for coal and gas-fired power plants to continue operating during periods of low demand and high supply. Operators are faced with a choice: push or turn off. In Australia, operators of aging coal-fired power plants have so far chosen to go ahead, but as periods of oversupply become more frequent, costs will make it more attractive to shut down the generator. Turning them back on is another expensive process – not shared by renewables, which can be turned on or off quickly.

Australia is far from peaking in renewables, and it’s time to address the challenges associated with it long before a nuclear power plant has a chance to pull it off on a whiteboard. If current trends continue, innovating today on a new nuclear power plant would mean committing to a white elephant that would even cost too much to light.

Other problems ?

All this without even talking about plans to deal with the dismantling of old nuclear reactors at the end of their life cycle or the storage of used nuclear fuel – another very expensive and time consuming process. Australia is already struggling to dismantle and rehabilitate old mining sites, but nuclear power presents new challenges.

There are currently few good facilities in the world with a sufficiently stable geology or political environment to store this material for the long term. During its royal commission, South Australia considered building its own facility to store the waste, but failed to gain public support in part thanks to the legacy of nuclear weapons testing at Maralinga.

The federal government is currently working on a separate plan for the construction of a storage facility for low-level and intermediate waste at Kimba in South Australia, but the process turned out to divide. Under the current proposal, this facility would not be equipped to process used nuclear fuel, and upgrading it would be like starting all over again.

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