August 17, 2019, 9:00 AM MDT
Australia has been historically opposed to nuclear energy–on their own land, that is. While the nuclear option has long been dismissed in the land down under and was officially banned in 2009 in reaction to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, Australia also has a long history of capitalizing on the global nuclear industry as a whole. Last year the country exported over 7,000 metric tons of uranium, earning Australia nearly $600 million Australian dollars ($407 million United States Dollars).
As the Australian edition of The Conversation points out, “This uranium produced nearly as much energy as Australia uses in a year, but with less than 10 percent of the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations.” The comparison to coal is an important one, as Australia’s economy itself is coal-fired. According to the Australian government’s own statistics, “Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. Coal accounts for more than half of Australia’s energy exports.” The government page “Australia’s Energy Production, Consumption and Exports” goes on to say that, “Australia’s primary energy consumption is dominated by coal (around 40 percent), oil (34 percent) and gas (22 percent). Coal accounts for about 75 per cent of Australia’s electricity generation, followed by gas (16 percent), hydro (5 percent) and wind around (2 percent).”
While Australia has doubled down on its current and future coal production, it is also one of the world’s largest exporters of uranium, and risks sowing the seeds of serious diplomatic trouble with their Pacific Island neighbors if they don’t begin to clean up their carbon act in a hurry. It’s therefore unsurprising that there are many proponents of bringing nuclear into Australia’s domestic energy mix, and after many years it seems that the nuclear option may finally be back on the legislative table.
In fact, Australia is on the verge of conducting a parliamentary inquiry into the viability of developing a nuclear energy program on Australian soil. A statement by Queensland Liberal National parliamentarian and The Standing Committee on Environment and Energy leader Ted O’Brien, head of the standing committee on environment and energy said that, “this inquiry will provide the opportunity to establish whether nuclear energy would be feasible and suitable for Australia in the future, taking into account both expert opinions and community views.”
While political and public opinion of nuclear energy is shifting in Australia, however, there is still more opposition than support of the initiative, with the vast majority of Australians taking a “not in my backyard” approach to the issue. As the Asia Times reports, “a recent survey by pollster Essential showed community views are increasingly in favor, but still fall below 50 percent. However, when respondents were asked to consider a reactor being built close to their homes, property-obsessed Australians voted ‘no’ at a rate of 78 percent, the poll showed.”
While opposition to nuclear power has long been one of the very, very few bipartisan bits of common ground in Australia, times are changing, and so is nuclear power. The means of nuclear power production themselves have evolved considerably over the last decade, making nuclear cheaper and safer than ever before. In Australia, “the renewed interest [in nuclear energy] is being spurred by Minister for Energy and Emissions Reductions Angus Taylor’s enthusiasm for newfangled small modular reactors (SMRs), which are cheaper, allegedly safer and use less water,” says the Asia Times. “Those reactor-types will be a focus of the upcoming parliamentary inquiry. British engineering company Rolls Royce, for one, is leading a UK consortium involved in developing SMRs aimed at producing affordable energy with a lower carbon footprint.”
While nuclear seems to be going the way of the dodo in the United States (thanks to public and political mistrust not unlike in Australia, astronomical nuclear waste-maintenance costs, and a hyper-competitive energy market flooded by cheap natural gas) Australia will not be an outlier if they decide to embrace nuclear energy. In fact, far from it. The rest of the world, Russia and China in particular, are all leaning into nuclear energy as one of the most powerful, efficient, and green options for a carbon-choked planet with ever-expanding energy demands. Despite its many drawbacks, it’s becoming the common sentiment in the international community that nuclear is simply the best of our bad options.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com