Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Environment and Energy Committee; Report
I would like to put on record that this report on the inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia is one of the most important inquiry documents in this term of this parliament. There is the energy conundrum of how to decarbonise our electricity system but still maintain an industrial base—have a modern industrial society where energy is required 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year—and meet our commitments and aspirations for reducing the CO2 impact on the atmosphere and the climate. The nuclear report emphasises that by its very name, Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia.
In this inquiry, we were charged with looking at the prerequisites that would have to be in place before we proceeded further. That amounts to a certain three big recommendations. They are all measured and very sensible. We recommended, first of all, that a body of work be done by ANSTO, outlining all the generations of nuclear technology, generations I through IV—in other words, a technology assessment; second, that a regulatory assessment be done, by ARPANSA; and, third, that an economic assessment be done, by the Productivity Commission.
With regard to technology, some of the speakers have mentioned a few things on which I would like to correct the record. The big recommendation is to not remove the moratorium until we get those things in place but to consider a partial removal, particularly of the old technology—maintain the moratorium for type I, type II and type III versions of nuclear reactors, and look and assess generations III+ and IV. Just to reassure the member for Gilmore, the Jervis Bay one that was being looked at quite seriously in the 1960s was generation II.
If you look at where the accidents have happened, Three Mile Island was an early generation II; Chernobyl was a beginner model, a generation I—it was poorly maintained, it was working beyond its capacity and it wasn't being used appropriately—and even Fukushima, which was damaged by the tidal wave, is a generation II. If they'd followed the guidelines that had been recommended, that the diesel pumps that ran the cooling water should be moved up out of the tsunami area—it was recommended many times, which is quite disturbing—it wouldn't have had the hydrogen explosion that it did.
But, overall, nuclear reactors are incredibly safe. When you compare those events to the safety of traditional electricity production technology, like coal in China, you find that, for each petawatt of energy produced, it's estimated that there are 90,000 deaths. This is Massachusetts Institute of Technology data. Compare that to the safety of nuclear, where, even with the limited number of deaths, for the same amount of energy produced, the rate is 90 deaths. So it goes from 90,000 to 90. Coal in America is obviously safer because of their occupational health and safety, but it's really a myth that nuclear power is dangerous.
In fact, one of the depositions in the inquiry by Professor Erich Weigold explained that, with the engineering changes now:
The probability of core damage or the loss of structural integrity … for modern nuclear reactors is close to one in a million years.
Small modular reactors use traditional technology in a smaller, factory-built modular sense, which delivers passive safety features so they can actually be air-cooled. An accident like Fukushima couldn't happen because they have passive safety features built into it. By the time all the water evaporates, the modules are small enough that they can all be air-cooled. Engineers do this stuff. They model all the things and all the capabilities. Professor Weigold goes on to say:
In a design sense, that is incredibly safe.
Getting back to the other observations, there is so much that you could talk about in this report. I recommend that everyone read it. One of the conditions we had to look at was the workforce capability of Australia if we wanted to go down that track. That is a really misunderstood capability. We are a nuclear nation. We've been running reactors in Lucas Heights since the 1950s. We are one of the biggest producers of medical isotopes in the world. It is all run by Australians. We have a huge engineering and scientific base in this country. Most of the engineers involved in nuclear power plants aren't nuclear engineers; they're regular electrical and mechanical engineers. As for most of the construction, it's only the inner core where the radiation is that gets inherently nuclear. Most of it is traditional, high-grade civil engineering, which we do in spades in the mining industry and in the construction of major projects. And we have many Australian expats who are working around the world running nuclear plants who would be back here in a heartbeat.
We have a huge regulatory set-up already with ARPANSA, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. We have the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office. We have state levels of regulation for all the movement of isotopes and nuclear material. And there's another observation I'd like to make which most people don't understand: we have a nuclear waste facility in this country already. It's great news that the one in Kimba has finally been approved by the local community, which harks back to that sentiment that we're not going to do this without people's approval. So we need to educate people about the real nature of nuclear energy and the real cost of it, which is highly competitive with even coal, which is the cheapest. The system levelised cost of energy in these countries that build nuclear plants all the time, which is confirmed by the International Energy Agency, is very competitive. We subsequently visited India, and the nuclear corporation that runs their nuclear power plants is a profit-making entity for the nation of India. So it is economically viable if you do it well. We can be a late adopter of technology, so we can get the very best, and, if we do it right, we have the potential to solve the conundrum—that is, the climate requirement for us to reduce our carbon footprint.
One other thing I would like to say concerns this furphy that 'it uses too much water'. Most of these new modern reactors—whether they're molten-salt or heated-gas reactors heating the water—can be very efficient with water. The Chinese are building reactors in their arid interior which won't require that large amount of recycling of water. The water can be produced, if you do need to use technology where you have water cooling—that's very easy. Nuclear power plants can be a net producer of water. If they do want to go by the coast, they can act as a desalination plant, as well as using the desalinated water for the cooling towers.
I commend this report to the House and to members who haven't read it, because they will see that a lot of the historical attitudes towards nuclear energy are really not accurate. It is a safe technology. It can be used to re-industrialise our country with a reliable base-load system that will deliver energy for years. A modern nuclear power plant can last for 80 or 90 years. They have done so in India: they've got the world record for the longest continuous production of energy from a nuclear power plant.