What is nuclear power and how would a nuclear power system work in Australia?

Australia is on the dividing line between the urgent need to shore up the domestic electricity market and longer-term commitments to address the climate change crisis.
It is feared that by this time next year Australia will not have enough gas for households and businesses on the east coast. To avoid widespread blackouts in mid-June, regulators had to force more coal-fired power into the grid.

As Australia seeks ways to generate clean electricity nationwide, political attention has once again turned to one of the most maligned energy sources on the planet; nuclear energy.

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear power traditionally generates electricity by separating radioactive isotopes of uranium or plutonium in a reactor – a process called nuclear fission.

Australia, like most countries, is looking for new sources of renewable energy. Source: AAP

Water is often used to transfer heat to steam turbines, making the supply of cooling water essential to the operation of large nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases or other significant emissions, unlike construction, transportation of nuclear waste and decommissioning.

Is Australia exploring nuclear energy?

In one of his most important political moves as Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton campaigned for public debate on nuclear energy.
“It is high time Australia had an honest and informed debate about the benefits and costs of nuclear power,” Mr Dutton said earlier this month.

He announced that the Coalition would formally examine Australia’s potential to adopt “next generation nuclear technologies”.

Chart chart of world leaders in nuclear energy dependence.

France is at the top of the top 10 of the countries most dependent on nuclear energy. Source: SBS News

A renewed global focus has been placed on nuclear power in recent years, as the climate crisis forces governments to seek out low-emission energy sources. Nuclear power currently provides around 10% of the world’s electricity, but has been banned in Australia since 1998.

The United States is the largest producer of nuclear energy on the planet, while France generates about 70% of its electricity from nuclear power.

Around the world, feelings are mixed about the degree of confidence in nuclear energy.

Pierre Duton.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has urged Australia to consider nuclear power. Source: AAP

China further plans to more than double its nuclear capacity by the end of the decade as it strives to meet its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060. Germany has pledged to shut down the all of its 17 nuclear reactors by the end of 2022.

Could Australia have its own nuclear industry?

Climate Energy Finance director Tim Buckley said building a local nuclear industry would never be a realistic option for a country like Australia.

He said it was extremely expensive to build, Australia lacked the expertise and the public would never be comfortable with storing radioactive waste.

“It would be very charitable to think that Australia could have an operational nuclear power plant within the next 10 or even 20 years,” he said.

“I would absolutely bet against that odds. And the only way to do that is to fund the project with $20 billion or $30 billion in government funding.


Nuclear energy represents approximately 30% of French electricity.

One of the arguments in favor of nuclear is that it would capitalize on Australia’s huge stockpiles of uranium – a key ingredient in nuclear reactors.

“Australia is one of the biggest producers of uranium in the world right now, how can we be hypocritical and sell our uranium to other countries and not burn it here ourselves,” Buckley said. .

“My answer to that is – because we don’t have a nuclear industry.”

Chart showing the top 10 countries with the most nuclear reactors with the United States in the lead

Source: SBS News

Energy financial analyst Bruce Robertson said investing in conventional nuclear would be a waste of money for Australia.

“We have no expertise in building nuclear power plants, we have no expertise in operating them.

“We don’t have a lot of nuclear engineers – they don’t exist in Australia. So if we wanted to build a nuclear industry here, it’s going to take a very significant initial cost.”

Could Australia build a nuclear reactor?

Australia currently has only one nuclear reactor, which is a government-run facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. This reactor does not produce electricity – rather it is used to generate chemical elements used in medicine.

While Lucas Heights produces a relatively small amount of nuclear waste, there has been fierce debate in Australia over where it should be stored. Mr Buckley said this would only intensify with nuclear power on a commercial scale.

Graphic table of the five main countries constructing nuclear reactors.

China and India have the most nuclear reactors currently under construction. Source: SBS News

“Nuclear is a very, very controversial topic in the energy space,” he said.

“It’s clearly zero emissions – but it generates toxic waste, and there’s no solution to that. There are plenty of safer and cheaper alternatives.

A “new” type of nuclear energy?

Conventional nuclear energy uses a process called fission. This is when large, unstable atoms such as uranium are split apart. Nuclear fission can produce massive amounts of low-emission energy, but also results in significant amounts of radioactive waste.

Researchers have investigated whether another type of nuclear energy – called nuclear fusion – might be the answer instead.

Nuclear fusion reactor breaks energy record

The JET fusion reactor reached an important milestone earlier this year. Source: ABACA / ABACA/AP

Nuclear fusion generates energy by forcing smaller atoms together and produces only a tiny fraction of short-lived radiation.

University of Sydney nuclear physicist Joe Khachan said fusion energy essentially replicates the process by which the sun generates energy.

“The reason you want to do this is that unlike fission, which is the splitting of the atom, the fusion product is helium – it’s not a radioactive nucleus,” he said. he declares.
“So it’s a clean source of energy. The process does not produce greenhouse gases.

“The other benefit is that it’s durable for a very, very long time. And it’s very dense – you can have a lot of power in a very small space, day and night, regardless of geography, whatever be the weather conditions.

Earlier this year, scientists at the JET nuclear fusion laboratory in Oxfordshire, England achieved a major fusion breakthrough. The experiment only generated around 59 megajoules – enough power to boil 60 electric jugs – but it was hailed as a crucial proof of concept.

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The construction of the ITER fusion reactor in France should be completed in 2025. It will be the largest fusion reactor in the world. Source: Provided / ITER

If it can be scaled up, nuclear fusion promises virtually unlimited, emission-free energy.

Dr Adi Paterson is the former Chief Executive of the Australian Organization for Nuclear Science and Technology, one of the largest publicly funded research organizations in Australia. He is now working with an Australian start-up called HB11, which aims to commercialize nuclear fusion technology.
“I think people are starting to get really excited about it,” Dr. Paterson said.

“The electricity generation process can be more efficient, and the big advantage is that there is no waste.”

While nuclear fusion is incredibly promising, it has also proven technically frustrating. Researchers are still struggling to create the conditions under which nuclear fusion will produce more electricity than is needed to operate.
The world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor is currently under construction in the south of France, at a cost of over $21 billion.
Some 35 countries, including Australia, participated in the construction of the ITER reactor, one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world. Plagued by construction delays, it is now expected to start powering up in 2025.
Mr Buckley said nuclear fusion could be useful in the long term, but would not be ready soon enough to solve the immediate problems caused by global warming.
“When I was in childbirth 55 years ago, nuclear fusion was a decade away from commercialization,” Buckley said.

“And now – 55 years later – there’s only a decade or two left before commercialization.”

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