Australia, long a no-go country for nuclear power, is showing signs of reconsidering its position as it recognises that nuclear could help cut carbon emissions.
“The Australian government’s responsibility is to test all forms of clean energy,” said Energy Minister Martin Ferguson in an article by the Australian Associated Press this week.
He was agreeing with a newly minted report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, an independent think tank whose CEO Stephen Martin criticized a recent government white paper for omitting nuclear.
“If Australia is serious about mitigating the effects of climate change then nuclear must be on the table,” Martin said in the report. “It has the potential to provide low-cost, clean, base load energy and will be an important back-up if other renewable or clean energy options do not come to fruition.”
COAL STILL KING
Australia currently generates about 78 percent of its electricity from coal, according to a World Nuclear Association overview. It is trying to switch to cleaner sources, but has made patchy progress with renewables like solar, wind and geothermal.
Just this week, for example, the federal government pulled the plug on what was to have been the country’s largest solar electricity farm – the $1.2 billion (U.S.), 250-megawatt Solar Dawn project in Queensland which was partially backed, ironically, by French nuclear giant Areva.
And an ambitious geothermal project in South Australia’s Cooper Basin region has stalled.
Referring to solar and other renewables as “clean energy,” Energy Minister Ferguson noted, “If at some point in the future we don’t get the breakthrough on baseload clean energy – Australia will need to think seriously about considering nuclear.”
One thing is certain: Australia is intent on reducing its own carbon emissions. In July it introduced its controversial carbon tax, which levies charges of about $24 per ton of greenhouse gas emitted. It also plans to start a carbon trading scheme in 2015, linked to Europe’s.
Never mind that it is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, much of which it ships to China to feed that country’s armada of CO2-spewing coal-fired power plants. Australia’s energy scene is riddled with paradoxes. It has never operated a commercial nuclear power plant, and several of its states currently outright ban nuclear power, but the country is a major center of uranium mining – albeit a troubled one as we noted recently.
Fast forward to the future. It also has considerable reserves of thorium, the mildly radioactive element that could replace uranium as nuclear fuel and usher in a whole new era of nuclear power that is safer, less weapons prone, more efficient, and produces less waste.
SKIP A GENERATION OF NUCLEAR
In fact, Australian mining company Lynas is sitting on stockpiles of thorium, a byproduct of its rare mining operations (we’ll have more to say soon about the rare earth business – watch for some cold truths about them here on the Weinberg blog).
And that, potentially, is the opposite of a paradox. It would make complete sense for a country like Australia with no nuclear plant legacy – no entrenched uranium, water cooled reactors – to fast forward to a new generation of reactors running on a safer fuel in altogether different reactor designs, such as molten salt or pebble bed reactors.
If you want to look up to the next generation of nuclear technology, then make sure you keep at least one eye looking down under.
Photo: World Economic Forum via Wikimedia.