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The Downside of Saying No: Nuclear Energy in Australia

The Australian energy business is an imperfect analogue to the American – the antipodean market has its own quirks, but both leave electricity production to private industry, not to the government. So a report on Australia’s energy policies can be seen as having utility on this side of the world. All that said, a report from the Energy Policy Institute of Australia is less interesting as a potential alternate guide for America than for what it says about nuclear energy.

In the interests of reducing policy uncertainty and of lowering the risk to investment in the energy industry, governments should no longer pursue energy policy and climate policy independently of each other – governments must integrate energy policy and climate policy into a coherent whole, whilst they continue to facilitate open energy markets.

This does sound like something applicable to the United States. In any event, it leads to this recommendation:

The continuation of the prohibition of nuclear power generation in Australia is unnecessary and should be removed; the powers of ARPANSA [Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency] as independent regulator should be broadened to cover all developments throughout Australia; although ARPANSA is already accountable by law for its performance as a safety regulator, there should be public participation in its activities in the public interest.

ARPANSA would likely regulate any nuclear energy facilities built in Australia, so this makes sense. It also makes a pitch for small reactors, though this may be an attempt to get something through the door:

There are significant technological advances in safe nuclear power generation. In particular, factory-produced, small modular reactors (SMRs) are faster to install and are less capital-intensive than the larger, traditional nuclear power plants. SMRs are considered suitable for powering mines and towns in remote locations in many parts of Australia.


This is think tank stuff, so one has to consider who is footing the bill for nice lunches and energy friendly reports. But I have to say that the Energy Policy Institute seems reasonably non-judgmental on energy choices. But there are things like this:

Technological innovation is necessary but is universally characterized by patient, high-risk, high-reward investment. This is particularly the case in the clean energy sector where good ideas abound but true innovation through to widespread commercial deployment is rare (e.g. renewable energy with storage and carbon capture and storage). As a result, global achievements in decarbonizing the energy sector continue to lag global ambitions.

This leads to a bit I find dubious:

Attempting to pick individual technology winners exposes governments to the risk of a specific failure becoming a political issue and being used to reduce or shut down support for a particular technology, or even the broader clean energy programs.

Which is the kind of thing that gets written when you want to shut down nascent or developing ideas. It’s ambiguous enough to let pass, though it does raise a flag. Free marketeers like to take fairly absolutist positions – see The Heritage Foundation in this country for a more local example  –and one learns to bypass it as perhaps a little too utopian – at least, if that’s your utopia.

I imagine the institute finds its money from different energy companies, but none seem too interested in trashing renewables or any other potential energy source – and the report does point out that the world is doing itself a disservice by politicizing energy, including nuclear energy. Still, a healthy skepticism should always be brought to think tank reports.


Let’s reiterate a general feeling about Australia (and neighbor New Zealand): It will never put up a nuclear facility. It’s almost an article of faith, similar to the way that no Maryland politician of any political stripe would suggest drilling for oil in the Chesapeake Bay or do anything perceived to besmirch it. It’s a tribal thing, detached from politics and tied up with regional or national identity. But Australia (if not New Zealand) has been making more conciliatory noises lately, particularly because it has had little success ratcheting down its carbon emissions. So I’ll stick with my assessment – for now. The Australians can prove me wrong anytime they want.


Joffan said…
Actually the pro-nuclear sticker is Swedish.
Mitch said…
I know this sounds crazy, but is there any chance that Australia is so antinuke from way back is because of "On The Beach" somehow?
Dogmug said…
My prediction is that Australia WILL embrace nuclear within months of the first unequivocal major climate-change induced disaster. I wish it didn't take pain to change people's minds, but we're past the point where we can correct the problem of induced climate change before people start getting hurt.

Development of "green" energy there is not proceeding quickly at all, and there's already a large, well- entrenched uranium mining industry.

The biggest block to Australian nuclear these days appears to be the rich, politically and culturally powerful Broinowski family. They are overall a decent and philanthropic lot, but several members are deeply and extremely anti- nuclear. Still, I think one or more of them will come around.
Mark Flanagan said…
To Joffan - The first thing I thought when I saw it is, Looks Swedish - the yellow and blue. Maybe the Aussies adopted it for their use - or maybe I just misread something. It happens. Still, a cool sticker.
Joffan said…
Michael Karnerfors of Lund, Sweden created the logo. You can read about his "discussion" with the owners of the corresponding "no thanks" logo in his blog entries starting here.
OmegaPaladin said…
Picking technologies is a bad idea unless you know for certain which will pan out. Perhaps their crystal ball works, but I have found that trying to predict the future of technology doesn't work very well. Supporting low-pollution sources in general without specifying a technology makes more sense than trying to latch onto a particular technology like solar thermal or gas cooled modular reactors.

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