Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Environment and Energy Committee; Report
I rise today to make some very brief comments supporting what is an excellent report. I thank the chair, the member for Fairfax, Ted O'Brien, for the great work that he did in marshalling the troops and also all those who were on the committee and contributed and are here today. Although there was perhaps a diverse range of opinions, everyone worked, I think, cooperatively. I think it's a very fine report and reflects well on the parliament.
I just want to make some preliminary comments. We have seen this movie unfold before. As a farmer, I have had a lot of involvement in advocacy for genetically modified crops. Those crops are now being grown Australia-wide, as the South Australian Liberal government recently lifted the moratorium on GM crops in South Australia. They will have that technology available to their farmers this year. We have seen state Labor governments around the country, antiscience luddites, who have opposed this technology all the way along. There has been no recorded incident of an adverse health impact with the billions of meals that have been consumed. Genetically modified crops are grown all over the Americas, both north and south, and consumers in those countries regularly consume genetically modified corn and other products and, as I say, no adverse impact of consuming those GM crops has ever been recorded. They have wonderful environmental benefits, as we have seen with Bt cotton here in Australia, where the amount of chemicals used to control insects has been reduced by a factor of nine. Yet still we see state Labor governments, with their Greens fellow travellers, oppose this technology at every step of the way.
As I say, the last moratorium imposed by state government, a state Labor government, was lifted by the Liberals in South Australia. We can now truck GM canola seed from Victoria to Western Australia, whereas previously we had to truck it from Victoria via the Northern Territory and down through the north of Western Australia to the southern districts. As I say, we have seen this movie play out before.
But I will come back to the nuclear inquiry and the recommendations. The first recommendation is that nuclear energy be considered as part of Australia's future energy needs. This is a very measured and sensible recommendation, as are all the recommendations. 'It be considered'—all that means is that it be considered as part of our future energy mix.
The second recommendation is that a body of work be undertaken to include economic assessment, technological assessment and readiness assessment. That, once again, is not building a nuclear power plant at Jervis Bay—as the previous speaker said, seeking to whip up fear without actually absorbing what the report said. Thirdly, we recommended a partial and conditional lift on the moratorium to allow third and fourth generation nuclear technology to be considered in this country. If the moratorium sits there, there is no commercial operator that will do the research and do the business plan if they have no hope of ever commercialising that project.
I just want to make a few comments about nuclear energy and where it currently sits. We have heard from other speakers that it is on the way out. At the moment, there are 452 reactors operating across 31 countries around the world. Importantly, there are 495 plants either under construction or in the planning phase. So that's almost a doubling of the nuclear fleet in the next 10 years. The two countries where nuclear energy plays a very large role in their energy mix are Canada and France, both very sophisticated countries that we can learn some lessons from. The current wholesale price of electricity is US$28 per megawatt hour, which is around A$40. That is compared to Australia's current wholesale price of electricity of around $100 per megawatt hour. So the argument that nuclear energy is expensive is not borne out by the facts in these countries.
In terms of emissions reduction, one golf ball sized piece of uranium represents a lifetime's energy for an individual. That compares with 1,000 kilograms of coal, a tonne of coal, 564 litres of oil or 481 cubic metres of gas. So that's one golf ball sized piece of uranium. And we've got plenty of it here in Australia. In fact, in my electorate I've got three uranium projects that are, hopefully, about to go into the production phase. They've received all their approvals and are looking at the future very optimistically.
The technology that we're talking about here, that would possibly be installed if we ever got to that stage, would be the small modular nuclear reactors with the thorium salt as their main power source, and those small reactors, three of them, could power 1.08 million households in Australia.
In overseas countries it is difficult to extrapolate the figures exactly, but the estimated plant cost is around A$4 billion, which would represent an electricity generation cost of around $60 per megawatt hour. So that's very competitive with the current price. But, effectively, that's not the government's problem, in my view. I don't believe in subsidising nuclear power stations. Personally, I don't believe in subsidising coal power stations and I don't believe we should be subsidising renewable energy. We should be completely technology agnostic in this, and the best power source, the most efficient, and the source that provides firm base-load power is the technology that should win the day.
Finally, I want to touch on the safety aspect. There have been three nuclear incidents—some may say accidents—with the first and second generation power plants. At Three Mile Island there were no deaths from exposure to radiation. At Chernobyl, there were 19 deaths from exposure to radiation. At Fukushima there were no deaths from exposure to radiation. They died when they drowned as they were trying to shut the reactor down. They were in a basement and they drowned in the tsunami. So, from a safety perspective, I don't have the numbers but I can guarantee that many, many more people die in the coalmining industry, in the generation of electricity through coal-fired power stations and others, than die at a nuclear reactor.
I commend the report to the House. I think it's an excellent piece of work. It's something that should certainly stimulate discussion. People with an open mind, people who can move beyond that antiscience mindset that I described with the GM crops, should be able to have a rational debate about this. The best technology to provide low emissions baseload power should be the technology that this country adopts.