It has been a long-running debate in Australia – should strict laws around nuclear energy be relaxed?

In recent times prominent politicians such as One Nation’s Mark Latham and New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro have said as much, calling for an end to the prohibition which has banned nuclear power in Australia for the last 20 years, while the Morrison Government approved the controversial Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia one day before calling the Federal Election in April.

With the issue firmly back on the agenda, Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) Chief Executive Officer Tania Constable said it was time for the ban to be repealed.

“We would like to see that prohibition lifted from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999,” she said. “In doing so it would generate discussion and allow investors to seriously contemplate uranium mining in Australia and the use of nuclear power.”

Ms Constable’s position is unsurprising given the MCA has been a long-time supporter of lifting the prohibition and expanding uranium mining operations.

Uranium mining began in Australia in 1954, with three mines currently in operation – Ranger in the Northern Territory and Olympic Dam and Four Mile in South Australia.

The Office of the Chief Economist’s recent Resource and Energy Quarterly for June 2019 put Australia’s uranium resources at 31 per cent of the world’s proven reserves, more than any other country.

However, we are only the third-largest producer of uranium in the world.

According to the report, Australia produces and exports more than 7000 tonnes of uranium every year, with the vast majority going to the United States.

However, with the looming closure of the Ranger uranium mine in 2021, export numbers are likely to decrease.

The report stated $2.3 million was invested in uranium exploration in Australia in the March quarter, down from $3.6 million in December.

Why nuclear?

Ms Constable said the case for nuclear energy was clear. “We need affordable, reliable energy in Australia,” she said.

“And that means we need a diverse range of energy sources. We have an abundance of various sources in Australia, including uranium, so we should start the discussion again about the potential to use our own uranium resources in Australia for energy.

“Latest generation nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors offer the potential to fully back up renewable energy sources.

“Removing the ban would allow for Australians to have a serious conversation about a genuinely technology-neutral approach towards the nation’s energy mix – delivering affordable, reliable and clean energy sources.

“The removal of the prohibition on nuclear energy will also allow for investment proposals to be brought forward. There is an urgent need for Australia to consider all technologies on their merits.

“Lifting the prohibition allows for broader discussion all the way down the value chain from uranium, which is affected by the nuclear trigger.”

Uranium mining is considered a ‘nuclear action’ under current regulations, a position MCA disagrees with.

The benefits of nuclear power

Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) Dr Mark Ho, a thermohydraulic specialist for the government-mandated OPAL multipurpose reactor, highlighted some of the benefits of nuclear power.

Pointing out that ANSTO does not advocate for nuclear power, Mr Ho said it was the organisation’s role to advise the Australian Government on all matters related to nuclear, including maintaining relationships with the International Atomic Energy Agency and undertaking research into the nuclear fuel cycle.

“Although the subject is controversial in Australia, many countries are choosing nuclear or including it in their energy mix because of zero carbon emissions, its capacity to maintain constant baseload power and minimal land use requirements,” he said.

“Typically to produce 26 terawatt hours a year of electricity, a wind farm would use 1010sq km, solar would occupy 607sq km and a nuclear reactor about 6.5sq km.”

One seven-gram uranium dioxide pellet holds the energy equivalent of three barrels of oil or 800kg of coal.

“The energy potential of nuclear power is related to the power density of uranium,” Dr Ho said.

Today there are 452 operating nuclear reactors in the world, generating 11 per cent of the world’s electricity.

“The most rapid builds are taking place in Asia, especially in China, which is on track to double its nuclear power generation from 27 gigawatts to 54GW between 2016 and 2020,” Dr Ho said.

“By 2030 China is expected to have 130GW of nuclear generation capacity, and there are plans for up to 500GW of nuclear power by 2050 as part of efforts to tackle particle pollution, carbon emissions and climate change.

“The relatively small amount of spent fuel waste from 30 to 40 years of operation might be surprising to some.”

Referring to the spectres of the past which have continued to haunt the nuclear cause in Australia, Ms Constable said the science had come a long way.

“It is easy to use Chernobyl as a scare campaign against nuclear energy, but it happened a long time ago and there has been a lot of technical change in that time, and it is no different to other things in our lives that have changed to make things much safer and smaller,” she said.

“Nuclear energy puts out almost zero emissions. If we are talking about clean energy, nuclear should be front and centre with renewables as a part of a clean energy mix.”


Image: MCA Chief Executive Officer Tania Constable, supplied.