A nuclear future for South Australia?

Three nuclear power chimneys against bright blue sky (coal)
Image: Shutterstock

By Dr Robert Barr, National President EESA

The South Australian Government has established a Royal Commission to examine the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. The Royal Commission has been tasked with investigating mineral exploration and extraction, mineral processing, use of nuclear fuel for electricity generation, waste storage and waste disposal. The worldwide nuclear energy industry has modernised and developed into one of the safest and sustainable forms of energy in the world. But is nuclear energy safe enough?

This will be one of the key questions to be answered by the Royal Commission. This Royal Commission has the potential to cut
through many of the nuclear myths and make a thorough technical, economic and environmental assessment of where nuclear technology is at in 2015.

The Electric Energy Society of Australia (EESA) had the opportunity to make a small contribution to the Engineeers Australia submission to the Royal Commission. I was very impressed with the quality of the overall Engineers Australia submission.

In a non-emotive way, this submission puts forward options that could be open to South Australia. What became apparent from the submission is the option of using proven small modular reactor power plants. Nuclear power plant units in the range of 50-200MW units are readily available, giving the opportunity to start small and grow power stations as electricity demand and economic conditions dictate.

Nuclear electricity generation could offer South Australia a dispatchable base load resource that could be used to support the large scale non-dispatchable wind and solar PV generation in the state. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Commission examines the operation of the National Electricity Market (NEM) with respect to valuing dispatchable nuclear energy compared to non-dispatchable wind and solar PV. Properly valuing dispatchable nuclear electricity generation will be an important factor in economic future of nuclear power plants.

For the past 15 years we have seen electricity pool prices down below long run marginal costs. It is in the nature of our NEM system small changes in the generation/demand balance could easily see a shift that could cause prices to rise rapidly. At some unknown point in the future this will happen and the electricity industry will attract more base load capacity. Nuclear energy generation in South Australia may become the answer. With the winding back of the car industry and high levels of unemployment in South Australia, an expanded and vibrant nuclear industry may be just what is needed. I await with interest to see how the Nuclear Royal Commission enquiry unfolds.

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