In the wake of Australia’s decision to purchase nuclear-powered submarines from the USA and UK, instead of diesel-powered vessels from France (the AUKUS defence pact), pressure is building up for Australia to consider developing nuclear power for energy production. 

Australian Workers Union (AWU) National Secretary Dan Walton said on 13 October that Australia’s switch to nuclear-powered submarines means it’s time to reconsider Australia’s ban on civil nuclear energy, in particular through development of small modular reactors (SMRs). “SMRs are at the core of the US and British plans to create zero-carbon economies. Australia should be following suit,” he noted. “We already have the uranium, why would we not develop the capacity to use it in safe and effective modern ways?”

He added: “It’s absurd that Australia will rely on nuclear submarines for its defence, yet lack the capacity to build and maintain them….  And if we go to all the effort of developing that manufacturing capability we should maximise the potential to also manufacture modern small modular reactors to power emission-free industry. That would make Australia part of the international supply chain for this nascent, zero-emissions energy technology.”

Walton believes this would be a massive boost to Australian manufacturing at a time when the  decision to cancel the French contract has put thousands of local jobs at risk. “Australia is spending billion on warships and submarines, and the French submarine contract had promised large-scale local manufacturing participation,” he said, noting that cancellation of the contract will be a massive loss, particularly to South Australian members. “So it’s vital that the Government not only pressures the US to include Australian content in any new subs contract, but also that it considers the opportunities and jobs civil nuclear power will offer.”

Walton said that while Prime Minister Scott Morrison claims he is not seeking to establish an Australian civil nuclear capability, “if we don’t allow ourselves to explore the option, we’ll be letting hysterical scaremongers triumph over the environment and our economy”.

He added: “If Australia wants to accelerate along the path to becoming a zero-carbon economy, this is a golden opportunity to create the capacity to build small modular reactors capable of powering energy-hungry manufacturing. You could easily envision SMRs attached to factories, steel mills, and aluminium smelters. They would provide the kind of reliable, constant energy these facilities need to survive and thrive.”

Attaching SMRs to heavy manufacturing hubs could enable Australia to increase its manufacturing capacity. “If we don’t provide manufacturing with the reliable, constant power it needs then Australian factories will shut. And this will do nothing positive for the climate, because production will just move overseas.” He said, given the inherent safety of SMRs, Australians would back civilian nuclear power. “I’ve been raising my family within a stone’s throw of Lucas Heights (Sydney’s nuclear research facility) and I know most in my community would be happy for that facility to house a new SMR.”

Also, following the AUKUS deal, the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra said on 13 October that it is ready to train the next generation of nuclear scientists and technicians to fill a gap in the workforce. For more than 70 years, ANU has been providing comprehensive training in nuclear physics from the undergraduate to postdoctoral level as well as operating Australia’s highest-energy heavy-ion accelerator – the only facility in Australia which enables hands-on nuclear training.

The Head of the ANU Department of Nuclear Physics, Professor Andrew Stuchbery, said the new security deal provides an exciting opportunity for nuclear science in Australia, which until now only consisted of a handful of jobs. “This deal changes everything when it comes to nuclear science in Australia,” he said. “It ushers in a new era for the nation. In the past, Australia’s nuclear technology workforce needs have been minimal and a lot of talented and trained people from across nuclear science have headed overseas.”

Although the plan is for the eight submarines to be constructed in South Australia, it is understood the nuclear equipment will be supplied by the US and UK. Senior public policy adviser at ANU’s National Security College, Dr William Stoltz, said: “The notion that Australia will be able to operate nuclear-powered submarines without having its own extensive nuclear infrastructure, including domestic nuclear energy production, is not sustainable over the long-term.” 

He added: “In a time of high-end conflict, for example, we will need to be able to service and refuel our own submarines and not solely rely on doing so in the US or UK. This makes the path to domestic nuclear energy production a near certainty.”

However, Professor Kenneth Baldwin – who heads up a research project called ‘ANU Grand Challenge: Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific’, is more cautious. He noted that Australia is one of only a few countries in the world that has forbidden the use of nuclear power by legislation. “Other countries make a decision based on economics and environmental issues and other parameters, but we’ve short-circuited that conversation,” said Professor Baldwin. “Only if this federal law is rescinded can a true domestic nuclear industry move forward.” 

He added: “In terms of the economics of nuclear power, it’s very expensive, and that’s in part due to the significant costs associated with regulation.” For Australia nuclear energy costs more than solar and wind alternatives, he said. “As you approach 100% renewable electricity, it gets harder to guarantee it will be there when you need it. That means investigating in significant amounts of backup power storage, which can also get expensive,” he acknowledged. However he added that  even when Australia as a whole approaches the 100 per cent mark for renewable power, nuclear may still not be economical as, by then, the costs may well have been driven down enough to make batteries a better option. He believes it may be  far more profitable for Australia to continue as the world’s leading exporter of uranium rather than put it to domestic use.