Australia has around 40% of the world’s uranium reserves – more than any other country – and exported nuclear fuel worth around $520 million last year. While we’re happy to sell uranium abroad, the idea of nuclear reactors being built here to provide our future energy needs doesn’t sit well with some.
Last year, the government appointed ex-Telstra chief Dr Ziggy Switkowski, a nuclear physicist and now chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), to head an inquiry into nuclear energy. His report, Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy – Opportunities for Australia?, recommended that Australia aim to have its first nuclear reactor operational by 2020, and a fleet of 25 reactors by 2050.
In April, the government announced it would start putting regulations in place to see this happen – a move that would mean a third of our electricity needs are met from nuclear power.
What do people in the know on both sides of the nuclear power debate say about safety? Here are the facts and views, for and against. You decide for yourself – and we invite you to register your opinion on whether Australia should go nuclear.
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Yes: It's safe
* The nuclear industry has an excellent safety record over 50 years. Reactor design has improved substantially since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
* New Generation Three reactors are more fuel-efficient, safer and cheaper than the old reactors. A modern reactor costs about $3 billion, half of which is spent on safety and security systems. New reactors have less chance of a core meltdown, produce less waste and have more passive safety features, reducing the risk of human error.
* Modern reactors can withstand the external threat of missiles, even of an aircraft crashing into them.
* Building nuclear power plants won’t increase the threat to our electricity grid from terrorism.
* The danger of nuclear arms proliferation will remain the same whether or not Australia introduces nuclear power.
Radioactive waste is stored in underground repositories in geologically stable locations that are remote from the population. More than 90% of the Australian continent satisfies these criteria. Repositories occupy the space of less than half a swimming pool. By contrast, there are millions of tonnes of heavy metal waste produced by fossil fuels, which last forever.
No: It's too dangerous
* It’s 21 years since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and 350,000 people are still displaced and vast tracts of productive land unusable.
* As well as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there have been hundreds of nuclear accidents and near misses, says the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Eight have involved damage to or malfunction of the core and five have resulted in deaths.
* High-level nuclear waste would need to be transported across Australia, then isolated safely for 200,000 years. The waste is very unstable and vulnerable to earthquakes and natural disasters.
* The legacy of toxic radioactive waste could lead to cancer epidemics, genetic diseases and foetal abnormalities.
* Expanding the world’s nuclear industry could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
* Dr Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist: “We spend millions of dollars trying to find a cure for cancer, [yet] here’s an industry that will directly propagate that hideous disease. Nuclear power is medically contraindicated.”
Technology of the future?
Technology developed by ANSTO uses synthetic rock (Synroc) to immobilise high level radioactive waste for disposal. Synroc is an advanced ceramic that uses geochemically stable natural compounds to incorporate the elements present in radioactive waste into the internal structure of the material.
Synroc is already being used to encapsulate the waste from nuclear plants and as a result of military activities overseas. Elsewhere, a form of glass is used to immobilise nuclear waste. The nuclear industry says these technologies immobilise the radioactive waste for 100,000s of years.
In the next 25 to 30 years, Generation Four reactors are expected to come online. These will have the capability to further “burn up”high-level radioactive waste to reduce the need for isolation to just 300 years. “If this works as proposed, it will transform the whole waste issue,” says ANSTO Chief of Operations, Ron Cameron.
Do you think Australia should go nuclear? Vote here or leave a comment below.