A senate inquiry examining whether Australia’s ban on nuclear energy should be lifted has been told it would take 10-15 years to have a power plant up and running if the moratorium was lifted right now.
The Environment and Communications Legislation Committee sat on Monday to discuss the Environment and Other Legislation Amendment (Removing Nuclear Energy Prohibitions) Bill 2022.
The bill would see amendments made to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, effectively paving the way for nuclear power generation.
CEO of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) Dr Gillian Hirth fronted the inquiry on Monday afternoon, where she was questioned about her organisation’s role in nuclear regulation.
Dr Hirth told the inquiry there would need to be a regulatory framework established for private nuclear generation, since ARPANSA only regulates Commonwealth projects.
“The time frames for implementation, if it were established today, you would be lucky to have it up and running in 15 years … 15 years would be the minimum,” said Dr Hirth.
“It can take three to five years to do a significant review of regulations in Australia … once they’re done, you’re looking at at least 10 years to develop facilities.”
The CSIRO also fronted the inquiry, with representatives grilled over data from 2018 showing nuclear would be prohibitively expensive for Australia.
The discussion focused on small modular reactors (SMRs), a technology of which CSIRO’s executive director for environment, energy, and resources, Dr Peter Mayfield, said there was limited information available.
The International Atomic Energy Agency describes SMRs as “advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300MW (e) per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors”.
“There are some projects overseas which are promising, but at this point in time (data is) not available,” he said.
NSW senator Hollie Hughes blasted the CSIRO representatives as being “deceptive and misleading” over their costing of nuclear power, and that focus on SMRs, noting other nations – like Canada, South Korea, and Japan – has found nuclear energy is relatively cheap.
But Dr Mayfield said each country needs to do its own analysis.
“Each country has different resources available to it,” said Dr Mayfield, with his colleague Paul Graham adding: “When you build things in Australia, there can be up to a 20-30 per cent higher cost.
“As you start to build projects, you get the learning curve, you get to build cost-effective technologies into those projects,” said Dr Mayfield, “but at this point in time the data is not available to us.”
The laws around nuclear technology will also need to be amended to enable Australia to take carriage of nuclear powered submarines, due to arrive in the early 2030s under the recently signed AUKUS agreement.
“(According to) our Act as it currently stands, we can’t regulate nuclear powered submarines,” said Dr Hirth.
“The proposed amendment, in the short term, seeks to give ARPANSA regulatory power until Defence can establish [their own body].”
Earlier, a number of executives in Australia’s leading nuclear industry associations and groups spruiked the benefits which nuclear energy could offer Australia.
Jo Lackenby, president of the Australian Nuclear Association, said the industry believed nuclear energy would help the country achieve net zero, but that restraints needed to be removed to engage in meaningful conversion.
“If we start the process now, we can do it well, or we can wait and potentially rush it in the future, when we as a nation realise we need nuclear energy technology,” she told the inquiry.
The committee has twice been granted an extension to develop a report, which at the time of writing will be expected to be finalised on June 15.