Safety risks stall nuclear role in Australia's energy mix

If Australia is to hit its Paris climate change targets and lower carbon emissions it needs to think seriously about nuclear energy, lobbyists say, but the safety risks coupled with its economic viability have former supporters doubting its future in Australia.

Australia's commitment to the 2015 Paris climate agreement - which aims to reduce emissions by 5 per cent below 2000 levels - has increased the pressure to reduce the electricity industry's emissions levels, and nuclear energy has been put forward as a way to reach decarbonisation of the network.

Robert Parker, who is a current committee member and former president of the Australian Nuclear Association, said nuclear energy could play a major role in Australia's decarbonisation if it is used along with renewable generation such as wind, solar and pumped hydro storage.

"With our current energy mix we won't get to the decarbonisation of the grid by 2050," Mr Parker said, pointing to the role of coal and gas in providing grid security as more renewables enter the energy landscape.

"The combination of intermittent renewable energy and gas is suboptimal and could lead us to a plateau. I'm not saying no to wind and solar, but they are too intermittent and we need dispatchable zero carbon energy in the system. We need a power system that is resilient."

Mr Parker said there was the potential to replace Victoria's brown coal-fired power stations with nuclear reactors once they had reached the end of their operating life. He said the infrastructure was already in place to rapidly build and operate a nuclear power plant.

"If you give a shit about carbon emissions, then you don't give up on anything," Mr Parker told Fairfax Media.

Friends of the Earth national nuclear campaigner Dr Jim Green said the cost of nuclear power had made it unviable.

"With the possible exception of carbon capture and storage, nuclear power would be the most expensive and least effective way of reducing emissions in Australia," Dr Green told Fairfax Media.

"The estimated cost of reactors under construction in the UK is $20 billion each. The estimated cost of reactors under construction in France and Finland has risen to $16 billion each. Energy efficiency and conservation programs, coupled with renewable energy expansion, can sharply reduce emissions in Australia - far more quickly and cheaply than nuclear power.

"Ten years ago, there might have been a debate to be had over the economic merits of nuclear power, when the Switkowski inquiry estimated that a reactor could be built for $4 billion to $6 billion. The Switkowski panel was out by a factor of three and even Ziggy Switkowski himself now acknowledges that renewables are a more economically viable choice."

Nuclear physicist and NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski, who once said Australia needs 50 nuclear reactors across the nation, believes "the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed".

Mr Switkowski said nuclear energy as a power option was now less economically viable than renewables and batteries alone.

"Government won't move until a real business case is presented and none has been, to my knowledge, and there aren't votes in trying to lead the debate," he told Fairfax Media.

He said nuclear was no longer lower cost than renewables and the levelised cost of electricity of the two was rapidly diverging.

While nuclear could provide zero emissions energy, Mr Switkowski said this was more than offset by community concerns about waste and safety.

"Support for nuclear is everywhere except from the generators and financiers who would have real skin in the game."

Mr Parker said Mr Switkowski was wrong.

"I disagree with Ziggy fundamentally on nuclear energy for Australia, as no one can ever miss the boat," he told Fairfax Media.

He held up France as a nation that has committed to nuclear energy.

Nuclear power currently accounts for nearly 75 per cent of all energy generation in the country, and aided France in reducing its emission levels.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's data higlights how France averages 4.32 tonnes per capita compared to Australia's average of 15.8 tonnes per capita, driven in part by its reliance on nuclear power.

While the country has set a timeline to decrease nuclear energy to only half of all generation by 2025, French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said it would be difficult to keep to its timeline without reintroducing fossil fuel generation.

Earlier this week, the French government announced that it had failed to meet its carbon emissions reduction targets for 2016, emitting 463 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 3.6 per cent above its goal, according to AFP.

Mr Parker said nuclear continues to play a role in the nation's decarbonisation.

"I don't think we'll ever see France carry out a philosophical abandonment of nuclear energy," he said.

Australia has one nuclear reactor, at Lucas Heights, which is used for nuclear research and not energy generation.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) this month announced that Australian nuclear scientists had played a major role in the world's largest fusion energy project in France, and fourth generation nuclear reactors.

This story Safety risks stall nuclear role in Australia's energy mix first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.