Should Australia consider nuclear power?

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Australian Industry Group Chief executive Innes Willox is set to tell a September 18 energy conference that the country should consider nuclear power sources as a way to bridge the gap between supply and demand.

A September 18 article in The Australian discusses what will happen in the Eastern Australia's Energy Markets Outlook 2014 Conference, where industry professionals look to the future.

The country will need to replace its current power stations with a new generation in 2030 in order to keep up with demand. However, sticking to gas and coal options may cause electricity prices to double or even triple, according to The Australian's national affairs editor, Sid Maher.

Mr Willox said that while nuclear may not be the answer to Australia's power problems, it should be at least "on the table" as an option, and as a way to reduce customers' bills. 

Why should Australia consider nuclear?

Behind wind, nuclear power is the second most affordable option, according to Mr Willox.

"It offers a combination of competitive costs, reliability and zero emissions that makes it at least worthy of consideration," he said.

This view appears shared by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). A conference report entitled "Nuclear Energy for Australia?" states the ATSE's policy is for nuclear power to be considered as part of the future energy generation portfolio.

ATSE indicates that nuclear power could be a great way for Australia to reduce its carbon emissions without risking the reliability of electricity supplies. However, it also adds that other low-emission technologies, such as renewables, should also be included as part of the long-term portfolio.

It states that Australia is a key producer of uranium, being the third-largest supplier fuelling nuclear power stations around the world.

Nuclear technology has developed in the past few years, to the point where it can be considered cost-effective compared to coal. It has a high fuel efficiency and produces minimal and manageable residual waste. Many of the modern nuclear power stations feature advanced passive safety protection.

For consumers, having nuclear power stations could help to save money, as this form of electricity might result in more competitive electricity costs.

Nuclear energy may also be able to provide the base load of energy that renewables are unable to provide. This is because renewables only have intermittent power as they rely on factors such as the sun and wind to produce electricity, and often this cannot be stored.

What are the reasons against nuclear power?

On the other hand, there are several reasons why some feel Australia may be better off relying on gas, coal and renewables to produce its power.

The first is safety. The 2011 Fukushima disaster illustrates just how far reaching the effects of nuclear power can be. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is often cited as an example of this, as it affected hundreds of thousands of people. According to the World Health Organisation, 134 workers received very high doses of radiation and suffered from acute radiation sickness. Of these workers, 28 died within three months, and many others developed radiation-induced cataracts, thyroid cancer and psychological and mental health problems.

While improvements have been made to increase the safety of these systems, there is always the risk of an accident.

Waste disposal also has a role, as the nuclear waste created needs to be placed out of harm's way. There is no safe and agreed way to store radioactive waste, and there is always the threat it will leak back into the environment, contaminating water supplies as well as the food chain, according to Greenpeace. 

These plants are also expensive to build, and plans may take years to come into fruition.

Antony Froggat is an expert who has been assessing the nuclear scene for over 20 years. He spoke to ABC news in 2013 about the possibility of nuclear power in Australia and said that the economics don't support it.

"What we're seeing is renewables becoming cheaper and cheaper and nuclear becoming more and more expensive," he said.

This is another point raised by Greenpeace. As well as the cost of building and maintaining these plants, the cost to tear them down should also be factored in. Special precautions may be required in order to ensure radiation exposure is kept to a minimum.

There are other factors also preventing nuclear power from taking off, notably public opinion.

Mr Willox told The Australian it faces "even deeper community resistance, dauntingly high capital costs and needs a base of skills, infrastructure and regulation that we have not yet begun to build.''

What are the other alternatives and how will they affect power prices?

Renewable energy sources are another great option to consider - these may also help consumers to see lower electricity bills. 

Solar PV panels and other items are becoming cheaper as the technology develops further. The cost of these items looks set to continue dropping in future, according to the Climate Council. New methods of storing this energy are also becoming more common, so there will be plenty of opportunities for expansion of this sector going forward.

Posted by Liam Tunney