• Hannah Phillips

The Government Moves Quietly Towards Nuclear Power

In April last year Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the then Minister for Energy, Resources and Northern Australia, Josh Frydenberg, announced that Australia had been approved for membership for Generation IV International Forum (GIF), a group which undertakes research into advanced nuclear technologies.

The other members of GIF are 12 advanced nations and the European Union.

The Forum develops Generation IV technology and addresses not only the construction and operation of

the next generation of nuclear power reactors, but also considers fuel efficiency, reducing waste production, and meeting stringent standards of safety and proliferation resistance.

When Australia signed up to the Forum the government said: “Australia’s invitation to join this important global project marks an exciting opportunity to be at the forefront of global innovation in the nuclear industry.

Inclusion in the GIF further strengthens Australia’s position as a nation that has the research muscle to deliver innovations on the global stage.

“It reinforces the government’s $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, encouraging our best and brightest researchers to collaborate with international experts.”

It’s difficult to understand why the government would be adopting this proactive approach to nuclear technology if it wasn’t intending to use it for power generation.

However at the moment it is precluded from doing more to adopt nuclear power by the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which prohibits certain nuclear actions specified in s.22A unless a federal approval is obtained.

It specifically prohibits nuclear power generation in s.140A, an amendment insisted upon by the Australian Democrats.

The Act states that the Minister must not approve an action consisting of or involving the construction or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, or a nuclear power station, or an enrichment plant, or a reprocessing facility.

There are indications that the Turnbull government may be preparing to change this position as part of its energy plan.

When it joined GIF Dr Adi Paterson, the head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), made the following comment: “Australia has no nuclear power programme, but we do have significant local expertise through which we can lend assistance in next-generation research, which is what this partnership is about.

This Agreement will enable Australia to contribute to an international group focused on peaceful use of nuclear technology, and the international energy systems of the future.

“Our participation in GIF is an affirmation of Australia’s exemplary research capabilities and STEM industry, strengthened by ANSTO’s expertise and highly developed nuclear science infrastructure.

On Australia’s behalf, ANSTO will leverage our world-class capabilities, particularly in relation to the development of advanced materials with applications in extreme industrial environments, and of nuclear safety cases.

“Australia’s role on this global stage will see us sharing our expertise in nuclear research and technology, and will further our non-proliferation and nuclear safety objectives. It will also foster new avenues and opportunities to engage with global information sharing through this long-term research project.”

In the year since it joined GIF, the government has been actively examining future nuclear technological options.

If a suitable generation option is established then there is no reason why the government will not put it before the crossbench.

There is no doubt that the establishment of a number of dispersed nuclear power generators would solve the dispatchable power problems highlighted by the Australian Energy Market Operator while, at the same time, meeting the Paris emission reduction targets.

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