Mike Young sometimes wonders why nuclear power has become such an accepted part of life in his native Canada when it is still so deeply controversial in his adopted home of Australia.
- There are calls to overturn Australia’s longstanding ban on nuclear energy, which produces no emissions
- Nuclear power provides about 10 per cent of the world’s energy needs, though none in Australia
- Critics say extremely high construction costs and time delays make nuclear power uneconomic
After all, he notes, Canada and Australia are remarkably similar in their size, heritage and political sensibilities, and both have the largest reserves of the nuclear fuel uranium in the developed world.
Yet for all the similarities between the two countries, the entrenched views towards nuclear power could hardly be more different, and Mr Young thinks one of the answers might be simple.
“The British didn’t test nuclear weapons in Canada,” the former uranium mining executive says in reference to the testing regime carried out in Australia in the 1950s.
Interest renewed in nuclear power
Fanned by the winds of change sweeping across the world’s energy system in the shift towards a carbon neutral future, interest in the potential of nuclear power has been growing in some quarters.
The attention centres on the emissions-free nature of nuclear power which, unlike renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, can produce around-the-clock regardless of the weather.
For Mr Young, it is an attribute that should put the nuclear option firmly on the table as the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels such as coal, diesel and gas.
“It needs to be part of the mix,” Mr Young said.
“You have to remember that by 2050, the forecast is we’ll double electricity demand.
Around the world, nuclear power meets about 10 per cent of energy demand, a figure that has stayed relatively stable for decades.
While countries that were once major generators of nuclear power such as Japan and Germany have pared back or closed down their industry, others have keenly pursued the technology.
Among them are a host of developing countries such as China, the United Arab Emirates and India, where dozens of plants worth tens of billions of dollars are in the pipeline.
Nuclear energy costs ‘crippling’
But conspicuous by their absence are developed countries rushing to build new nuclear plants.
And it is no coincidence according to financial analyst Tim Buckley, who says nuclear cannot compete with renewable energy in the contest for investors’ cash.
Mr Buckley is the director of energy finance studies for Australia at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a think tank funded by environmental philanthropists.
He said the high capital cost of nuclear power stations and their tendency to suffer budget and time blowouts made them uneconomic.
“The cost of nuclear is almost always double whatever anyone estimates,” Mr Buckley said.
“Why? Because a corporate can’t take a $20 billion punt.
“And we’re not talking Aussie dollars; we’re talking euros, or pounds or American dollars — serious money.
“No company can afford that, particularly if there’s a 10-year delay.”
According to Mr Buckley, long delays in construction meant interest costs often became crippling for nuclear plants.
He pointed to the litany of bankruptcies and high-profile exits from companies such as GE, Toshiba and French giant Areva to argue the nuclear industry was a “graveyard” for corporations.
‘Keep existing plants running’
Despite this, Mr Buckley said existing nuclear plants should be allowed to run for as long as possible because they would help efforts to rein in global emissions.
Citing an article by clean energy guru Michael Liebreich, he said it was “criminal” that Germany was moving to shut down its nuclear energy industry — a move that had increased the country’s reliance on coal-fired energy and imports of nuclear power from France.
And Mr Buckley, a former investment banker, said that for all the publicity they generated, nuclear disasters such as the Fukushima meltdown in Japan in 2011 were exceptionally rare.
“Where you’ve got well managed, properly supervised, independently regulated nuclear that’s already had that massive investment in getting built, let them run for as long they can,” he said.
“At the end of the day, having a liveable planet is probably more important than the risk of a Fukushima, so let’s actually go for a liveable planet and stop lignite (brown coal) first, stop coal second and do nuclear third.”
Tania Constable, who heads industry lobby the Minerals Council of Australia, said she doubted the world could meet its net zero goals within the next 30 years without an increase in nuclear power.
Ms Constable said Australia was well placed to take advantage of any increase in demand for nuclear power, given its significant reserves of yellow cake.
To that end, she noted there were several uranium mining projects across Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland waiting in the wings.
Opportunity for Aussie miners
She said the key would be a sustained increase in prices, which have been depressed since 2011 but have shot up in recent months.
“Because we’ve seen the price of uranium increasing, those companies that have had projects mothballed … are now almost at the point where they can make decisions to move projects back into operation,” she said.
“I think that’s a great thing for states, a great thing for the industry, and is necessary if we want to see reliable, clean energy at a global level.”
While nuclear power has been characterised by giant plants that can produce up to 12 gigawatts at a time — enough to meet a third of the demand in the National Electricity Market — Ms Constable said the industry was changing.
She said that significant work was underway to develop so-called small modular reactors that could replace coal-fired power stations and even power remote towns and mine sites.
It’s a view echoed by Mr Young, who until this year ran WA uranium mining hopeful Vimy.
He believes small reactors are likely to have a much brighter future than mega plants of the past, saying modular versions would be cheaper and easier to build and install.
And he suggested modular plants might help engender a more sympathetic view towards nuclear in Australia, which differs from many developed countries in having no nuclear energy.
Mr Young said public hostility to nuclear appeared to be easing, pointing to the Morrison government’s decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines and Labor’s support for the proposal as evidence.
“The problem is building big reactors in a country like Australia is just not going to happen,” he said.
“But what is happening is the development of small modular reactors.
“And if you do it where the coal plants are, you’ve got all your (poles and wires) already in and you don’t have to build a whole new transmission system.”
Future ‘renewable, not nuclear’
Mr Buckley remains unconvinced by the arguments for small nuclear reactors.
He said the technology was yet to be proved at a pilot stage let alone a commercial level.
Mr Buckley said renewable energy costs would continue to drop, making other options including nuclear power unviable.
“This is not a single plant operational in the world, and there’s a very good chance there won’t be even a demonstration small scale nuclear reactor plant this decade,” Mr Buckley said.
Faced with claims that nuclear was required to replace the base-load generation of coal and gas, Mr Buckley was equally forthright.
He said a combination of technologies and strategies would underpin the grid’s switch to net zero.
Among these were more high-voltage poles and wires to accommodate ever increasing amounts of renewable energy, storage services such as batteries and “pumped-hydro” schemes, and a properly designed electric vehicle policy.
He acknowledged there would also be a need for gas-fired peaking power plants for some time yet.
However, he argued nuclear would not be needed.
“If we use imagination, if we use engineers, if we use the grid, if we use technology, if we use artificial intelligence, the reality is the grid is going to be far more resilient in 10 years than it is today,” he said.
“I’m not saying the system can work tomorrow 100 per cent renewable but … it’s got to be ready for that because it’s coming whether you like it or not.”