Aug 31 2023

Nuclear power for Australia: A potted history

Nuclear power has re-emerged as part of our energy debate with the Federal Opposition proposing a coal-to-nuclear transition. While it does wax and wane, a look back at the political arguments around nuclear power show that it has never been too far from the mainstream and resurfaces from time-to-time with recurring themes. Most recently, and like many things relating to energy, it can also quickly become enmeshed in the so-called “culture wars”. 

Nuclear power is prohibited in Australia, principally by two pieces of Federal legislation - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act); and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (ARPANS Act). These laws effectively prevent the construction or operation of nuclear facilities for power generation, as well as facilities for the fabrication of nuclear fuel, uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Individual states have also from time to time introduced legislation preventing nuclear developments. 

Given the renewed discussion and push for nuclear power as a zero emissions, dispatchable generation source, we thought it worthwhile to take a look at a potted history of the nuclear debate in Australia as it has ebbed and flowed. 

So close 

While nuclear power has been debated as a potential power source since the 1950s it reached its zenith in 1970 when the John Gorton-led Coalition Government backed the building of a 500MW nuclear power station at Jervis Bay in NSW.  

In a 1969 election speech Gorton declared: 

We shall, during the next Parliament, take Australia into the atomic age by beginning the construction of an atomic plant at Jervis Bay, to generate electricity. We believe that Australia will make increasing use of atomic power in the years ahead and that the time for this nation to enter the atomic age has now arrived. 

While there is debate whether the motivation to introduce nuclear power extended beyond its use solely for power generation, the development of our first nuclear plant came very close to finalisation at the beginning of the 1970s.  

By December 1969 expressions of interest were sought for the construction of the Jervis Bay nuclear power plant. Tender documents were issued the following February, with tenders closing in June. The operational start date was nominated as 31 December 1975. Fourteen tenders were received from seven “leading nuclear energy engineering” organisations from four countries (US, UK, Germany and Canada). The 1970-71 Budget set aside $2.4 million for work on the power stationi. (You can see more details on the proponents, ownership and operational arrangements via the Australian Atomic Energy Commission’sii 1969-70 annual report.) 

As a result of the government’s moves, in February 1970, the Illawarra Mercury proclaimed: 

"The power station will be the first of 20 atomic plants costing more than $2,000 million to be built in Australia by 1990." 

On September 1970 the Liberal Minister for National Development, Reginald Swartz, outlined to Parliament why Jervis Bay was selected and also pointed out that states outside New South Wales were also interested in nuclear power plants: 

It was found… that the New South Wales grid was the only one that could accept 500 megawatts, which is the proven minimum economic size for a nuclear power station these days. Therefore the agreement was discussed and negotiated with the Government of New South Wales. Other States have indicated their interest in nuclear power…  we discussed this … in the context of power generation for the future with the States of Queensland and Western Australia. They have indicated that at some time in the future there will be a positive interest in those States the same as there will be an interest in the southern States. 

The reason for the selection of the Jervis Bay site was that, first of all, it was technically the most suitable site and, secondly, it was considered that because the Commonwealth was providing the finance it would be desirable to have the station installed in the Australian Capital Territory.  

But the plans for the nuclear plant (see below an artist’s impression of the plant and siting plan from the time) were short-lived. John Gorton was replaced by Billy McMahon as the Prime Minister and the project was deferred for a year and Treasury prepared the first comprehensive cost analysis in 1971, finding that nuclear was a far more expensive alternative to a coal plant and the project was shelved. 

 

Source: ABC, ANSTO 

Source: ABC, South Coast Register 

 

Howard’s way 

Fast forward to 1998 and the John Howard-led Coalition government agreed to a Greens amendment to the National Radiation and Nuclear Safety Act (1998) to gain Senate support for a new research reactor at Lucas Heights. That amendment prohibited development of other nuclear facilities. 

John Howard’s Government again reignited the nuclear debate in May 2006 when the Prime Minister called for a “full-blooded” debate about the establishment of a nuclear power industry in Australia with all options on the table. The then Opposition environment spokesman, Anthony Albanese (and now Prime Minister) labelled Howard's nuclear policy as "Australia's nightmare". 

Soon after the call for open debate, John Howard announced that Cabinet had approved the establishment of a Prime Ministerial Taskforce to review uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia chaired by Dr Ziggy Switkowski. 

I think the mood has changed. I think it's changed a lot from the early 1980s.... What this inquiry is about is whether in the medium to longer-term, firstly, more should be done about uranium mining, should more be done about the processing of uranium, the valuing adding (sic) process, and is it economically feasible to contemplate the establishment of nuclear power stations in this country.

He stated that he didn’t expect to see nuclear power stations in Australia “within the next two or three years” and that the Government did not expect to build nuclear plants but rather “they are things that are likely to be constructed by the private sector”, if approved. 

The taskforce’s final report - Uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy: opportunities for Australia? – found that under one scenario there could be up to 25 reactors generating about a third of Australia’s electricityiii, but also flagged the need for community and bipartisan support. The report was released at a time when peak demand was growing faster than average demand and renewables were forecast to reach only a 10 per cent share of capacity by 2030.  

In November 2006 Queensland’s Government led by Peter Beattie announced that it would introduce the Nuclear Facilities Prohibition Bill 2006 to “help protect regional and rural Queensland from the threat of nuclear facilities being built in their backyard”. The Bill was enacted in 2007. 

Following the debate that arose from the Federal Government’s attempt to establish nuclear power and a resulting desire to neutralise it as an election issue, the Howard Government promised in 2007 to give local communities the final say on any proposed nuclear plant sites via binding plebiscites. 

At the time of the Howard Government was raising the need for a debate on nuclear power and trying to get public support via expert advice, the then-Labor Opposition was asking to know where any power plants would be sited.  

With the conjecture on potential sites for nuclear plants the Australia Institute went so far as to list 19 of the “most likely” sites in its paper Siting Nuclear Power Plants in Australia Where would they go?. Those sites ranged around the east coast from Townsville to Port Adelaide. 

South Australia ponders nuclear    

Fast forward to 2015 – A South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was established on 19 March 2015 and delivered its final report in 2016. It looked at four areas: the potential for expansion of exploration and extraction of minerals, the further processing of minerals and manufacture of radioactive materials, nuclear generation, and the storage and disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste. The report acknowledged the potential of nuclear power plants to supply zero emissions electricity. It also acknowledged that: 

Taking into account the South Australian energy market characteristics and the cost of building and operating a range of nuclear power plants, the Commission has found it would not be commercially viable to develop a nuclear power plant in South Australia beyond 2030 under current market rules.  

However, there will in coming decades be a need to significantly reduce carbon emissions and as a result to decarbonise Australia’s electricity sector. Nuclear power, as a low-carbon energy source comparable with other renewable technologies, may be required as part of a lower carbon electricity system. 

The Commission recommended the South Australian Government seek the lifting of Federal prohibitions on nuclear power plants so they could contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required. This was not pursued and the prohibitions remain in place. 

NSW’s debate  

In 2017 the New South Wales’ Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, renewed calls for nuclear power to be “part of the debate” about the state’s future energy mix. He stated that nuclear “should always be on the table”. It led to the NSW Opposition’s Penny Sharpe (now the state’s Energy Minister) moving an Upper House motion against nuclear power for NSW. In part this stated: That this House calls on the Government to rule out the development of a nuclear power industry in New South Wales and guarantee that no nuclear reactor will be supported for Jervis Bay or elsewhere in New South Wales. 

Not without your approval 

Fast forward again to 2019 – following the failure of any changes as a result of the SA Royal Commission and a referral from the previous Minister for Energy and Emission Reductions, Angus Taylor, a federal parliamentary committee, chaired by the current Opposition energy spokesman, Ted O’Brien, was established. The committee was asked to investigate the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia. Its report - Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia – was released at the end of 2019.  The Committee recommended the Australian Government consider the prospect of nuclear energy technology as part of our future energy mix including by “procuring next-of-a-kind nuclear reactors only, not first-of-a-kind”. The committee also wanted ANSTO to undertake a technological assessment of nuclear reactors and advise on the technological status of Generation III+ and Generation IV reactors, including small modular reactors (SMRs). Additionally, it called for the lifting of the Federal moratorium on Generation III+ and Generation IV reactors, including SMRs. 

Latham joins the fray 

Around the same time there was an attempt to repeal uranium mining and nuclear facilities prohibitions in the NSW Upper House with the then state leader of One Nation, Mark Latham, introducing the Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Repeal Bill 2019. In his second reading speech, Latham said: 

The lag time in establishing nuclear energy in New South Wales is approximately one decade, meaning we cannot start soon enough to avert the looming power crisis in this State. The tragedy of today's energy policy debate in Australia is the failure of the Howard Government to act on its report into nuclear power 12 years ago. 

The bill never progressed beyond the Legislative Council and it lapsed when Parliament was prorogued in February this year for the NSW State Election. 

Way down south 

In the same year Victoria’s Legislative Council moved a motion for the Environment and Planning Committee to inquire into the benefits of removing nuclear prohibitions under the state’s Nuclear Activities (Prohibitions) Act 1983. The committee’s report, simply entitled Inquiry into nuclear prohibition was tabled in November 2020. Amongst its findings it stated “without subsidisation a nuclear power industry will remain economically unviable in Australia for now”. It accepted that nuclear was expensive, but also noted that accurate costing of the technology was not possible with a prohibition in place and that no business case would be made while there was a moratorium in place and no likelihood of a plant being able to be built. The Victorian Liberal Opposition submitted a dissenting report, calling for a repeal of the nuclear prohibition. 

Recently Victorian Libertarian MP David Limbrick (who was also on the above committee) announced he would introduce the Nuclear Prohibitions Repeal Bill to the Upper House. 

A new Federal debate 

Meanwhile, back in the Federal Parliament, National MP Matt Canavan, introduced the Environment and Other Legislation Amendment (Removing Nuclear Energy Prohibitions) Bill 2022 to the Senate. In his Second Reading speech, he said “We are the only developed country, only G20 country in the world that actually bans nuclear energy… Nuclear power is safe. Nuclear energy has resulted in far fewer deaths than that from dam failures, oil rig explosions and even, on some measures, the number of people that fall when installing solar panels.” 

The Bill was referred to the Senate’s Environment and Communications Legislation Committee which found there was no basis for lifting the legislative prohibitions on nuclear energy for civilian use “for a multitude of reasons”. 

The Federal Liberals have flagged that they are considering a coal-to-nuclear transition for regions like the Hunter Valley. But as with the previous Howard Government it is cautious of gaining a social licence. The Opposition’s Energy and Climate Change spokesperson, Ted O’Brien, told The Australian: “views of local communities would be front and centre” if the Coalition went ahead with the proposal.  “A social licence should be a prerequisite for any major infrastructure that impacts people’s way of life,” he told the paper.  

Conclusion 

So that brings us full circle. One thing is very clear – nuclear energy for generating electricity can be considered one of the most reviewed and assessed technologies in Australia over the past few decades. It re-emerges frequently in response to developments on our energy grid, yet despite all the assessments it seems no closer to realisation locally than in previous decades. Like many things in energy it quickly becomes enmeshed in the political divide.

 


i Senate Debates, 18 August 1970, Budget 1970–71, p. 14.

ii The Australian Atomic Energy Commission was replaced by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in 1987. 

iii Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy — Opportunities for Australia?, page 2

Related Analysis

Analysis

National Energy Performance Strategy: What’s In it?

On 5 April, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water released the National Energy Performance Strategy. The strategy is intended to provide a long-term framework to manage energy demand, “so our community can enjoy the economy, climate and health benefits of improved energy performance”. It also designed to contribute to Australia meeting its legislated emissions reduction and renewable energy targets. We take a look at what is included in the strategy.

Apr 18 2024
Analysis

Reviewing the Reviews, Part II

The first meeting of the Energy and Climate Change Ministerial Council (ECMC) for 2024 brought to the fore the extent of change underway in the energy sector. The ECMC’s communique hints at the breadth of reviews and assessments into the energy sector and operations of the National Electricity Market (NEM). It's part of a now long-established pattern. For well over a decade, energy has been at the forefront of policy developments, largely because of the significant changes to our grid. Along with those changes has come a heightened political involvement. With political interest has come a myriad of reviews, assessments and interventions to make the NEM “fit for purpose”. We take a look at the latest ECMC work and the extent of reviews underway.

Mar 07 2024
Analysis

Fuel efficiency standards: Driving emission reductions in transport

The release of the Federal Government’s preferred option for an Australian fuel efficiency standard has quickly fallen into another version of the so-called climate wars while also being firmly couched as a ‘cost of living’ and ‘loss of vehicle choice’ issue. The Government’s proposal is for an “ambitious but achievable” standard that would allow Australia to catch up to markets like the US.

Feb 29 2024
GET IN TOUCH
Do you have a question or comment for AEC?

Send an email with your question or comment, and include your name and a short message and we'll get back to you shortly.

Call Us
+61 (3) 9205 3100