Despite being home to a sizable share of the world’s uranium reserves, vast tracts of non-arable but geologically stable land, and an increasingly large gap between future power consumption and future power generation, Australia maintains a ban on nuclear power generation. 

Through a mixture of government and private investment, as well as an enthusiastic uptake of the latest technology, clean and reliable baseload power can secure Australia’s energy needs and meet its international obligations to decarbonize.

A lot has changed since the 1960s and 1970s when many of the European and North American nuclear power plants were built. They required large exclusion zones with easy access to water for emergency cooling. They were also very expensive, difficult to build, and very site-specific — meaning costly delays and project overruns were a feature of these designs. 

However, the onset of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) has changed the game somewhat — allowing for less land consumption, more homogenous designs and repeatable processes. Newer builds, predominantly in Asia, have benefitted from these developments, resulting in projects that are safer and easier to deliver on time and budget for. 

This doesn’t exactly alleviate the issue of high upfront capital that any nuclear power generation project requires. However, there are some other technological and logistical benefits to establishing nuclear power in Australia, particularly using SMR technology. 

One such potential benefit is the flexibility of siteing with SMRs. Without the need for plants to be located near uranium, near water, or on large tracts of land for emergency exclusion zones, SMRs can be slotted in where the transmission network exists, where the labor force exists, and where communities will gladly host them. 

This is in great contrast to other forms of renewable energy, which still require investment into new storage and transmission infrastructure, must be located ideally for sunlight, wind, or water capture, and which also must be retired or upgraded within a much shorter time frame than the approximately 80-year life cycle of a nuclear power plant. 

With the upcoming retirement of many of Australia’s coal power plants over the next 10-20 years, SMRs could be built on the same sites, make use of much of the same workforce, support the same communities, and slot into the existing transmission network.

It is not as if there is no precedent for nuclear technology in Australia either. An Australian-built facility known as OPAL is currently functional in Sydney — where nuclear technology is utilized for radioisotope production. The facility was built with an Australian supply chain by an Australian client on time and on budget, and to this day continues to operate reliably. 

SMRs bring the promise of modular and repeatable designs that historically reduce the chances of project overruns on both time and budget. As such, it seems disingenuous to continue to categorize the nuclear industry as one that is overly risky to invest in. 

The gap between Australia’s projected energy needs and the capacity of its grid to supply power is increasingly widening as fossil fuel production wraps up, and the financial implications of this on Australian households and industry are far-reaching. 

Nuclear power also has potential for secondary utility that may guarantee water supply during droughts by powering desalination plants. When it comes to waste — a common issue cited by critics of nuclear power — not only can much of it be reused, but storage solutions such as those employed in Finland are easily replicable in Australia, to the point where a profitable new industry could develop.    

It’s time to end the stigma and dismissive rhetoric that has plagued the debate around nuclear power in Australia. The days of large, costly and “dangerous” reactors are over: we now have SMRs. If Australia is to achieve net-zero by 2050 while maintaining a robust economy and a prosperous way of life, we must confront de-carbonization with a view of retaining a base load supply of power. 

The high upfront capital cost of nuclear must be pragmatically weighed against investment needed in new transmission and storage as well as constant replacement or upkeep of alternative renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. 

Furthermore, the supposed safety risk of nuclear power needs also to be weighed against the growing evidence of air pollution from fossil fuels killing millions prematurely worldwide, as well as increasing concerns over slave labor apparent within the supply chain of solar panels and wind turbines. 

Increasingly, polling shows that Australians are open to the idea of developing nuclear power. Australians are ever more conscious of environmental concerns and want to reduce carbon emissions, but also want to maintain cheap electricity prices and a stable supply. Despite the economic challenges involved, nuclear power is our best chance of walking that tightrope that allows us to manage both economic and industrial concerns while decarbonizing. Is that not the objective we are all striving for?

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