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Nuclear Energy in Australia

Nuclear Energy in Australia

The Speakers.

Ian Lowe 

is an emeritus professor of science, technology, and society at Griffith University in Australia. He holds a Bachelor of Science with honours in physics from UNSW and a D.Phil from University of York. Lowe is a prominent environmentalist and commentator on science and technology policy in Australia. He has written numerous books and research papers on topics such as sustainable development, climate change, and nuclear energy. He is also a former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and  Engineering. 

Stephen Wilson

is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland who has worked at the intersection of engineering, economics and policy, energy security and the geopolitics of energy and resources across three decades and in over 30 countries. Stephen has worked on projects in energy efficiency and demand-side management, electricity regulation, tariffs and pricing, climate change and energy policy, natural gas, pipeline and storage infrastructure master plans, security of supply and bankability studies, coal and uranium mining, renewable energy and system modelling.

Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Stephen has spent his career in energy economics, as a consultant based in Melbourne, Hong Kong and later London, as general manager of market and industry analysis in the energy product group of a global mining company, and as a full-time teaching and research Professor at UQ. Stephen is Managing Director of Cape Otway Associates.

Speakers’ Opening Remarks


H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong”. 

It is currently difficult to assess the capital and ongoing costs of nuclear energy compared to coal, as they are based heavily on assumptions and different factors, some of which are ignored or skewed in the debate. Australia has a historical lack of support for nuclear power. In the 1950s, states did not individually have sufficient rationale to justify nuclear power plants, since they had independent energy grids. The last significant proposal to build a nuclear reactor was rejected by the Whitlam government in the 1970s (Australia’s only reactor is at Lucas Heights in Sydney, and is engaged in production for medical and scientific purposes). The initial construction cost of a nuclear power station is high and the lead time to going on line is long. The federal government has also been unsuccessful in closing a deal to store low-level radioactive waste in Australia due to conflicting information. There has been significant reluctance even to engage in public debate about nuclear power generation: the word “nuclear” arouses negative reactions. But some countries have solved the problem: France’s electricity is 75% nuclear-generated. 


The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) is a metric used to determine the cost of producing electricity over the lifetime of a power plant. Estimates for nuclear power vary from $60 to $330 per megawatt-hour.  LCOE relies on many assumptions that can be easily manipulated to produce the desired results. Australia is waiting for a statesperson to merge who will realise that nuclear energy is a unifying subject rather than a divisive one. Finland was provided as an example of where nuclear energy is supported on both sides of politics. Only 4% of Finns strongly oppose nuclear energy. 

The anti-nuclear movement has spread misinformation about the waste material being massive, expensive, and unsolvable. In reality, the waste material is small, inexpensive to store, and there are multiple solutions already available. 

Reactors under construction overseas are commonly of 1,000 megawatts or more, which is too large for Australia. France has an EPR third-generation reactor of 1500 megawatts in operation. However, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) would better suit Australia's energy market. Australia faces an energy policy trilemma of minimizing cost, maximizing security and supply, and minimizing environmental impact, but only two of these can be ensured.

The AUKUS submarine announcement has received a positive response from Australians (47% in favour, high 30s% against). This may be indicative of broader underlying public support for nuclear energy: there has been little negative reaction to having nuclear-powered submarines in Australian waters, and there was little objection to the American aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan visiting Brisbane with its 194 megawatt nuclear propulsion system.  



In Australia opposition to nuclear energy has been steadily decreasing. Those on the right tend to support nuclear in Australia for energy security reasons, whilst the left tends to support it as a zero-emissions alternative to coal.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are not yet proven in practice, and there have been significant cost overruns. Russia currently has a number of SMRs, and China is close to having an operational SMR on Hainan Island. No SMRs are currently being deployed in the west. America has a plan to construct 6 in Idaho, with strong local community support. The eventual SMR cost per megawatt in Australia could be as low as $76. SMRs don’t need large volumes of water, unlike larger plants. Rolls Royce is building a 490 megawatt SMR. Polling suggests that people are more likely to support SMRs, particularly those on the right who tend to be more technologically optimistic.

China has two operational EPRs (Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor). EPRs are considered to be money-printing machines once they are built, since they are stable, long-lived (100 years), and provide power at an LCOE which cannot be matched by coal-fired plants or renewable assets. China is considered the most advanced civilian nuclear reactor country in the world. 

Energy storage is a significant issue in Australia. A promising storage option is pumped hydro. Pumped hydro and nuclear energy fit naturally together (Stephen). 95% of energy storage around the world is pumped hydro. 15,000 sites have been identified for hydro storage in eastern Australia, of which 50 would need to be utilized to store enough energy for the entirety of Australia. 

The price of renewable energy has dramatically reduced over the past few decades, and is continuing to fall. The output of renewable-generated electricity has also increased dramatically. South Australia has recently had 70%-100% of its electricity generated by solar and wind, backed up by gas-generated electricity, with battery storage for grid stability.  Construction periods of ten years or more are typical for large energy projects. 

A great deal depends on public perceptions and debate. In Finland the Greens (Tea Törmäinen) realized in 2015 that the real elephant in the room was carbon footprint, and shifted their policy position to favour nuclear power. A coordinated program through the media and social media was mounted. Finland is now pursuing a nuclear energy policy. In Australia responsible, balanced public debate on nuclear power issues is making only slow progress. 

In conclusion, the discussion highlighted the complex and multifaceted issues surrounding nuclear energy in Australia. The historical lack of support, the challenges of assessing the true total costs, the levelized cost of energy, and the different opinions on energy policies were all explored. The potential of small modular reactors and the need for energy storage were also discussed, together with renewables (solar and wind), as well as the varying levels of public support for nuclear energy based on geographical location and political affiliation. The discussion emphasized the importance of accurate information and clear communication about the benefits and risks of nuclear energy. Ultimately, the decision to pursue nuclear energy in Australia will require careful consideration of economic, environmental, and social factors, and extensive public debate based on fact. 

Brisbane Dialogues is very grateful to Ian Lowe and Stephen Wilson for sharing their valuable contributions and insights on this important topic.

Charlie Trenorden and Roly Sussex,, 7 April 2023

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