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Will AUKUS lead Australia down the nuclear path?



Nuclear energy, it would seem, has snuck its way onto the table of Australian public policy, though where on that table remains hard to say. Concerns continue about its adoption that remain, to put it politely, insoluble.

The trilateral AUKUS pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has invariably been an inspiration behind revivifying the argument. To have nuclear platforms as part of a nation’s defence is bound to encourage discussion of nuclear power in a civilian capacity, since the agreement envisages the transfer and construction of nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS effectively signals a de facto smuggling of nuclear power into Australia, and the loud calls from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to embrace a domestic nuclear industry of scale attests to that fact.

Some preambulatory context is necessary to understand this seemingly dramatic change of heart. Broadly speaking, the nuclear issue, in its various complicated manifestations, has always been a background feature of Australian politics. That Australia became a primary testing ground for Britain’s nuclear weapons program was always likely to spark some interest among the mandarins in Canberra about how best to exploit it. 

In his June 29, 1961 letter to his UK counterpart, Harold Macmillan, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies expressed concerns over the impediments imposed by a potential treaty that would impose limitations on countries the subject of nuclear testing.  Such a document ‘could prove a serious limitation on the range of decisions open to a future Australian Government in that it could effectively preclude or at least impose a very substantial handicap on Australia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.’

Menzies ventured an idea that was eventually put into history’s cold storage. An arrangement deemed ‘more practical,’ he proposed, might involve furnishing Australia with ‘ready-made weapons’ at the conclusion of such a treaty. With disturbing resonance, we find that trajectory being realised with the provision and construction of nuclear powered submarines, accompanied with that tantalising suggestion of more nuclear platforms to be placed on Australian soil under AUKUS.

Australia’s inchoate nuclear ambitions were subsumed by the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in February 1970. Canberra duly took that all too paradoxical position of seeking a reduction of nuclear weapons even as it relied on the untested and unverifiable concept of extended US nuclear deterrence. As the Australian government encourages disarmament, it continues to demand security from the very thing it seeks removed.

In that light, the language of Dutton seems to be much a broom to the cobwebs on this policy. In the first instance, he fears Australia might be missing out on ‘the international nuclear energy renaissance’, a misleading suggestion at best. For one thing, it sounds awfully much like the rhetoric used two decades ago, when new Generation III plants, heralded for being safer and more efficient than the previous generation’s plants from the 1970s and 1980s, were intended to inspire revolution. That extolled renaissance delivered a modest trickle of reactors at best.


'Given that Australia is a country that hosts military nuclear platforms, the impetus to translate it into a civilian context is proving powerful.'


Dutton’s claim to such a renaissance initially lay in largely untested, unworkable and expensive devices known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These have become a fixation, given their purportedly convenient construction on coal generator sites to supplement energy renewables.

Unsurprisingly, these devices have a glowing endorsement from the International Atomic Energy Agency. SMRs, we are told by the agency’s Joanne Liu, ‘are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 Mw(e) per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors.’

Glowing enthusiasm for such devices fades on looking at the evidence of use. Russia and China host microreactors plagued by burgeoning costs, the very things that SMRs are meant to avoid.  Oregon-based NuScale specialises in wooing patrons about a product it lacks but promises to develop. The company’s own cost estimates for energy generation, despite being underwritten by government subsidies, have not made the adoption of SMR technology appealing.

The CSIRO, likewise, has little stomach for the venture, despite conceding that, ‘Without more real-world data for SMRs demonstrating that nuclear can be economically viable, the debate will likely continue to be dominated by opinion and conflicting social values rather than a discussion on the underlying assumptions.’

Given the shoddy nature of the SMR idea, Dutton is now puffing for something grander. ‘Reassuringly,’ he told a gathering at the Australian Financial Review Business summit in March, ‘an increasing number of Australians recognise that there is zero chance of reaching net zero without zero-emission nuclear power.’ If at first you fail in a small way, best aim larger.

‘He is now speaking about large nuclear reactors. They need to be near populations, they need to be near water,’ Prime Minister Anthony Albanese remarks. ‘I look forward to him announcing the locations for nuclear reactors in Australia and for there to be an appropriate debate about that.’

The target of the opposition leader is clearly the use of renewables in the energy market. Despite claiming not to oppose them in principle, Dutton insists that the policy is ‘ideologically’ driven and ‘utterly reckless.’ The Albanese government was ‘on the trajectory to immiserating our economy and impoverishing future generations of Australians under [its] renewables only energy policy’.

The nuclear program, from its inception and for the duration of its life, will be enormously costly to build while also drawing in huge government subsidies even as the costs of unsubsidised renewable energy falls. Between 2009 and 2020, the costs of unsubsidised wind power fell by 71 per cent in the United States alone, with unsubsidised solar energy costs declining sharply by 90 per cent over that same period.

To this can be added the necessary intellectual base currently lacking in Australia, the troubling debate about locating the reactors, the unresolved, intractable issue of storing the resulting radioactive waste, lead-up times to power generation, and decommissioning costs. But given that Australia is a country that hosts military nuclear platforms, the impetus to translate it into a civilian context is proving powerful, if troubling. For an opposition desperate to garner votes for the next election, the idea is proving irresistible.




Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. 

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, AUKUS, Nuclear, Energy, Australia



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Top 15 Nuclear Generating Countries - by Share of Nuclear Energy 2021
France 69.0
Ukraine 55.0
Slovakia 52.3
Belgium 50.8
Hungary 46.8
Slovenia 36.9
Czech Republic 36.6
Bulgaria 34.6
Finland 32.8
Sweden 30.8
Switzerland 28.8
South Korea 28.0
Armenia 25.3
Spain 20.8
Russia 20.0
Ironically coal has supplied Qld with generous budget surpluses for the past two years and the improved revenue outlook in 2023–24 primarily reflects upward revisions to coal and petroleum royalties, due to higher-than-expected global metallurgical coal and oil prices being received by Queensland’s key commodity producers. ( Qld budget papers).
The irony in the scramble to eliminate fossil fuels is the fact that the technology to replace coal fired turbines has been developed. The Direct fuel cell (Direct Energy) is a Qld company of Australia.
DE creates, delivers and captures value through
commercializing a Solid Oxide Cell – that can operate in Fuel Cell or Electrolyser mode.
The technology offers lower costs, superior environmental credentials and high electrical efficiencies in the production of power and green hydrogen.
DE has worked in partnership with (UQ) for 10 years, in the development of the technology. It has a 2% CO2 emission compared to 45% for coal fired turbines.

Francis Armstrong | 06 April 2024  

There are now 20 countries using nuclear technology to produce power for electricity. Figures produced by Canada show that power from nuclear sources is cheaper than that currently provided in non-nuclear Australia. It is urgent that the current ban on using nuclear technology is lifted. The fact that Rolls Royce and Westinghouse can now manufacture compact nuclear power stations which can be built here within 10 years should not be ignored.

BERNARD TRESTON | 11 April 2024  
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This isn't entirely true - the reason nuclear power may appear cheaper in Canada is because it is heavily subsidised by the government. It's like in WA where electricity has been lower than other states... because it is essentially underwritten by successive state governments. It's misleading to cherry pick data like this and would suggest looking at CSIRO's GenCost data - or if you want a global outlook have a look at Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy reports. Nuclear is by far the most expensive form of energy and there are no nuclear plants in existence that are not heavily subsidised. Also please note that there is no such thing as a "compact nuclear power station". If you're referring to SMRs, please note this technology does not exist yet. There are two reactors with a capacity of 300 megawatts (MW) or less - one each in Russia and China, both exhibiting familiar problems of massive cost blowouts and multi-year delays. Neither meets the ‘modular’ definition of serial factory production of reactor components. These do not exist.

Lex | 18 April 2024  

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