5 Minutes With Australian Nuclear Association President Dr Mark Ho

Dr Mark Ho
Dr Mark Ho

Nuclear power is something just about everyone has an opinion on. With federal and state inquiries underway into the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia, we ask nuclear engineer and president of the Australian Nuclear Association (ANA) Dr Mark Ho to weigh in with the facts.

The ANA recognises outstanding contributions to nuclear science and technology in Australia – can you tell us about some recent projects/research breakthroughs?

Many people will be surprised to learn that Australia is already a ‘nuclear nation’ with strong expertise across the nuclear fuel cycle.

Australia has one third of the world’s uranium deposits and supplies 10 per cent of the world’s uranium – worth half a billion dollars a year – which is enough to satisfy Australia’s complete annual electricity demand.  

Australia developed its own laser enrichment technology, first at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), and subsequently spun out into the company Silex.

Although we don’t have nuclear power, Australia has had a working knowledge of operating reactors since the 1960s, first with the HIFAR research reactor (1958 – 2007), then MOATA (1961 – 1995) and now OPAL (2006 – current).

From these reactors we developed technetium-99 technology for medical imaging.  The OPAL research reactor produces 10,000 life-saving doses of 99mTc  a week. 

Based on our expertise, Australia was invited to join the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) for advanced reactor research in 2016.  

Further, an Australian radioactive waste disposal technology (Synroc) will be used to immobilise waste created from the manufacture of medical radioisotopes. The first-of-a-kind Synroc plant is currently under construction at ANSTO.  

What has been the reaction of the ANA to recent announcements of political inquiries into nuclear power in Australia? Do you think anything will come from it?

The ANA welcomes the recent announcement of the federal and state inquiries (NSW and Vic) into nuclear power.  We’ve noticed growing support for nuclear power in the community and on social media and, in particular, a strong interest from rural and industrial communities. 

Australian industry consumes two thirds of all electricity generated and supplied on demand. Nuclear power is both low-carbon and dispatchable, so it fits the bill for keeping industries going, particularly with growing calls to reduce CO2 emissions.

As Dr Ziggy Switkowski observed at the recent public hearing for the federal inquiry on nuclear power, there will always be a need for baseload electricity. I think when you consider that need alongside the need for low carbon, nuclear becomes very attractive.  With current gas prices already at $10/ GJ and gas being the preferred firming option for intermittent renewables (as seen in South Australia), heavy industry is becoming nervous.

Given growing pressures of grid reliability and calls to decarbonise energy, the ANA is cautiously optimistic about a lifting of the ban on nuclear power on a state and federal level. I hope the data and findings from the current inquiries will show the current bans on nuclear power are uninformed and should be removed, independent of arguments against it based on cost which is really a matter for future investors to assess. 

There are some people who are afraid of nuclear power after the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. Why won’t an incident like these happen in Australia? And how do we change people’s perceptions?  

“Chernobyl” is often used as an argument against nuclear power but this ignores the very great differences between modern nuclear power and Chernobyl.  All modern nuclear reactors have containment vessels to capture radioactive material in case the core is damaged. The Chernobyl RBMK reactor didn’t have a containment structure.  All modern power reactors are designed to passively reduce power in the case of an unwanted rise in core temperature; the RBMK did not have this inherent safety characteristic.  

In the case of Fukushima, the reactors shut down after the initial earthquake and diesel generators kicked in to power the pumps responsible for removing the core decay heat.  The tsunami that came after the earthquake then wiped out the diesel generators and the operators were slow to initiate emergency cooling. Modern reactors are now built with large water reservoirs to passively cool the core after shutdown, essentially eliminating Chernobyl- and Fukushima-type accidents. Also the global safety culture of power reactor operations has improved immensely after these accidents.  

Future reactor design aims to eliminate these types of accidents all together, either by building in passive safety systems or using accident-tolerant fuels that do not melt at high temperatures.  There’s a lot going on overseas with the advanced reactor research.

How different is nuclear technology now compared to the late 80s?

There are several key differences in nuclear technology from the late 1980s to now.  The current global fleet of 450 nuclear power reactors were built in the 70s and 80s.  300 of these typically 1 GW units are pressurised water reactors (PWR), which have operated safely with the exception of Three-Mile Island (1979), which suffered from a partial melt down. Despite the 3 major nuclear power accidents, existing light water reactors have delivered the world’s safest form of electricity generation.  From the learnt experience of these three major NPP accidents, modern nuclear power plants abide to tightened regulation, using reactor designs that incorporate both active and passive safety systems. Much of the increased costs of large reactors are due to the more stringent demands on extra safety systems, most of which will never be used in their lifetime. In reaction to the rising build cost of NPPs in the West, some nuclear vendors are building small modular reactors (SMRs) which can be fabricated on a production line in a factory.  The controlled factory environment encourages an increase in quality and a decrease in production cost.  Also smaller reactors can make reactors safer, simply because the size of the core is smaller and also the amount of decay heat after shutdown is also smaller; making it easier to cool by passive systems. However, for many countries large nuclear power plants are still good economic value.  Those countries that have invested steadily in the nuclear supply chain, such as China, South Korea and Russia are producing high quality 1 gigawatt reactors at an extremely low price compared to the West, something detractors of nuclear power often forget.  

What unique advantage does nuclear offer to Australia that other forms of power generation can’t?  

Compared to other low carbon options, the foremost advantage nuclear has over wind and photovoltaic solar is that it provides dispatchable baseload electricity. Hydro, the other main source of low carbon energy, is also dispatchable but is not necessarily scalable due to its vulnerability to droughts and dependence on geography.  

Nevertheless, the notion that one form of generation should be pitted against another does not reflect the way the national electricity market (i.e. the energy system) works, since electricity demand is nearly always satisfied by a generation mix. Today the NEM’s energy mix is dominated by coal and augmented by hydro, gas, solar and wind.  

A future scenario of large amounts of wind and solar on the grid will require an equally large amount of back up or ‘firming’ power.  If a country builds large amounts of low-carbon wind and solar but is also building coal-fired power plants (as Germany has been doing), the carbon intensity of the overall electricity system remains quite high, at an average of ~440 grams of CO2 / kWh.  If, like France, you have large deployments of nuclear augmented by hydro and renewables, the annual average carbon intensity is around 58 g CO2 / kWh, which is the kind of number needed for deep-decarbonisation to limit temperature rise to within 2°C by 2050. China is planning to use large amounts of nuclear, wind, solar and hydro to decarbonise their electricity. In fact, we have the head of China’s national energy planning Dr Kejun Jiang giving a keynote at the ANA2019 conference this year in Sydney in September. The figures for carbon intensities can be easily checked online at www.electricitymap.org.

So if you’re concerned about CO2 emissions, then all low-carbon options including nuclear should be considered, but current state and federal laws against nuclear power prevent its serious consideration by AEMO and investors alike. This ban must be lifted if energy policy and energy planning are to be truly technology agnostic.