Future of Nuclear Energy in Emerging Markets: Australia

This story is part of an ongoing Forum on Energy series on nuclear energy in emerging markets across the globe. See more entries here.


australiaAustralia, the world’s 6th-largest country by total area, is located in the South West Pacific and is comprised of the continent of Australia, the island of Tasmania and several other small islands. Australia was inhabited by indigenous Australians for at least 40,000 years until the British and Dutch discovered and settled on the continent beginning in the 1600s. In 1901, six colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia and have maintained a stable liberal democratic political system ever since. Australia is today one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the world’s 12th-largest economy and the world’s fifth-highest income per capita in 2012.

Australia is among the top 10 energy producers in the world, with extensive and diverse energy resources due in large part to the continent’s great age and geographical diversity. Today, about 88% of Australia’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, including coal (74%) and natural gas (15%). The remainder of the country’s electricity is generated by renewable energy sources including solar, wind, bioenergy and most notably hydropower (6% of total electricity), which came online in the 1950s.

Australia’s vast, cheap coal and natural gas resources provide energy security and low-cost power for the nation. Recently, mounting concerns regarding climate change have stirred a renewed interest in emissions-free nuclear power, and in 2007 former Prime Minister John Howard openly announced his support for nuclear power generation as a low-carbon method to reduce the impacts of climate change. Prime Minister John Howard’s pro-nuclear platform was swiftly attacked by public opposition and defeated by the anti-nuclear Labor party in the 2007 federal elections.

In 2014, Australia emitted 542.6m tons of GHG emissions, down from 2013, as government schemes such as the Renewable Energy Target and the tax encourage a shift to lower carbon fuels overtime. The mandatory renewable energy target has been encouraging large-scale renewable energy plants since 2001. In 2010 the target was increased to 41,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable power generation from large-scale plants, demanding that 20% of Australia’s electricity come from renewables by 2020. The target is expected to be met by introducing additional solar and wind power plants. In light of the renewed demand for carbon-free energy sources, in 2015 South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill introduced a Royal Commission to investigate the government’s role in nuclear power production.

Uranium Production

Australia is home to the world’s largest-known uranium reserves, accounting for 31% of total world reserves. Australia has been mining uranium since 1954 and in 2014 the country produced 5,897 tons of U3O8 (5000 tU), making Australia the world’s third-largest producer behind Kazakhstan and Canada. In 1969, discovery of a large uranium deposit in the environmentally sensitive region of Mount Brockman in northern Australia triggered an emotional response from Aboriginal tribes, conservationists, mine operators, the government and environmentalists. These groups argued over how to protect Aboriginal ancestral and spiritual claims to the mountain and whether the uranium should be mined. In 1977, Australia offered a political solution designating a vast area surrounding the uranium mine as protected national park, Kakadu National Park.

Despite enormous domestic uranium reserves, Australia has no operating nuclear plants and all of Australia’s uranium production is exported for electricity generation abroad in adherence with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In 2013, uranium export sales were to North America (mainly U.S.) 2201 t (33.6%), Europe 2480 t (37.8%) and Asia (mainly Japan) 1873 t (28.6%). Uranium accounts for about 35% of Australia’s energy exports, and in 2009 accounted for $1.1 billion in export revenue. Uranium production and exports have been slipping ever since due to production problems at Olympic Dam and the Fukushima accident in 2011 that wiped out Japanese demand and softened prices.

Nuclear power prospects in Australia

Australia already has many of the institutions and much of the infrastructure necessary to support a transition toward domestic nuclear power production. The country’s existing natural gas and uranium mining systems provide significant physical infrastructure that could support a nuclear power program. Australia’s Nuclear Science & Technology Organization (ANSTO) boasts several R&D partnerships with countries including the US, France, Japan, Korea, and Germany, and ANSTO currently runs a modern 20 MWt Opal research reactor with the capacity to generate radioisotopes for nuclear medicine applications.

Australia’s Safeguards & Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) also provide world-class safeguards and regulation with a globally recognized track record in the uranium mining industry.

Nuclear power obstacles in Australia

Nuclear power generation is currently prohibited under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. While the Liberal party in Australia has pushed for the development of nuclear power generation since the 1950s, a strong and effective anti-nuclear movement emerged in the 1970s, spurred by opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific and the health risks associated with uranium mining. The anti-nuclear movement initially focused on nuclear non-proliferation and uranium mining, but the movement evolved to challenge the environmental and economic benefits of developing nuclear power.

In addition to public and political opposition, there are several legal hurdles that may impede the development of nuclear power in Australia. New South Wales has a Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities Prohibition Act of 1986 and Victoria has a Nuclear Activities Prohibitions Act of 1983. On the federal level, in addition to the previously mentioned Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, there is the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act of 1988 that includes prohibitions against the regulation of nuclear power.

Lastly, the 2015 Royal Commission comes at a time when the South Australian mining and manufacturing sectors are suffering from job losses and an economic contraction. This may hinder motivation to provide funding for the development of a nuclear power program in the region.

Future of Nuclear Power in Australia

Australia is in the midst of re-evaluating its ban on nuclear power in the face of mounting climate change concerns. The state of South Australia, which is home to 80 percent of Australia’s uranium reserves, will soon release a comprehensive report on nuclear energy that is to be supplemented by a report from the federal government. This historic report will look at nuclear power’s economic and environmental opportunities and promises to re-open the nuclear discussion and provide a basis for policy changes.

Weatherill and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott have expressed renewed interest in the nuclear debate. Weatherill is quoted, “I have in the past been opposed to nuclear power — all elements of it…[but] I now have an open mind about these issues.” Abbott has declared climate change as a sufficient reason to reconsider nuclear power and had described nuclear technology as an “absolutely proven way of generating emissions-free base load power.”

Despite the government’s openness, there remains pervasive public resistance, and any nuclear power initiative is expected to face environmental protests and legal obstacles along the way.