The call to initiate a discussion regarding a nuclear industry in Australia – and nuclear-powered submarines – has led to some vociferous, albeit emotional, reaction. Left unanswered were the questions that were asked.
A recent FDI paper called for renewed national discussion on the relevance and feasibility of an Australian nuclear power sector and, by extension, the use of nuclear-powered submarines by the Royal Australian Navy. That call elicited a number of responses, positive and otherwise. This response will confine itself, for the sake of brevity, to countering some of the arguments put forth as to why Australia should not have either a nuclear power sector or nuclear submarines.
The FDI paper noted that Australia is a signatory to the Paris Climate Accords but has fallen behind in its quest to reduce its greenhouse emissions. One reason for that lapse is its use of coal-fired power plants. As the paper noted, around
… 56 per cent of Australia’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. While energy use for electricity generation fell by two per cent in 2018-19, despite a one per cent increase in electricity output, reflecting reduced fossil fuel generation and an increase in renewable generation, Australia’s energy consumption rose by 0.6 per cent in 2018-19 to reach 6,196 petajoules. Overall, coal use accounted for 29 per cent of Australia’s primary energy mix.
The paper further noted the energy potential of uranium compared to that of coal, pointing out that it would require 3,000 tons of coal to be burned to produce the energy equivalent that around 500 grams of uranium could. The paper also noted that burning one gram of coal could produce nearly four grams of Carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse emissions that the Paris Accords seek to reduce. Investing in renewable energy sources is an option but not one over which there could be complete control. The key to using renewable sources of energy, furthermore, is storage, which is not as yet a commercially viable proposition.
It is in that context that nuclear power comes into its own. Australia possesses the uranium deposits, the existing mining infrastructure and the know-how required to establish a nuclear sector. As one source, in calling for Australia to obtain nuclear-powered submarines, asks, if Australia could develop a nuclear medicine sector from scratch in under a decade in the 1960s, why can’t it create a nuclear sustainment sector over the next decade? Given the quality of Australia’s tertiary education system and its existing knowledge base, it would have few difficulties to overcome in solving specific problems in its pursuit of that goal.
One argument that criticises a nuclear sector is that of legality. As one commentator notes, it is illegal to establish a nuclear industry in Australia. That argument is almost a non sequitur. Political will brought about that law; sufficient political will could see it revoked. Political will is an outcome of public opinion and Australian public opinion currently is against the establishment of a nuclear industry. The Australian public ought to be given all the facts about the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions, technological advances in nuclear power generation, the high safety standards of modern nuclear reactors when compared to those or previous generations that were installed at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania or Fukushima in Japan, the facts regarding the safety record of nuclear submarines and Australia’s geological stability compared to, say, New Zealand or elsewhere in the South Pacific region. Those facts could allow the government to demonstrate the viability and sustainability of a nuclear power sector and the rapidly-growing need to reduce the country’s dependence on coal.
Another commentator, when paraphrased, asks if it is understood that Australian nuclear-powered submarines will not be allowed to visit New Zealand. Should New Zealand choose to ban those submarines from visiting its ports, so be it. Australia is hardly likely to want to use them to invade that country any time in the foreseeable future. A ban would likely be in keeping with Wellington’s recent policy of appeasing Beijing; by banning visits by Australian nuclear-powered submarines, New Zealand could well earn more approbation – and possible increased market access – from Beijing. Australia is, like New Zealand, a sovereign state, however, and hardly likely to base a major decision on whether another country, no matter how close, is offended by it if that is more than offset by its requirement.
A more reasoned issue was raised by two analysts in 2019: is Australia is prepared to establish an indemnification and regulatory environment that would be critical to safely and effectively operate and maintain nuclear vessels for 50 years? As they noted among other issues:
Given that private insurance typically does not cover nuclear risks, an effective scheme to indemnify possible victims of a nuclear accident could be critical. Without such an indemnity scheme, companies might be unwilling to provide components and services to maintain and operate propulsion plants [for nuclear-powered submarines].
By gaining a thorough understanding of these issues, Australia could have an open and informed debate on the significant costs and benefits of any future nuclear submarine option.
Precisely the objective of the FDI paper.