This post was submitted by Australia Country Manager Julian Atchison
Nuclear power production is currently not permitted in Australia under two pieces of Commonwealth legislation, as well as a host of state-level laws. The two Commonwealth laws prohibit the “approval, licensing, construction, or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant; a nuclear power plant; an enrichment plant; or a reprocessing facility”. Radiation-related activities are also tightly regulated. Australia’s only nuclear reactor is a research facility located south of Sydney, which is also used for the production of medical radioisotopes.
There was a recent parliamentary inquiry into the possibility of nuclear power in Australia in 2019 that produced a pro-nuclear final report, recommending the prohibition laws be partially removed; but the report was roundly criticized for focusing on the promise of a to-be-proven technology (small modular reactors) as the principal reason for removing restrictions on nuclear power production, and for ignoring the economic analyses suggesting nuclear power would never be viable in Australia.
There is also the critical issue of nuclear waste. To date, not a single location in Australia has been identified and agreed on as a permanent, long-term nuclear waste disposal facility. Even the small amounts of low-level waste produced by the research reactor at Lucas Heights don’t have a permanent disposal site. A potential site for permanent disposal in South Australia is close to being finalized (after a four-decade struggle), but legislation is still before federal parliament.
Surveys also tend to show a slight majority of the Australian population supports the development of and use of nuclear power, and this support has grown over the past decades. But whereas the level of support vs. opposition for nuclear power is split fairly closely around 50:50, the ratio of support for renewable energy is far more pronounced (recent surveys have this ratio around 90:10). There would also be a significant community engagement challenge with building any future nuclear facilities near Australian population centres.
Lessons moving forward
The low likelihood of nuclear power ever gaining a foothold in Australia is based on economics. Multiple government inquiries into nuclear power have found that it would never be economically viable without a significant carbon price, and that costings for nuclear power deployment have never been properly or thoroughly done. Australia’s national science body CSIRO consistently ranks nuclear power as one of the most expensive energy generation sources going forward. Given the global context of huge cost overruns for new nuclear power plant builds (Vogtle in the USA & Hinkley C in the UK especially), the amount of public money required to get a nuclear industry off the ground in Australia is mammoth when compared to the ready opportunities presented by low-cost wind, solar and other renewable technologies.