A NSW upper house parliamentary committee has recommended that prohibitions on the exploration and use of nuclear energy in NSW be lifted, a move that environmental groups fear will be the first step towards the establishment of an Australian nuclear power industry.
The upper house inquiry, which was stacked with pro-nuclear members of the legislative council, concluded that state parliament prohibitions on nuclear developments should be repealed, and argued that nuclear energy would be necessary to support future NSW electricity supplies.
The inquiry was instigated at the behest of One Nation member of the NSW upper house, and former federal Labor leader, Mark Latham and was formed to consider the Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Repeal Bill 2019, tabled by Latham that would repeal legislation that prohibits uranium mining and the construction of a nuclear power station in New South Wales.
“The prohibitions on uranium mining and nuclear energy reflect the outdated fears of the 1980s,” NSW Liberal and chair of the State Development Committee, Taylor Martin said,
“The safety of nuclear technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since the State prohibition commenced. On the balance of evidence gathered for this inquiry, nuclear power in its emerging small scale applications is a compelling technology where energy policy settings seek to decarbonise emissions while delivering secure, reliable and affordable energy to the New South Wales grid.”
The pro-nuclear committee argued that the current prohibitions prevented an accurate assessment of the uranium resources that exist within New South Wales, and asserted that nuclear power would be necessary in a future energy system following the closure of ageing coal-fired power stations.
“Wind and solar firmed with gas, batteries and pumped hydro would not be an adequate solution to meet the State’s future needs for affordable and reliable electricity following the decommissioning of our ageing coal fired generation assets,” the inquiry report says.
The inquiry goes on to conclude that “nuclear power to be a compelling technology that may be useful in energy policy which seeks to address the three dimensions of the energy trilemma.”
While nuclear power provides the potential of an additional source of zero-emissions power, the technology is substantially more expensive than alternatives.
A recent update to the CSIRO GenCost assessment found that nuclear power represents one of the most expensive sources of new generation capacity, noting the lack of existing power stations in Australia and the lack of industry knowledge on the construction and operation of a nuclear plant.
Australia’s uranium mining sector has also struggled in recent years, following a significant reduction in global demand for nuclear fuels as a result of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
In a dissenting statement included in the report, the Labor members of the committee said that their party would continue to oppose the development of nuclear industries.
“On the basis of current technologies and costs, we remain unconvinced of the benefits nuclear power may bring. We remain mindful of the challenges caused by managing and storing spent fuel rods and radioactive waste that lasts many lifetimes,” the dissenting Labor report says.
“Nuclear power continues to have question marks both over its lasting environmental impact via waste as well as its cost. Labor believes the future of energy generation for NSW lies in clean and renewable energy sources, supported by firming and storage.”
“A Labor government will maintain a ban on uranium exploration, extraction and export. A Labor Government will not introduce nuclear power in NSW.
Greens MLC David Shoebridge, who serves as the party’s energy spokesperson, labelled the committee’s findings as dangerous and nonsensical, saying that the pursuit of nuclear power would ultimately cost NSW households more and that any development of the industry would take so long that it would simply work as a way to prop up the coal industry.
“Every megawatt of new nuclear power costs at least three times new fossil-fuelled power and at least six times that of solar or wind power,” Shoebridge said.
“Those costs are based only on the construction and operation of nuclear power plants and entirely ignore the billions more required to decommission and manage the radiation from a nuclear power plant for hundreds of years after it closes.”
“Recent history tells us clearly that even if it was given an immediate greenlight not one megawatt of nuclear power in Australia will be available until well beyond 2040. The effect of nuclear advocacy is to prolong the life of coal-fired power.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation said that the development of a nuclear industry in New South Wales was unnecessary, given the state’s abundance of high-quality wind and solar projects.
“The state ban on uranium mining has served NSW well and should remain,” ACF nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney said.
“Uranium mining in NSW would risk the health of the environment and regional communities for scant promise of return. There is little to be gained and a lot to lose from this poor piece of political posturing.
“Equally, people can have no confidence in nuclear reactor concepts that do not exist in the real world of civilian electricity production. Small nuclear reactors exist on paper, in corporate funding pitches and on military submarines – they are not a credible response to the climate crisis.”
NSW currently hosts Australia’s only nuclear reactor, the OPAL reactor located at an ANSTO facility south of Sydney. The ANSTO facility operates the reactor only for medical purposes.
Even if Latham’s bid to repeal the NSW laws was successful, the development of nuclear facilities, including a nuclear power station, are prohibited in Australia under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and amendments to that legislation would be necessary before any such development could take place.