Such a policy position would appear, to many observers, not to recognise the true magnitude of the challenge facing the country in terms of its stated carbon reduction targets for 2050.
Australia will, essentially, have to completely decarbonise its stationary energy sector by 2050 in order to meet the international emission reduction targets. Given the overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels, this represents an unanswered challenge for Australia.
There is no silver bullet that can deliver this level of reduction in CO2 emissions, and policy settings will be required that facilitate the technological development and deployment of: wind power; solar PV; solar thermal; carbon capture and storage (CCS) – for both new-build coal and gas-fired stations, as well as the existing fleet of coal-fired stations; geothermal energy; large-scale energy storage, energy efficiency; and biofuels.
It is quite possible that a number of the above technologies will not be economic for many years, given the real possibility of gas prices remaining low due to the very large quantities of shale gas and coal-bed methane that are already reaching the market. This is borne out by the US's recent switch from being an importer to an exporter of LNG, based on shale gas. The current price of gas at the US' Henry Hub has fallen from some $US13/MM BTUs to sub $US4/MM BTUs over the last two years.
Given the magnitude of the challenge, consideration has to be given to the adoption of nuclear power as part of the energy mix required. The long lead times associated with all aspects of the development of commercial nuclear power mean that it is essential that this not be left until such time as, say, CCS is found to be uneconomic; or geothermal fails to deliver the necessary quantum of baseload energy.
Prudent risk management requires the federal government to prepare a fleet of commercial nuclear reactors that could, when required, be deployed in a timely manner – and this requires choices to be made in the very near future about the options Australia has for the adoption of nuclear power.
If one assumes that a meaningful carbon price will be in place by 2013/14, it is then credible to postulate a “dash for gas”, that will allow for the commencement of the retirement of the coal and lignite-fuelled fleet of power stations. This will suffice to meet the likely emission reduction targets up to 2020/30 along with increased generation from wind, solar and possibly geothermal.
At some point sometime after 2020/30, the need for the deployment of a fleet of nuclear power stations will be apparent, based on the commercial progress made (or not made) with CCS on both coal and gas-fired power stations. Based on this scenario, there are therefore some 10/20 years within which to develop a nuclear option ready for commercial deployment.
Should the federal government choose to develop a commercial nuclear power option to meet Australia’s energy requirements, then there are essentially two technological routes it could follow.
1. Adopt the widely deployed uranium/plutonium (U/Pu) fuelled water reactors, such as pressurised water reactor (PWR) or boiling water reactor (BWR) or the heavy water reactors (HWR), again fuelled with uranium. These are offered, commercially, worldwide and are known as Generation 3 type reactors, defined by their enhanced passive safety characteristics. All these systems use a solid form of uranium, or a mixture of uranium and plutonium (usually in the dioxide form) encased in high integrity sealed tubes, which are then bundled together into fuel sub-assemblies. The adoption of this type of fuel imposes significant restrictions on the reactor designs and performance which have limited the improvements possible in their overall economics.
2. Participate in the development of one of the Generation IV reactor systems that are currently the subject of an international effort to research a set of theoretical designs that will offer improvements in safety, proliferation resistance, waste reduction, natural resource utilisation and overall economics.
In considering these two high-level choices, any policy will have to address the following key issues:
– Inherent safety characteristics of reactor types;
– Economics, both capital and operational costs, including de-commissioning costs and final fuel charge disposal;
– Waste production (type and quantity) and eventual long-term storage;
– Ethical and moral issues regarding the legacy left to future generations, and for how long;
– Nuclear proliferation resistance;
– Fuel fabrication;
– Fuel reprocessing;
– Human capital for the establishment of a nuclear industry;
– Enhancing the regulatory authority;
– Development of the necessary industrial base to support a nuclear program;
– NEM structure;
– Export opportunities created;
– Site locations and integration with the existing national grid transmission system;
– Insurance and liability;
To date, neither the federal government nor the Opposition have managed to articulate a credible long-term vision for Australia’s energy supply. So far, all the country has been treated to are examples of wedge politics, scaremongering and trivialised debates – the only exceptions being the significant financial support given to CCS and solar power, but even these are not part of a coherent vision for energy supply.
The time is ripe for there to be a sensible debate about developing a nuclear option that will be ready in the event that CCS, solar power and geothermal power do not deliver the necessary quantum of energy at an economic price. Failure to do so will, as is so often the case, lead to hasty policy decisions, which the country will repent at its leisure.