Parliamentary committee of Australia’s Victoria reports on nuclear power

30 November 2020

The Environment and Planning Committee of the Parliament of Australia’s Victoria Legislative Council on 25 November released its final report following an enquiry into whether Victoria could contribute to global low emission energy production by enabling the exploitation of uranium and thorium resources and participation in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The construction and operation of nuclear facilities in Victoria was prohibited in1983, while Commonwealth laws prohibit the use of nuclear power generally in Australia. Currently Australia has only one research reactor, OPAL, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights in Sydney, the primary purpose of which is research and the production of radioisotopes. 

Committee chair Cesar Melham said in his foreword to the report that “currently, it is not possible to accurately cost nuclear energy, as no nuclear energy industry exists in Australia and therefore any costing would be speculative and based on experiences of other countries with different infrastructure”. He said figures from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) “would indicate that traditional nuclear energy generation is currently expensive and unlikely to be taken up in Australia”. However, he speculated that new nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMRs) may change the costing of nuclear energy over time. He added that “issues of waste management, public and environmental safety, potential health impacts and a range of other issues would need to be carefully considered before nuclear power became a reality in Australia”.

The 256-page document includes a majority report (229 pages) and three small minority reports. The inquiry attracted 80 submissions and included six days of public hearings of witnesses from Australia and overseas. The government of Victoria is required to provide a response to the report within six months.

The main report produced 12 “findings”:

  1. Regardless of technology development, priority should be given to the security, stability and accessibility of energy supply and the need to lower carbon emissions due to climate change and to ensure affordable energy.
  2. Current estimates of the cost of nuclear energy in Australia are unreliable and accurately costing the full cost is not possible without a detailed business case being undertaken.
  3. Notwithstanding the ambiguities of the costings, the Committee received substantial evidence that nuclear power is significantly more expensive than other forms of power generation and it is recognised that, currently, nuclear is at the high end of the cost-range across all technologies.
  4. A business case is unlikely to be undertaken, given its costs and resources required, while a prohibition of nuclear energy activities remains and there is no likelihood of a plant being able to be built.
  5. Without subsidisation a nuclear power industry will remain economically unviable in Australia for now.
  6. Discussion about Victorian participation in the nuclear fuel cycle is entirely theoretical while the Commonwealth prohibitions remain in place.
  7. Until there is a change in the Commonwealth position, detailed discussions about emerging technologies in Victoria related to the nuclear fuel cycle and power generation are unlikely to advance.
  8. The success of any radioactive waste strategy relies on a level of acceptance and confidence across government, industry and the broader community of its legitimacy, effectiveness and integrity in its ability to deal with all facets of waste management, storage and disposal, including the long-term health and safety of workers, affected communities, particularly First Nations Peoples, and the environment.
  9. Those who propose a policy shift have not presented any argument, data or proof in support of their position that cannot be nullified by those arguing against. Any advantages are speculative in nature, and do not outweigh the identified and proven risks.
  10. The nuclear medicine industry is not hindered significantly by the current prohibitions against uranium or thorium exploration and mining. Current legislative prohibitions only prohibit mining and the construction or operation of certain nuclear facilities, such as nuclear reactors. This does exclude Victoria from hosting a nuclear research reactor or other nuclear facilities which could be used to increase supply of radioisotopes for medical or industrial purposes. However, Victorian and Commonwealth prohibitions would need to be repealed for this to happen.
  11. The current market for this material is receiving enough supply from international import and the OPAL reactor at Lucas Heights. The Committee does not believe that fully repealing the Nuclear Activities (Prohibitions) Act 1983 would have a material influence on the nuclear medicine sector, as it is unlikely Victoria’s involvement would increase beyond its current capacity.
  12. The Committee is not convinced that thorium exploration and mining is economically or technologically viable for Victoria.

The first minority report, authored by Jeff Bourman MLC (member of the Legislative Council) argued for a business case to be made. He said, unless a business case is raised, the commercial viability of nuclear power will never be quantified. He recommended conducting an investigation as soon as possible into exactly what restrictions would need to be relaxed to ensure that a business case can be raised,  and a report should be prepared and presented to the Parliament of Victoria.

The second minority report, authored by three MPs - David Limbrick, Beverley Macarthur and Matthew Bach – argued for including nuclear in the energy mix. They said Victoria’s energy transition should be guided by several key principles - reliability and accessibility, affordability, and sustainability. It said the Committee heard that “no one form of energy will be sufficient to meet our state’s needs”  and so all energy options should be considered.

They noted that there is already resistance to new transmission infrastructure required for variable renewable energy technologies, and that imported variable renewable generation infrastructure, while relatively inexpensive, also has a relatively short lifespan, “locking in perpetual replacement costs and dependency on foreign production”.

However, the desirability of nuclear energy cannot be meaningfully considered while the legislative ban on nuclear energy remains in place. Exploring Victoria’s nuclear energy potential “would also enable us to holistically leverage the technology in other industries”.

The authors made three recommendations:

  1. Repeal the Nuclear Activities (Prohibitions) Act 1983.
  2. Continue to work with federal and state counterparts to follow developments in nuclear technologies.
  3. Government should make representations for the Australian Energy Market Operator to consider the addition of nuclear modelling into the Integrated System Plan.

The third minority report by Nina Taylor MLC totally dismissed any consideration of nuclear in favour of renewables. She said renewables currently beat the nuclear energy industry on price “and are advancing at a much faster rate, with storage mechanisms and capacity technology expanding at a similar rate also”. Given the strong global and local focus on reducing the accumulation of waste “adding highly radioactive nuclear waste and nuclear operating sites that may never be able to be remediated adds a burden to Victoria that should not be tolerated”. She referred to “health concerns historically with incidents in mining locally and abroad, cost blowouts,  significant and profound project delays globally, catastrophic incidents, a void of long-term solutions for toxic high-level nuclear waste and more”. The potential offered by uranium mining and nuclear energy was for “environmental disaster, potential economic disgrace, potential social outrage and a potential waste legacy for thousands of years”.

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