The Nuclear Royal Commission’s spotlight on the need for reform

Opinion piece:

It is an idea that some will find startling and others will find long overdue – the removal of the existing federal prohibition of nuclear power.

But that’s exactly what the South Australian Royal Commission into nuclear fuel cycle opportunities has recommended. Specifically, that the SA ‘Government pursue removal at the federal level of existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation to allow it to contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required’.

Yet, this message is not new.

We have seen this message ring clearly in international circles where the importance of nuclear power in the energy mix has been consistently articulated.

The latest World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency (IEA) sees nuclear energy increasing its share of the global electricity generation mix slightly from 11 per cent in 2013 to 12 per cent by 2040 in its base case scenario.  However in its 450 scenario, which ‘depicts a pathway to the 2°C climate goal that can be achieved by fostering technologies that are close to becoming available at commercial scale’,  global nuclear power generation rises to 18 per cent of the mix.

In the IEA’s 450 scenario, nuclear energy is second only to hydro in electricity production.  When compared to other critical low emissions sources, nuclear will reflect a lower share of the total installed capacity, but will generate more electricity due to the intermittency of wind and solar.

Nuclear electricity will be 18 per cent of global electricity production coming from just 8 per cent of global installed electricity capacity.  Solar PV with 14 per cent of installed capacity will generate 7 per cent of the electricity, while wind will generate 15 per cent of the power from 18 per cent of the capacity.

This projection reflects the critical role nuclear energy plays in generating low emissions base load electricity in a carbon constrained world.

Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has seen its attitude shift towards an increasing importance of the role of nuclear power.   Nuclear is grouped with renewable energy as key in a low-carbon energy system, along with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS).

The IPCC warns ‘No single mitigation option in the energy supply sector will be sufficient to hold the increase in global average temperature change below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels….Achieving deep cuts will require more intensive use of low GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS’.

In this context, the Nuclear Royal Commission in South Australia has done a great service in shining a light in Australia on the importance of nuclear energy globally, and the possible roles Australia can play in the fuel cycle.

Its call to remove the legislative ban on nuclear energy serves to normalise this important industry, regardless of whether nuclear energy is pursued in Australia any time soon.

Its call for the SA government to ‘pursue the simplification of state and federal mining approval requirements for radioactive ores, to deliver a single assessment and approvals process’ supports the greater role Australian uranium can play in safely and responsibly producing more uranium for nuclear power generation around the world.

And its thorough evaluation of the potential for offering spent fuel storage and disposal services in Australia has provided an invaluable body of information for the public to deliberate on.

In addition to clearly detailing the safety and security of such an enterprise, and the economic benefit to Australia, the Commission explained what it would mean.

‘As Australia is a net exporter of energy, it has a significant role to play in assisting other countries to lower their carbon emissions. This includes countries with less opportunity for large scale renewable energy deployment than Australia, for whom nuclear power makes a substantial contribution to their production of low carbon energy. For new nuclear entrants or countries with little prospect of siting their own used fuel disposal facilities, an international solution would remove a significant impediment to the new or ongoing use of nuclear power as a low carbon technology. As a result, Australia would derive a reputational and financial benefit by hosting a facility for the disposal of international used fuel’.

It is time to reform Australia’s uranium and nuclear regulatory framework to reflect the global importance of these industries and the contributions Australia can safely, responsibly and economically make in the years ahead.