Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Environment and Energy Committee; Report
During 2019, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, of which I am a member, inquired into the circumstances and prerequisites for a future government to consider nuclear energy, including small modular reactor technologies in Australia. We received over 300 submissions and held 11 public hearings all over Australia. I commend the chair, the member for Fairfax, for leading a thorough inquiry in a short period of time.
The background is important. Australia is undergoing a revolutionary energy transition. We are shifting away from coal-fired baseload power to more variable forms of energy, like solar and wind. Australia is now a world leader in the uptake of clean power. Some feel that this transition should include nuclear energy, which has previously been banned from consideration. This inquiry was tasked to investigate the conditions and prerequisites that would have to be in place for a future government to consider lifting the moratorium on nuclear energy. The findings are important. After extensive deliberation—and this is an issue that motivates and creates a lot of reaction—I agreed with some of the findings of the main report, but, nevertheless, I ultimately dissented due to a number of reasons, and they are put in detail in my dissenting report.
I supported recommendations 1 and 2 in the main report, because ultimately I do believe information and an open mind is always important. They, in part, recommend an independent assessment of available and emerging nuclear technology as well as the viability of nuclear power, but it must be done in the Australian context, especially when compared with other technologies. Extra scrutiny of the evidence by independent bodies is welcome and should enhance any decisions made by a future government on nuclear energy. It was clearly evident during the hearing process that we had vastly diverging views and evidence being put forward to the committee. Nuclear must also be considered alongside other technologies, like solar and wind, which I consider to be safer and better options.
I did not agree with recommendation 3, which sought conditional approval for lifting the moratorium on specific technologies, like small modular reactors, with the prior consent of affected communities. The prospect of nuclear energy divides our community. Therefore, prior to any consideration of the lifting of the moratorium or any part of the moratorium in relation to nuclear energy, nuclear energy must be put to the Australian people, either by plebiscite or by federal election. Further, any community engagement program undertaken by the government must include education and awareness of other technologies, like solar, wind and hydrogen. Nuclear is not an either/or proposition. It must be considered in the context of other means of energy production.
As for the substance of the main report, it both overstates the benefits of nuclear and understates the risks, especially when compared with other technologies, like renewables, particularly as it pertains to waste management, transport and storage, health and safety—which is vitally important—energy affordability, and reliability. The Australian people deserve transparency, especially on such an important matter. Ultimately the people will decide on what direction the country should go, which is why I provided detail, in the dissenting report, on the evidence omitted from the main report—to inform better decision-making by the Australian people.
The main report also lacked consideration of two essential prerequisites: a long-term target to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and a settled national energy policy. Any consideration of nuclear must be in light of our commitment to the Paris Agreement, which is a commitment to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This requires Australia to reach net zero by the middle of the century, a fact supported by evidence heard during the inquiry—even by those supporting and requesting a lift of the moratorium on nuclear energy. Australia must follow the example of many other nations and legislate a target of net zero by 2050.
Finally, you cannot guide an energy transition without a national energy policy—a fact supported by many submissions and eminent Australians. This policy must consider the ambitious direction of our various state and territory governments. They are shifting their jurisdiction to renewable energy. This has to be the focus.
Australia has a huge opportunity to be a renewable energy superpower. We have a duty in this place to investigate the possibilities in front of us and find a sensible way forward. Time is of the essence, and I urge the government to not be distracted but to focus on implementing a long-term plan to encourage investment in large-scale renewable projects—technologies that are ready now, not that hope to come online sometime in the future. The technologies that are ready now will deliver clean and cheap energy to Australians and, most importantly, are much safer for Australians. That is ultimately our first and foremost duty in this place.