Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Environment and Energy Committee; Report
I rise in support of this document, which I am pleased to say has had a huge amount of consideration. I'd like to congratulate the member for Fairfax for chairing the committee that presented this very fine report. And I would like to note that in my first speech I stated that I believe in climate action, that I know that climate change is real and that, as a scientist, I was very sure that as a community we need to think about all forms of technology going forward.
For me, it's not just an environmental imperative to have climate action; it's an economic imperative. In fact, with the world transitioning to a carbon-neutral future, it's also an economic inevitability. Australia is at that tipping point where we can be part of the technological revolution. As a scientist, to hear that we are considering, with an open mind, the many options that are available to us is absolutely fantastic.
I wanted to address some of the information that was passed from the other side of this House. Firstly, I think it's very important to delineate that this report from the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia, was a very carefully worded title—that is, we need to understand the community's view on new nuclear. The report made very clear the difference between first- and second-generation nuclear and third- and fourth-generation nuclear.
I won't disagree with some of the things that were said by the other side in this chamber about first- and second-generation nuclear. In fact, much, if not all, of their debate was about first- and second-generation nuclear. That's actually unhelpful and extremely disappointing. With the greatest respect, I've heard a lot from the other side that they would like to see a bipartisan way forward. What we're talking about here is a discussion that's a sensible discussion based on the sensible proposition that third- and fourth-generation nuclear is in the future. It hasn't been commercialised. It's not yet scalable. It's an opportunity for Australia to consider.
The report said that, in order to even consider a partial lift of the moratorium on the environment protection act, four things would need to occur. Firstly, we'd need to have a technological assessment, and that would need to be undertaken by ANSTO. Secondly, we would need a readiness assessment, and that would be undertaken by ARPANSA. The reason we'd need a readiness assessment is that, unfortunately, we don't have a large body of nuclear physicists or nuclear engineers and we'd need to look into things like facilities that may be required to build a new nuclear industry. Thirdly, it talked about the Productivity Commission looking into the economics of new nuclear—third- and fourth-generation nuclear. Fourthly, it said there'd need to be bipartisan support and a public willingness to explore this as an option.
To me, as a scientist, that is incredibly sensible, very practical and very tangible. It doesn't say, 'Let's get in there, boots and all.' What it says is that we need to think about this in a considered and open-minded way. That's why I'm very disappointed that the opposite side of the benches have just come in and started talking about all these things which are true for first- and second-generation nuclear, but, if they read the report—which I did very carefully—the report was very careful to delineate between old nuclear and new nuclear.
I have a strong commitment to climate action. The people of Higgins have told me that they have a strong commitment to climate action. But the issue with climate action is that it is highly unlikely for there to be one silver bullet on energy. We know this because we know already that the world is transitioning to a carbon-neutral future, but there are different energy mixes in each country. We do know that many of those countries that already have carbon neutral 2050 targets—particularly larger economies—have nuclear in their mix.
To be fair, the nuclear that is in their mix is second-generation nuclear, and some of those are closing shop because of—quite rightly, as the opposition has said—the safety concerns around first- and second-generation nuclear. Chernobyl and Fukushima were first- and second-generation nuclear effectively, and that old technology has issues with large amounts of waste. It has concerns around nuclear proliferation. It has concerns about cost. And of course there are concerns about waste disposal. Many of those things have not been solved.
However, third- and fourth-generation nuclear has had massive investment by social good ventures—such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested billions of dollars into this technology—because this new technology is based on a completely different technological underpinning. This is because the accidents that occurred, like the Japanese accident, were based on this old technology where, if there was an explosion or a natural disaster, the energy activation that occurred was not halted. The exciting possibility about new nuclear is that, if an accident were to happen, it actually, through gravity, disconnects the mechanism, dropping that modular reactor into a nuclear bunker and therefore immediately stopping it and protecting safety.
This is a really different way of thinking about things, and it's amazing it wasn't thought of with first and second generation, but there are new technologies coming all the time. New nuclear, which includes small modular reactors and molten salt reactors, has a very different way of using and being safe—from the point of view of the actual chemical reaction itself. It is also based, more often, on different types of compounds. With new nuclear, molten salt reactors use thorium, for instance, and thorium is abundant everywhere in the world, it's a highly abundant natural element, and it doesn't have the same association with nuclear proliferation, so the risks of nuclear proliferation are not the same as they are for uranium based nuclear, for instance.
When we talk about waste—and I am not a technocrat when it comes to nuclear; I am a medical researcher, so I don't know as much about the technical details—what I understand is the production of waste is much smaller with new nuclear than old nuclear, so the requirement for the storage of waste is much smaller than it is for old nuclear. We know in Australia—and a previous federal minister for health, the Hon. Michael Wooldridge, likes to tell me about this—that when we first talked about using nuclear medicine in Australia there was a very large reaction from the community, a very negative one, quite frankly. Michael likes to tell me, 'We changed the framing of the words so that people could understand how this technology would benefit them.' Now we know that nearly one in two Australians are using some form of nuclear medicine in their diagnosis and treatments for things like cancer—and people are so much more accepting, because they understand how it benefits them. If we're going to have a strong reaction from the opposition using terminologies that relate to an old form of technology, I personally think that's very unhelpful for an open-minded discussion about how we're going to get to a carbon-neutral future.
To get back to what we're trying to achieve: we want to move to a carbon-neutral future and we're very committed to climate action, but what we need to do is be open-minded about the technologies that might be available. As a scientist, I know that it's sometimes very difficult to predict the future of science and technology development. I can give you a number of examples. I was involved in gene therapy and stem cell research, and it's very hard to predict the benefits that will come out of those sorts of technologies. At the turn of the century, for instance, we thought that we would have gene therapy available for treatment for patients. The technology that was developed in mice has resulted in something called transgenic mice models, and the result of that is helping the development of medicines, each and every day, for patients. It's helping the development of biological models, which are incredibly powerful. We would never have been able to predict that in 1999, but in 2020 we know that transgenic mice and gene therapy in these sorts of models have been incredibly effective and very useful for humankind. I would argue the same is true for new technologies, particularly in this area of energy. Being a scientist, I am quite well connected to the global scientific community, and there are massive amounts of investments in this new energy area.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 16 : 37 to 16 : 50
I want you to imagine a highway exclusively devoted to delivering the world's energy. Each lane is restricted to trucks that carry one of the world's seven large-scale sources of primary energy: coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar and wind—
note that hydrogen is a storage; it's not an energy—
Our current energy security comes at a price, the carbon dioxide emissions from the trucks in the three busiest lanes: the ones for coal, oil and natural gas. We can't just put up roadblocks overnight to stop these trucks; they are carrying the overwhelming majority of the world's energy supply. But, what if we expand clean electricity production carried by the trucks in the solar and wind lanes — three or four times over — into an economically efficient clean energy future.
Alan Finkel is talking about imagination, openness and possibility. We need to focus on harnessing the power of new technology, including new nuclear, in my view. It's worth keeping an open mind to developing new opportunities. (Time expired)