This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


What is the Future for Nuclear Power in Australia?

Barry Brook's picture
, University of Tasmania
  • Member since 2018
  • 143 items added with 112,338 views
  • Nov 15, 2012

The Energy White Paper 2012 (EWP2012), released by the Australian Government last week, seeks to map out a strategic policy framework for future energy supply. One of the major goals of EWP2012 is to provide a “clear vision” of how Australia should set about the long-term task of decarbonising our stationary electricity, liquid fuels and industrial sectors. So how well does it succeed?

As an overview of the current status quo on domestic supply, distribution and exports of energy, it is a fine document. However, as a forward-looking, agenda-setting stimulus paper, it has weaknesses. The focus is strongly on how natural gas and unconventional fossil fuel markets might develop in the coming decades under various uncertainties, and the impact of these on national economic growth and trade. In terms of its projections of the expansion of currently poorly developed “alternative” (non-fossil) electricity – the biggest issue to address – let’s consider the medium-demand scenario (Fig. 6.1, pg 88):

This shows a gradual phase out of traditional coal (to be replaced by carbon-capture and storage [CCS] variants after about 2035) and a ramp-up of combined cycle gas (both CCS and non-CCS). Up to half of electricity is coming from wind, solar thermal, solar PV and engineered geothermal by 2050. The estimated cost is “more than $200 billion in new generation investment”.

These projected finances are based on the levelised cost of electricity estimates provided in the recent AETA report, but do not adequately consider “value” of the electricity, as I explained here. Putting that to one side, the basic technology options, with current and projected 2030 prices, are shown in Fig. 6.2:

Nuclear power – generated by both large (“monolithic”) and small (“modular”) reactors – are an obvious low-cost, low-carbon (and baseload) standout here in Fig. 6.2. Yet nuclear power is invisible in the Fig. 6.1 projections.

Why? This is explained in Box 6.3 on pg 98 of EWP2012. The argument made is that there is no “social consensus” on the technology (is there one for coal-seam gas?), nor an economic case (but that is relative to its direct competitor, black and brown coal, with no carbon price).

So, in fact, nuclear doesn’t appear in the future modelling race because it’s not allowed up to the starting gate. This is not the case for any other energy source. Note that Box 6.3 does leave the door ajar for “future governments” to consider nuclear if other low-carbon technologies fail to achieve desired emissions cuts, and also notes that a decision to fission should be made by around 2020 if the first significant nuclear generators are to be plugged into the grid by 2030.

Other than a fleeting reference here or there regarding international forecasts of electricity use and uranium mining, that’s the only real reference to nuclear fission across the 234-page EWP2012 report.

The trade-offs implicit in ignoring a viable low-carbon energy option can be underscored by undertaking a short tour of the excellent new CSIRO efuture tool that was released to accompany EWP2012.

This is a web-browser-based scenario builder, which is simple and intuitive to use, allows any interested person to “Explore scenarios around technology cost, electricity demand and fuel prices, and see how your choices impact Australia’s electricity costs, technology mix and carbon emissions through to 2050.”

There are a large number of possible combinations to try, but I’ll focus on one that combines:

  • an enhanced emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation (low demand)
  • projections of future rising prices of fossil fuels due to potential shortages or supply bottlenecks (high fuel price)
  • inclusion of all technologies with a high-cost scenario to allow for a potentially diverse mix of supply
  • storage backup
  • crucially, a “yes” answer to “nuclear permitted”.

The electricity time series looks like this:

… and the resulting greenhouse-gas emissions profile is as follows:

In this nuclear-powered crystal ball, fission energy starts to grow seriously after about 2030, and by mid-century it constitutes a little under half of Australia’s electricity supply. Gas is held steady at a relatively low level, coal and wind are largely displaced, and grid-scale and distributed solar generation continues to grow.

Greenhouse-gas emissions are slashed by 90%, with most of emissions coming from gas plants used to meet peak demand.

In addition, I should point out that if nuclear is permitted, the general balance of electricity generation technologies that results is insensitive to selections on fuel prices, demand levels, storage choices, and so on. Try it. In modeller’s jargon, we’d say the conclusion that nuclear ought (by the numbers) to play a big role in decarbonising Australia’s future economy is robust to parameter uncertainty … if it is allowed.

Finally, for a point of comparison, here are the greenhouse-gas emission reductions achieved with the efuture tool, for the same scenario as above. The only difference is in this case, nuclear remains forbidden:

In this case the 2050 emissions are acceptably low, although still almost double that under the nuclear-allowed scenario. To achieve this outcome, there will need to be a far greater reliance on carbon capture and storage to do the job (around a third of total supply). This is unlikely to appeal to most environmentalists.

The estimated cost for this scenario is about $150 per megawatt hour (wholesale), compared to $110 per megawatt hour when nuclear is permitted for otherwise the same modelling selections.

We can each draw our own conclusions from this scenario building. That is a great thing about modelling of alternatives, where the user is given flexibility – trade-offs can be made explicit and transparent.

For me, the overriding message is this: nuclear plus renewables equals cost-effective decarbonisation. Excluding nuclear means higher greenhouse-gas emissions, higher cost, and more fossil fuels with CCS.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 17, 2012

So is the Australian government quite certain that there's no cheap shale gas to be had there?  I guess it doesn't matter, since they seem to believe that they can impose a large enough price on CO2 emissions to make all fossil fuels uncompetitive ($58/ton in 2030 and $143 in 2050! that would add 14 cents/kWh to the cost of coal - don't your coal companies know how to lobby?).

Another interesting thing about the study is that it finds wind to be a dead-end technology in most cases.  It peaks in 20 years, then gets replaced by either or nuclear or solar (unless there is a breakthrough in energy storage)!  

The worst news for renewable-enthusiasts is that even though the study assumes that solar will have the cheapest levelized cost in 2050 (which is enough to beat out wind), fossil fuel is still the cornerstone of the non-nuclear grid (it holds its market share to around 50%).

As one might expect, combining nuclear with energy storage does allow solar and wind to share some of the market.  The power-point summary of the study doesn't talk about specific storage technology but I believe that Gen IV nuclear (e.g. IFR and LFTR) with molten salt thermal energy storage is a promising option.


Geoff Sherrington's picture
Geoff Sherrington on Nov 17, 2012

Barry, I agree with the thrust of your stated sentiments, with few of your projections (too much too soon except for nuclear) and am getting the feeling that in cricket terms you are a nightwatchman batter. Those opposing nuclear achieve some purpose by simple delay after delay. There is too much delay in your past writings, to the extent that I wonder if you are simply paying lip service to Australian nuclear while quietly delaying. I've been to China a few times and have studied what is possible from a standing start, in both costs and completion times. No reason why we can't be up and running in 5 years. Indeed, on a related tack, used reactors from US submarines are being decommissioned and buried in trenches. Would it not be a good idea for us to pick up a few and hook them to useless appendages like desal plants? It would give us a critical factor, namely the regaining of nuclear experience in the Australian workforce.

Barry Brook's picture
Thank Barry for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network® is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »