Australia has never had a nuclear power station but, as more focus is put on the move towards clean energy, the idea is gaining traction.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy has commenced an inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia. But Australia’s current ban on nuclear power stations would first need to be overturned to allow a plant here.
Dr Mark Ho, President of the Australian Nuclear Association (ANA), believes it is high time we revisited the ban.
“Nuclear is already contributing to one-third of the world’s low-carbon electricity. It’s a known quantity,” he said.
Figures from the World Nuclear Agency back him up. Nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity today, with 452 operating reactors providing 2563 TWh of electricity in 2018 — or 10 per cent of global electricity supply.
How ‘clean’ is nuclear energy?
All energy generation technologies create emissions over their lifecycle. These are generated during construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning.
Tony Irwin, the Chairman of Engineers Australia Sydney Division’s Nuclear Engineering Panel, said from a clean energy standpoint “nuclear stacks up”.
“It ticks the box for low emissions on a whole-of-life basis. It’s the same emissions — about 12 grams per kilowatt hour — as wind and less than solar,” he said.
This is supported by findings outlined in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report, produced by the South Australian Government in 2016. The report cites the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development in the United States, which undertook a peer-reviewed analysis and harmonisation of all earlier studies on carbon emissions from various electricity generation technologies.
It found the median estimates under the NREL analysis ranked the emissions of nuclear (12 grams carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour [gCO2-e/kWh]) within the range of solar photovoltaics (18-50 gCO2-e/kWh, depending on technology choice) and wind (12 gCO2-e/kWh).
Focusing more on nuclear power while we wait for efficiency and production improvements in renewable sources could be the way to meet current energy demands, Irwin said.
“If you look at the minimum demand in NSW, 6000 MW of power is required 24/7, all year round,” Irwin.
“I don’t think people understand the scale of the problem in terms of trying to replace this amount of power.”
For example, Irwin points to the solar farm at Coleambally, NSW. It’s currently the largest solar farm in Australia, with approximately 560,000 solar panels installed on 550 hectares of land, and capable of generating an estimated 380 GWh per year.
“Six thousand MW, 24 hours a day, is 52,560 GWh per year. You’d need more than a hundred of those solar plants just to meet the minimum demand besides all the peaks as well,” he said.
“Whereas modern nuclear has a capacity factor of 95 per cent independent of the weather. We think it can play a part going forward.”
However, Roger Dargaville, a Senior Lecturer in Resources Engineering with the Department of Civil Engineering at Monash University, is more confident of the standalone capability of renewables.
In 2018, the proportion of Australia’s total electricity generated from renewables passed 20 per cent for the first time, with clean energy contributing 21.3 per cent of total electricity generation. This was an increase compared to 2017, when renewables were responsible for 17 per cent of total electricity generation. And there’s more in the pipeline.
“As we approach the 2020 renewable energy target of at least 33,000 GWh per year, we have seen a rush of new projects. After that, most of the states have renewable targets of 50 per cent or more that, combined with the continuing falling prices of PV, should lead to a continuation of the trend.”
Dargaville said many published studies already show that 100 per cent renewable systems are technically achievable, cost-effective and reliable, without having to resort to nuclear power.
Time is of the essence to meet upcoming renewable energy targets. So how long would it actually take to build and deploy a nuclear power plant?
Should Australia legislate to allow a nuclear plant to be built here, Dargaville believes it could take as long as 20 years. But Irwin believes if we started today, we could have a plant up and running by 2030. He points to the development of NuScale Power in the US.
NuScale Power is breaking ground with its Small Modular Reactor (SMR) system. Each 60 MW SMR operates independently within a multi-module configuration. The SMR is built and assembled in a factory, then shipped to a prepared site for deployment, avoiding construction delays on site.
The problem of radioactive waste is another factor that needs to be addressed, said Dargaville, and it’s something that is usually front of mind for the public as well.
There’s no doubt he has a point, although, as Ho points out, great strides are being made in nuclear waste-handling.
“Australia is actually about to construct synthetic-rock sequestration technology to take care of radioactive waste from medical radiation isotopes,” he said, referring to ANSTO Synroc, a waste treatment technology designed to safely lock up nuclear waste.
“Some will see nuclear power stations as a good thing — another low-carbon tool in the toolbox that we need to combat climate change,” added Dargaville.
“Others will see it as a dangerous path to go down.”
Irwin is more optimistic.
“Removing Australia’s ban on nuclear power would see more career opportunities for engineers here, instead of going overseas,” he said.
“You want diversity, you want a mix; there’s no technology that has all the answers. The big question is what is the best mix going forward.”
The nuclear argument overlooks one crucial thing, the Planets heat balance.
The Planet has too much heat and adding nuclear energy to that heat must be a bad thing.
The message is yet to get through that the solar energy that reaches the planet every day is many times more than we need to power the worlds energy needs, so let’s use it.
Follow the vision of the likes of Prof Ross Garnaut:
This is the best way to train engineers and create jobs to combat the Climate Emergency
I can’t believe that engineers Australia has published such an easily discountable point of view as viability of nuclear power in Australia. Without any account of development schedule and delays in getting any first time product to commercial market readiness in the presented article, let alone independent assessment of credible delivery schedules and indeed the ever decreasing costs of renewables in the intervening 10 to 20 years that is would take to get the first pilot plants of nuclear stations operating. No allowance for run in times and proving reliability periods and that fact that it would take an additional multiples of 10 year periods to roll out and deploy sufficient installations across the whole marketplace.
You really shouldn’t publish such lopsided sudo analysis at the behest of vested interests. It just doesn’t stand critical analysis and paints the Engineers Australia as a patsy for vested interests. Please don’t do this again as it destroys your credibility.
i wrote a CBA on a blog i used to have back in 2009. It was a no-brainer.
It is about time we are having an intelligent technical discussion about Nuclear energy without hysterical biased comments.
Time for Nuclear? YES, YES, YES! Please! When can we get real and have nuclear base load power stations!
CO2 does not appreciably affect the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and it is distressing to me that so many of my engineering colleagues, particularly those who have become involved in the administration of IEAust believe in the Global Warming fallacy.
Nuclear energy makes sense for a number of reasons. The major one is that the cost of nuclear energy is around 2 US cents/kWh whereas the cost of electricity obtained from coal is around 3.6 US cents. In the past IEAust has been energetically opposed to nuclear energy and that too has been a serious disappointment to me, causing me to consider leaving this organisation.
Decommissioning costs are the major parameter in the evaluation equation. 4.2 billion English pounds per reactor. At the end of it’s 30 years life, the share holders are to be informed that we need 18 billion English pounds to decommission our 4 reactors. So what do we do ? we do what every other energy company does, and just keep the worn out, and ready to fail plant running, and wait for the inevitable Chenobly event
Suppose we had a large hail storm with tennis ball hailstones in the area of the solar farms. This could mean that we lose production for a considerable time.
A nuclear reactor building is constructed to withstand the most extreem condition so will not be affected by this. it is independent of the weather condictions.
Combining the nuclear reactors with waste management would be a good source of income. I would say to the anti nuclear people that if we enjoy the benefits of selling uranium we should also have the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the waste. Either do not sell it or process the waste and earn income from waste processing.
LCOE .. For the Win .. but not in favour of nuclear.
GENCOST2018 – Page 5.
Plus there is the NIMBY issue, and the hauling barrels of nuclear waste down public roads, and dealing with nuclear waste for the next 50,000 years.
Solar PV / Wind are (max) 12.5% of the LCOE of Nuclear.
Pumped Hydro, Batteries & Compressed air add (upto 30% to the worst LCOE of the above)
(Experimental?) Solar Thermal is 50% of the LCOE of Nuclear .. and combines generation & storage.
Why is this even a topic of discussion, again?
Hendrik, it’s a good thing that the people planning the massively-distributed solar installations on houses/businesses/buildings/various farms aren’t allowed the scope to relocate the buildings & land to a single location to catalyse this catastrophy.
Only the mining industry digs up land, relocates it elsewhere, leaves big polluted holes.
If solar installers dig up land and leave holes filled with toxic sludge, I’m convinced that they are installing solar incorrectly.
Hendrik Bais: Good one. I can remember in the early 70’s shocking a Greenie who wanted to distill the salty underground water at Uluru with solar panels buy pointing out that kangaroos could crash-tinkle-tinkle, crash-tinkle-tinkle that scheme into a mountain of sparling glass cullet to rival The Rock itself.
Peter Atherton and some others: We need to consider nuclear-based electricity as a transition technology, not a Never-ending Story. For that one might want to consider Thorium in lieu of Uranium. Read a bit more before you write simplistic bumper sticker pieces. To quote the cover of scientist Ben Goldacre’s 2014 book “I think you’ll find its a bit more complicated than that”.
Greg Gibson: It’s a wonderful conspiracy theory but you have not indicated why it should be treated as credible.
Do us a favour.
Eric Lesleighter: Alan Wright told us not to get hysterical. Actually I agree with you fully.
Geoff McMahon: Bad comparison. Chernobyl was an operational failure – but the system did contribute by not being idiot-proofed to protect low-grade operators from their personal incompetences. A bit more reading about that incident will help you.
Daniel Debreceny: The 50,000 year storage problem was solved decades ago. A bit more reading about that subject will help you. ur CSIRO has been a big contributor. Sleep soundly. Oh, and what toxic sludge do solar panels generate?
NUScale is not breaking ground it has not even got a licence yet. If it is very lucky it will start building the first plant in 2022/23. After 5-7 years of construction, commissioning and commercial operation the first units might be considered a success if nothing goes wrong. Then they will have to get an export licence, (no trivial matter). It will be amazing if Australia will be able to place a firm order let alone have one in operation by 2030.
Then the questions of refuelling, security and cost come into play. The cost alone is a killer. There are no credible estimates of new nuclear power being less than US$100/MWh and there is strong reason to believe that SMR’s will be more expensive due to operational dis-economies of scale than large plants.
Solar + storage plants are offering power at US$23 today.
Even if NUScale is successful and meet their cost targets, (they would be the first nuclear plant in 70 years to do so) they will build a a plant for US$4.2 m /MW by 2030. Today one can buy 1 MW of wind, 1.5 MW of solar and 0.5 MW/3 MWh of batteries for US$3 m, which will actually provide more reliability and more energy per year.
Why wait 12 years in hope when one can do it now for less money
Unfortunately a significant amount of hysteria and lack of understanding of power needs. A power grid is complex and needs a mix of power to meet all demands. There is a need for power overnight and a larger peak during the day. Solar is great for the daytime peak but it has its limits in that it exports whatever it produces when it produces causing problems to the remainder of the grid at peak output, it also does not produce at night. Batteries can help but they are net consumers of power, are expensive and big for the amount of power they can store. Rule of thumb for 24hr of 1 MW from Solar you need 3 MW panels and 14 MWhr of batteries.
Batteries have great benefits for grid stability and short term absorbing excess power from renewables or filling a supply gap in the short term, 30 minutes to an hour.
Wind works at night but also has occasional calm periods that can last multiple hours and produces when it produces not on demand.
Hydro produces on demand but requires rain and steam terrain, this is somewhat limited in Australia. Pumped Hydro is a net energy consumer so energy must first be generated somewhere else to pump the water for use later.
So without a vast amount of storage you need some form of primary power generation, the cheapest is brown coal close to the mine followed by other fossil fuel however with the introduction of excess solar without storage they need to ramp down during the day meaning they only export at night so utilisation goes down and capital recovery needs to occur over fewer MW of power driving up the cost. But if you want any industry left in the country you need power at night to maintain process so in Australia we burn fossil fuels and increase power costs overnight which contributes to Rio Tinto planning to close down alumina smelters in Australia.
Even in renewable heavy SA they recently commissioned a new gas powered peaking plant to support the grid because sufficient battery storage was not practical.
The Alternative is allow nuclear power in Australia.
The majority of cost over runs have been caused by changing regulatory hurdles and community consultation. Russia has recently deployed floating modular nuclear reactors, China is building nuclear plants faster and cheaper because the just build them in series. China has had no significant nuclear accidents (we know because it is easy to detect nuclear releases unlike chemical contamination from manufacturing solar panels)
The objection to nuclear power on economic ground is hypercritical as once nuclear is legal if it turns out to be in-economical then no plants will be built so there is no reason to ban them.
In summary the objection to nuclear power in Australia promotes the burning of fossil fuels for power generation.
Nuclear power would not eliminate renewables and batteries, it would be uneconomic to build sufficient nuclear capacity to meet peak demand so renewables would still be needed along with some battery capacity (or hydro where it is available) to provide grid stability and short term power management.
Exactly how is nuclear power rated as clean and green? What is clean about radiation? What is green about storing millions of tons of spent nuclear rods? What is clean and cheap about the 6 billion dollar plus decommissioning bill after 30 years? What is green and safe about Chernobyl? What is cheap and safe about Fuchashima? What is the current cost of trying to maintain the mess at Fuchashima? Was is not some $400 mill pa, with no hope of getting it under control? Is it not true that radiation has been escaping from that site into the Pacific Ocean for the last 8 years and the currents are circulating that not so green radiation around the whole ocean, resulting in diseased marine life everywhere? One disaster should be enough but in the history of nuclear power plants, there have been numerous explosive disasters, which then turn into a never ending drama, unable for any engineer to eradicate the leakage of radiation? How can any of you scientists and engineers actively promote the use of this form of dirty, harmful energy without acknowledging that if your idea is implemented, that you will be endangering the health and lives of people and animals who happen to live in the vicinity of the plant or storage place of spent fuel, for how many decades or centuries? And what about all the decommissioned nuclear submarines and warships that sit in harbours , rusting away, without a means of safe disposal? So when you go raising this subject in the public domain, could you please be honest and be sure to mention how the scientists and engineers are now able to safely manage these issues, and that your future plants would not put a single life in danger, ever!
This country is blessed with an abundance of resources that we seem reluctant to use. Solar and wind have a place for energy provision as do other forms that can deliver a large stable electrical base supply. Nuclear generation is in this area. We have abundance of all energy forms, fossil, nuclear, solar, wind and possibly tidal.
Regarding the continued use of fossil fuels and climate change, a short course in thermodynamics may lead to a better understanding of heat and energy.
I ponder how John Monash would deal with the current situation, given the ingenuity and leadership he displayed as head of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. Would he not use the appropriate generation methods afforded by the technology? Just as the 1920’s objective was to power the State of Victoria, could not today’s objective be to power the nation and beyond to Asia with high voltage direct current links? Why only export coal and gas when moving electrons could be exported with less environmental impact if the appropriate generator is used?
As engineers we deal with structures, systems and devices that require the application of sound engineering principles and judgement to ensure the safety of the public during the construction, operation, maintenance and disposal of assets. Nuclear generation requires nothing more.
Very well written! Indeed renewable energy is the future.