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Is the future nuclear? Why a maligned technology could be back on the cards

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Human activity is changing the earth’s climate. Since the end of the 19th century, the planet’s temperature has increased by at least 1º Celsius. As a result, we’re already seeing the devastating effects of the climate crisis, including warming oceans, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, coral bleaching, increased numbers of extreme weather events, and the loss of wildlife habitats.

While there is a global consensus regarding the need for decarbonisation to address this crisis, debate remains about the best way to achieve it.

Some, such as Dr Adi Paterson, the former CEO of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), believe nuclear energy is the answer.

Nuclear energy produces electricity when the heat created by the fission, or splitting, of radioactive isotopes of uranium or plutonium in a reactor is used to power steam turbines.

Another proposed method to produce nuclear energy is fusion – when atoms are fused to create energy. According to ITER, “Fusing atoms together in a controlled way releases nearly four million times more energy than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal, oil or gas and four times as much as nuclear fission reactions (at equal mass).”

In February 2021, the UK-based JET laboratory successfully produced 59 megajoules of energy by fusing two forms of hydrogen, marking another step forward in the development of fusion as a viable large-scale energy source.

“If you want a practical, safe and effective way of producing lots of energy, the current generation is nuclear fission,” says Dr Paterson. “The next generation will be nuclear fusion.”

The environmental impacts of nuclear

A research paper published by the Federal Government in 2020 outlines the environmental impact of nuclear energy. “The key advantage of nuclear power is that its operation produces no greenhouse gases and no significant emissions of other air pollutants,” it states.

“However, power plant construction, transport of nuclear waste, and decommissioning does result in emissions. Despite this, whole-of-life analysis shows that nuclear power is much more ‘greenhouse-friendly’ than burning hydrocarbons such as coal, peat, oil and natural gas.”

Australia is “a massive producer of greenhouse gases,” says Dr Paterson. “My passion for peaceful nuclear is absolutely rooted in its ability to help us deal with the climate crisis.”

Nuclear energy around the world

Nuclear energy provides around 10 per cent of global electricity. Historically, production has been concentrated in OECD countries, where nuclear provides almost 20 per cent of total electricity output.

More recently, Russia, India and China have been leading a push in nuclear energy. China is planning to build at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, representing a US$440 billion investment, Bloomberg reports.

“I’ve got great respect for the Chinese nuclear program. They are building reactor technology in second countries which is safe and right up to date,” says Dr Paterson. In 2021, Pakistan switched on a 1100MW nuclear reactor built in just six years with Chinese funding.

In Japan, where nuclear energy once provided one-third of the nation’s energy, nuclear fell out of favour after the devastating Fukushima disaster in 2011. All reactors in Japan were shut down after a tsunami triggered by a huge earthquake flooded the Fukushima power station and caused meltdowns in three reactors. Today, only 10 of the nation’s 33 reactors have restarted, and Japan has to import 90 per cent of its energy. 

Nuclear energy in Australia

Nuclear energy in Australia faces several obstacles.

One is public opinion. “It’s got a complex history,” acknowledges Dr Paterson. “People remember things like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they think of Chernobyl and Fukushima.”

Another is legislative. Nuclear power production is currently not permitted under two pieces of Commonwealth legislation—the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (the ARPANS Act) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act).

Also complicating the picture is the fact that energy in Australia is governed by the states. “Queensland still owns its generators, still owns the grid, still owns its distribution system,” says Dr Paterson, while “New South Wales has sold the grid to private companies.” This lack of uniformity across energy policy complicates any attempts to implement a national nuclear program.

Australia is facing the closure of many of its coal-fired power plants in the next two decades. Origin Energy recently made the surprise announcement that it would be decommissioning Eraring Power Station, Australia’s largest power station comprising four 720 MW coal-fired generator units for a combined capacity of 2,880 MW.

In 2021, EnergyAustralia announced its decision to close the 1,400MW Mount Piper coal power station, located near Lithgow in New South Wales, in 2040, three years earlier than initially planned, and the 1450MW Yallourn Power Station in Victoria in 2028, four years ahead of schedule.

Dr Paterson says one of nuclear energy’s advantages in Australia is its ability to tap into the existing grid. The sites of ageing coal plants could be retrofitted with small 300 to 600MW modular reactors. “It will give continuity to those communities that have been built around carbon-based energy and make them low carbon-based energy communities, and it will give sustainability to the current grid, which works really well … and is fit for purpose.”

Instead of investing money into expanding the current grid to accommodate sources of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, Dr Paterson believes we should “rebuild those regional and rural communities with small modular reactors replacing the coal plants as they come to end of life, or, preferably, building the nuclear plant next door and switching the coal off as quickly as we can.”

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