Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:39 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:39 | SYDNEY

Cross-pollination: Australia nuclear futures


Martine Letts

9 January 2009 08:50

Polling in Australia, including the 2008 Lowy Poll, shows an evolution in Australian thinking about nuclear power and other things nuclear. The Australian reported with some fanfare on 7 January findings from UMR Research that 1 in 5 Australians believes nuclear energy will provide most of the nation’s electricity in 20 years. 

But the survey also reported that more than 1 in 4 Australians (26%) believe solar energy will supply most of Australia’s power and electricity in 2028. This suggests more Australians believe our base load electricity will be supplied by technology yet to be a proven provider of base load power, than the technology which is already a known source of base load power, but which is far riskier. 

The Lowy Institute’s 2008 Poll showed Australians are increasingly attuned to the case for nuclear power, given the urgent need to meet the twin demands of lowering the global carbon footprint and the world’s growing energy needs. In the Lowy Poll, a surprising 42% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Australia should take responsibility for the nuclear waste from the uranium it exports by storing it in Australia. And 88% agreed or strongly agreed that Australia should only export uranium to countries which have signed the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

These surveys seem to signal a growing appreciation in Australia that nuclear energy will be critical in the future global energy mix. The Lowy Poll also suggests Australians appreciate the complexities of the nuclear energy picture, and the responsibilities and risks that come with it.

What else might be needed to strengthen the case for nuclear energy in Australia? Properly addressing safety and waste disposal challenges are obviously critical. International strategic considerations also come into play: Australia has played an influential role at the international nuclear table, as a major exporter of uranium and as a respected champion of non-proliferation. 

The context in which Australian nuclear policy is being made has become more complicated. Current policy settings may no longer be adequate to deal with recent proliferation dynamics and the resurgence of interest in nuclear power. The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), announced by Prime Minister Rudd in Hiroshima on 9 June 2008, co-chaired by Australia and Japan, aims to shape international policy to decrease nuclear dangers through accelerated disarmament towards zero and a more rigorous non-proliferation regime. The ICNND recommendations will play a role in shaping Australian international nuclear policy, as will the changes in the international nuclear landscape.  

This is where Australia’s domestic and international nuclear agendas begin to converge. The pressure to become a more nuclear savvy nation will not only come from our domestic future electricity needs, but also from our interest in continuing to influence the international nuclear order. A public policy discussion of this kind may take us from a still modest 20% to the 'well beyond 50% in terms of overall support' for nuclear energy in Australia predicted by ANSTO Chairman Ziggy Switkowski.