Many would not know there is a nuclear reactor just 30km from Sydney’s CBD. The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor does not produce electricity but medicines, which one in every two Australians will need during their lifetime.
Ironically, it is also the reason Australia maintains a unique ban on nuclear energy. In 1998, the Howard government needed to pass legislation to rebuild the Lucas Heights reactor. To get the bill through the Senate, the government agreed to a Labor and Greens amendment to ban nuclear energy. The debate in the Senate on the nuclear ban idea took fewer than 30 minutes.
In the 1990s, Australia had a young fleet of coal-fired power stations and banning nuclear appeared an easy concession to make. Now Australia is left as the only large rich nation to have a ban on nuclear energy and we are at risk of being left behind.
Nuclear energy is going through a renaissance. France has plans to build 14 nuclear plants, Britain wants to build one every year, and the development of small modular reactors promises lower costs and easier waste solutions.
Even without these developments, Australia’s ban makes no sense. We should prohibit an energy alternative only if it is unsafe or would do significant harm to our environment. Nuclear energy is safe and it would be good for the environment.
According to the website Our World in Data, nuclear energy has the second lowest fatalities per unit of electricity produced, even lower than wind energy and only slightly higher than solar energy.
Nuclear is much safer than the use and transportation of flammable fuels such as coal, gas or hydrogen. Nuclear is the most green form of modern energy because it produces an enormous amount of energy from small amounts.
Canadian economic analyst Vaclav Smil, in his book Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses (MIT Press), writes that a single Coke can of uranium can provide you enough energy for your whole life.
Data from Forestry and Land Scotland shows that 14 million trees have been cut down to make way for wind turbines in Scotland. Nuclear energy takes up 300 times less land than wind and 60 times less land than solar. And rare bird species do not get chopped up by nuclear fuel rods.
The world has managed nuclear waste with no incident for more than 60 years. Australia houses nuclear waste from Lucas Heights in a shed within metres of high-priced suburban homes.
Why do our environmental laws ban nuclear energy but subsidise much more environmentally destructive forms such as wind and solar?
The opponents of nuclear energy have given up claiming that nuclear is unsafe. Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen’s argument against nuclear is now that it is too expensive. Even if that were true, our politicians should not be in charge of deciding what investments are profitable; that should be left to business. Our laws should focus on protecting the public good, not judging private decisions.
That is why eight other senators and I moved legislation in the Senate last week to overturn Australia’s ban on nuclear energy. Our legislation would leave the nuclear trigger in our environmental laws, meaning that any nuclear power proposal would still need the approval of the environment minster. It is the largest support for the legalisation of nuclear energy since the ban was introduced 24 years ago.
We cannot afford to wait any longer because the investments other countries are making in nuclear will bring down the cost of nuclear energy.
But we will not be able to take advantage of such developments unless we embark on the decade-long journey of building a functioning nuclear industry today.
Australia is on track to decriminalise marijuana before we decriminalise nuclear energy.
For those who continue to complain about the cost of nuclear, it must be asked: compared with what? Europe’s green energy nightmare shows without doubt that the Labor government’s obsession with renewable energy cannot deliver cheaper power prices or an industrial economy.
If we do not remove our out-of-step nuclear ban, we risk Australian families permanently paying higher energy bills and losing our manufacturing industry.
Nuclear is a proven, safe technology. What may have seemed a cheap, parliamentary concession to make in the 1990s risks turning into a catastrophic decision a generation later. It is time to overturn this tawdry, parliamentary trade-off and re-establish common sense on energy policy by legalising nuclear reactors, not just for medicines but energy too.