The nuclear power debate is poised for a revival

Nuclear power could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve power system resilience and enhance our supply security -- and it has a new champion in Julie Bishop.

Only two months ago, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane had Australian nuclear power proponents gritting their teeth when he declared the Abbott government had no intention of leading a debate on local use of reactors to produce no-emissions electricity. Now Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has them all smiles by re-opening the issue on the eve of going to Lima, Peru, to lead our participation in a new UN climate change talkfest.

If Bishop wants some interesting reading on the plane, she should pluck a paper from the welter of responses to the government’s energy green paper, the one submitted by SMR Nuclear Technology, a small Australian company with big ideas.

SMRNT is chaired by lawyer Robert Pritchard, managed by veteran engineer Barrie Hill, has a chartered engineer, Tony Irwin, (who commissioned eight British nuclear power stations) as its technical director and includes Trevor St Baker, the founder of ERM Power, on its board.

The company is pushing an argument that Australia doesn’t need large power stations of any kind in the foreseeable future thanks to declining electricity demand and over-capacity in the east coast wholesale market. But says it could (and should) embrace the introduction of small modular reactors to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions, improve power system resilience and enhance our electricity security.

Its submission to the white paper taskforce claims that small modular reactors, which have been used in submarines for six decades, can be introduced in to the power system nationally from 2022,but not without a great deal of preparatory work that needs to start asap.

The company avers that it isn’t good enough for the government to just propose technology neutrality as a key white paper theme. Macfarlane says it is “agnostic” about generation choices.

SMRNT wants the paper to specifically address when and how the current prohibition on nuclear energy can be removed and then a two-year community consultation period.

This would make the issue a hot topic for the next federal election and as much a challenge for Bill Shorten and Labor as for Tony Abbott. Christine ‘do you want death or coal?’ Milne and the Greens oppose any consideration of nuclear power, as does the inner-city Left.

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering, which has sharply criticised the energy green paper for its short-term focus and acceptance of fossil fuel reliance, has also come out in support of the government “taking a strong position” on nuclear power. It is urging legislative change to enable its development where communities will accept plants  and reactor investors can find bankers willing to take the risk of funding them.

Tony Irwin, who is also chair of Engineers Australia’s nuclear energy panel, says it’s time to consider reactor use here free of misconceptions based on “old knowledge” and technologies.

Small modular reactors, he argues, could be a ‘game-changer’ as Australia wrestles with a greater need to reduce its carbon emissions and the increasing requirement to close down old, emissions-intensive coal-burning plants (some of which will be 50 years old early in the next decade).

The timetable SMRNT has in mind would see a four-year effort to select sites, obtain planning and regulatory approvals and carry out financial and feasibility studies followed by a two-year commissioning period.

The first modular plant could be as little as 25 megawatts or as big as 300 MW (similar in size to the Tallawarra combined cycle gas plant EnergyAustralia has built on the shores of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales), with the larger one having enough output to supply about 150,000 homes.

SMRNT puts forward a lengthy list of attributes for the technology.

Modular reactors can be air-cooled and don’t need to be sited on the coast.

They can be installed underground, enhancing their physical security against accidents or ‘external events’, and they don’t require external electrical supplies or pumps for emergency cooling.

The company says SMRs have a long operational life, a 95 per cent capacity factor, are produced in factories not built on-site, have simple systems requiring less maintenance and low fuel costs.

It also points out that the reactors can be set up at remote locations, such as towns at the end of transmission lines, and can produce heat for industrial purposes such as desalination.

Until this weekend, the nuclear boosters in Australia rather had the mutters after Macfarlane’s comments, which were made as he released the energy green paper touting generation technology neutrality.

Now they are perking up and starting to hope that the scare campaign that marked the Howard government’s attempt to promote the issue in its last term, and probably still scars Liberal thinking, has found a prominent new champion. It comes at a time when technology is offering a less scary nuclear proposition that is suitable for a transitioning electricity supply sector.

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd, publisher of the This is Power blog and editor of OnPower newsletter, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2004 for services to the energy industry.

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