Taking advantage of Australia’s huge uranium reserves to generate nuclear power is clearly our best path to prosperity and a better environment, argues communication and marketing expert John Kananghinis.
If recent geopolitical events have not caused you to become concerned for future energy security, then you have not been paying attention. Perhaps, not entirely coincidently, the abandonment of the troubled Attack Class French Submarine program and the striking of the AUKUS deal to eventually acquire nuclear powered subs may be harbingers of a reconsideration of nuclear power in Australia. Of course, the PM insists the nuclear subs will not require a civilian nuclear industry. But honestly, can anyone believe that is anything but a temporary position. Especially after Ukraine?
Perhaps a brief investigation of the topic, based—unfashionably—on an assessment of some easily accessible facts may offer some grounds for reconsideration. To begin, there is the legislative hurdle. For any domestic nuclear industry, and by logical conclusion the use of nuclear power in Australia, to emerge we will need to repeal the restrictions contained in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, which specifically prohibits nuclear power plants.
Passed at a time when the Howard Government needed to bolster its green credentials, yet when the burning of coal for power was less problematic than today, the most straightforward option for a repeal of the Act’s provisions would be a Yes Minister-style ‘courageous decision’ by a government controlling both houses. More likely, given the emerging bipartisanship on the nuclear-powered submarines, is that it could be repealed with support from both major parties.
Such support will only come from a political realisation that the tide of public opinion has turned. We are not there yet. However, public opinion is not static. It tends to reflect the broader context. The growing general belief that the Attack Class program was an emerging failure, and the bellicosity of the Communist Party of China, resulting in an increased perception of an external threat requiring a suitable response, saw previously implacable opposition to nuclear-powered boats turn into qualified bipartisan support.
A particularly hot summer, during which we experience blackouts and industry impacting ‘load shedding’ could also play a major role in focusing the public’s attention on the need for more reliable (non-coal-burning) base-load power generation.
Indications are that the mood for, at least, a conversation about nuclear power is moving towards the positive. A recent Newspoll asked the question: “Given the nuclear-powered submarine deal, should Australia consider a domestic civilian nuclear industry, including nuclear power for electricity generation?” The results were surprising: 61 per cent overall answered ‘definitely‘ or ‘should consider’. Interestingly, while Coalition voters came in at 75 per cent, Labor voters also responded positively with 56 per cent, and even Greens voters came in evenly divided between 47 per cent ‘definitely’ or ‘should consider’ and 47 per cent opposed, with 6 per cent saying ‘don’t know’.
Shutting down nuclear reactors greatly increased Germany’s coal use.
Further rounding out the public opinion picture, a recent YouGov poll found that while most Australians wanted action on climate change, 43 per cent were not prepared to pay one cent more for their power and another 28 per cent were unwilling to pay more than an additional $25 per month. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for policies that would drive prices up.
So, let us progress by reviewing the current use of nuclear power and a few near future options. Let’s begin by addressing Greens leader Adam Bandt’s somewhat hysterical response to the AUKUS deal. In a statement high on emotion and low on facts, he claimed the deal would see eight floating Chernobyls in Australian harbours. Quite apart from the fact that if we do eventually acquire nuclear subs, their mission will not be to waste time floating around in our harbours, his alarm is akin to refusing to fly in modern aircraft because early 20th century biplanes were a bit unreliable.
Apart from the basic principle, the shipboard nuclear reactors of modern—let alone 30 years in the future—submarines have virtually nothing in common with the 1950’s era poorly constructed and shoddily maintained nuclear power stations of the Soviet Union.
It is worth reviewing some basic statistics. As of mid-2020 there were 440 electricity producing nuclear reactors operating worldwide. There are 55 more being built and 109 planned. Assuming Soviet information can be trusted—a very big assumption, but major nuclear accidents are quite hard to hide—there have been three very serious accidents: the Three Mile Island core melt, the Chernobyl explosions, and the Fukushima meltdowns. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), only two of those—Chernobyl and Fukushima—are considered ‘level 7’, that is resulting in lethality and large releases of radioactivity.
Then there are nuclear-powered boats. The US Navy operates 83 nuclear-powered vessels: 71 submarines, 11 aircraft carriers and one supply vessel, with the first sub (USS Nautilus, of course) being commissioned in 1954. The Russians have 36 nuclear submarines, the French operate a nuclear aircraft carrier and six nuclear submarines, and the UK has four, China has six, and India has one. Excepting the lamentable accident record of the Soviets, major incidents involving nuclear-powered vessels have been rare and, in almost all cases, unrelated to their power source.
There is risk. That is why such complex safety processes and attendant costs are attached to the use of nuclear power. But that risk needs to be weighed against the operational, environmental and human risks of other energy sources and the need to provide stable, life enhancing and often lifesaving, power to cover for the euphemistically described ‘intermittency’ of renewables. The latter point has been brought into sharp relief, right now, as the cold weather descends on a UK and EU, both, of their own making, short on traditional base-load power and, annoyingly, very short on wind. The result is a desperate scramble to secure enough power to avoid blackouts and shutdowns. Except for the French, that is. But more about that a bit later.
When considering risks across all forms of power generation, it is perhaps instructional to consider the case of Germany. Following the Fukushima accident and resulting major domestic anti-nuclear protests, then Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed Germany would shut down all reactors by 2022. After shutting down 14 reactors, Germany, by 2020, used its remaining six reactors to generate 12.6 per cent of its electricity as opposed to 22.4 per cent in 2010. To partially compensate there was a marked increase in the use of a combination of brown and black coal, accounting for 24.3 per cent of power.
If base-load power cannot be provided by coal, nuclear is the best alternative.
Germany has also massively invested in renewables, which now account for more than 40 per cent of their power. However, the high cost of doing so is estimated to be up to an additional €250 billion in subsidies and incentives over the next decade. Not to mention the major rise in power prices since 2010. For a high-cost country such as Germany, such an impost and the significant increase in power prices may be manageable. On the other hand, such rising costs cannot but aid the ongoing drift of German manufacturing jobs to lower-cost locations. This would also contribute to a lower demand for power from German industry, shifting emissions offshore to the less environmentally conscious. Interestingly, the plans to shut the remaining nuclear power plants have been ‘temporarily’ shelved.
Looking at other major economies, fond of lecturing Australia on doing more to reach net zero emissions, France has 18 operational reactors supplying the vast majority of its power and exporting to neighbours—likely to be in high demand, given the aforementioned emerging shortages. The UK has six operational nuclear plants, plus one under construction and two more planned. The US has 55 operational nuclear plants, with four more planned. Russia, that paragon of industrial safety, has 10 operational plants, seven of which date back to the 1970s and ’80s, with eight unfinished and due to restart construction, and 16 planned. China has 13 nuclear plants operating, 11 being built, and 17 more planned. By the way, they also run 1,082 coal-fired power plants with short-term plans for 43 more. But more on Chinese nuclear power research later.
Consider for a moment even those nations that have eschewed nuclear energy in their quest for greenness. Denmark is often used as an example of a country committed to green, renewable power generation. With most of the country almost below the waterline, one of the most recognisable modern features of Denmark are the wind turbines dotting the North Sea, visible from that other engineering marvel, the Øresund Bridge/underwater tunnel from Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden. The Øresund Bridge is not the only thing connecting the two Scandinavians. There is also the power cable that delivers the Danes copious amounts of nuclear generated power from the Swedish nuclear plants at Forsmark, Oskarshamn and Ringhais. The recent COP26 meeting at Glasgow was held at a time when international consideration of nuclear energy as a bridge to and/or a support for renewables is increasing. That many countries signing up to Net Zero by 2050 have no chance of achieving that goal without ongoing use of nuclear energy is a reality check that has dawned upon even the most ardently green politicians.
For Australia, the move away from coal has been driven by public sentiment and the economics (in a distorted market) of keeping old coal-fired plants operational. Public sentiment is the driver to prevent us building new ones. While the public does, conversely, approve of renewables, they still face the intermittency issue, compounded by the immaturity and additional cost of battery storage technology. We also have vast distances to deal with, given the source of renewables is not often conveniently located next to the greatest points of consumption.
So how do we keep the lights on, the air-conditioners blowing and the factories (such as we have) working? That is why need base-load power, which provides the reliable base of electricity supply 24/7, and if it cannot be provided by coal then nuclear is the sensible alternative.
Our country is one of the largest producers of uranium. It’s Kazakhstan (by a mile), with us and Canada filling the minor placings. But it is Australia that has the largest uranium reserves, at around 30 per cent of known global recoverable resource. So, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of having the world’s largest supply of a precious resource, yet we have prohibited ourselves from using it. Instead, we send it off to others to underpin their power grids and then allow them to lecture us about being green.
Is it not sensible that in our move to de-carbonise we should consider all the resources available to us? We hear so much about being globally competitive that one has to ask, why do we not even think about how we can make use of such an obvious competitive advantage?
We send uranium off to others, then allow them to lecture us about being green.
Ah, but nuclear power plants are very, very expensive and take years (probably decades at our typical speed) to build, say the opponents. Well, there may be good news on that front: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). They are a recent, almost portable, lower cost, and much lower risk nuclear power plant technology. Derived from naval power units that have operated for decades, these enclosed power plants are small enough to be transported from point of manufacture to location of installation. They do not need to be next to a major water source, cost a fraction of traditional plants, require far fewer staff and—most importantly—are even safer, principally due to their enclosed design and limited fuel load.
SMRs can be used singly to power a specific location, or in parallel to power larger cities. The ability to place them closer to the point of consumption significantly reduces transmission costs and increases reliability. While, in most Western countries, SMRs are still going through understandably complex and lengthy licencing processes, there already are three operating in Russia, including a floating plant used in the Arctic. Two are being built in China, and Argentina also has an SMR under construction.
Returning to China and its rapid technological progress, in addition to standard SMRs there is the prospect of Molten Salt Reactors (confusingly, MSRs). Originating from the US Aircraft Reactor Experiment of the 1950s, these are also very small, compared to traditional light-water reactors, and use a molten salt mixture as both fuel and coolant. They operate at atmospheric pressure, thus eliminating the need for large containment vessels and further minimising risk. There are still issues to be solved, not the least of which is the corrosivity of the hot salts used. However, one would be foolish to place bets against the Chinese scientists finding solutions.
Is it not foolish to consider options on the basis of currently operating technology (designed decades ago), when the pace of technological progress is approaching ‘warp speed’? Is Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg not on to something worth further discussion when he calls for far greater investment in more robust renewables and cheaper, modular nuclear? Considering future solutions by only looking to the technologies of the past and today seems somewhat backwards. Why so little faith in human ingenuity?
In Australia, the first of the planned/fantasised eight nuclear power submarines will not enter the water, at best, for another 14 years. Given how long a democratic nation such as ours takes to arrive at major decisions, one would not expect a fast track to a policy of employing nuclear power. Somewhat counterintuitively, it may be the environmental concerns that finally drive us to fully consider how we can best exploit the resources we have been blessed with.
A realistic approach to meeting our nation’s energy needs, while achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050, will require technical innovation. More than that, it will require innovative thinking, open-minded discussion and respectful debate. By the time we do all that the technology could well have rushed up to meet us.
John Kananghinis is the managing director of a Melbourne-based strategic communication and marketing consultancy.