Australia would need to adopt a carbon price for nuclear power to be economically viable, a peak lobby group for the sector says, as it welcomes a push by the Nationals for a fresh Senate inquiry into the idea.
The Australian Nuclear Association, which advocates for nuclear science and technology, said nuclear power could provide cheap, reliable, carbon-free energy in Australia, but it would only be cost competitive with gas and coal generation if pollution was priced.
“They [reactors] don’t stack up in the current environment unless you have got some direct government intervention or a carbon price,” the ANA’s vice president, Robert Parker, said, suggesting a carbon price of about $20 a tonne would be sufficient for the sector to be competitive.
He said “if people want to take climate change seriously”, then nuclear would enable the country to reduce CO2 emissions in line with the recommendations of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which requires human-caused emissions to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050.
“If we are going to go down that road of trying to decarbonise as much as practically possible, then our analysis shows nuclear is the way to go,” he said.
Nuclear power becomes cheaper than wind or solar power generation the more the electricity sector switches to carbon-free generation, according to the ANA’s analysis, with the cost of reactors about half what they were a decade ago.
“The more you try to reduce your emissions across the electricity sector, the cheaper nuclear will be.”
The ANA’s comments come as Nationals MPs push for a new Senate inquiry into the potential of nuclear power in Australia, ahead of a statutory review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act due this year.
The Minerals Council of Australia has flagged it will use the EPBC Act review to push for a removal of the country’s nuclear ban, saying Australia is the only high electricity consuming country without nuclear power in its energy mix.
But as the sector suggests pricing pollution could help incentivise nuclear power generation and encourage Australia to cut its emissions, the resources minister, Matthew Canavan, is arguing against a carbon price, criticising business for its support of a market mechanism.
The Nationals MP Keith Pitt, who is leading the charge for the new Senate probe, said he was open to the idea that a carbon price may be necessary for nuclear power to stack up.
“This is the purpose of having the select committee, I think it is past time we had the conversation with the Australian people about nuclear energy,” Pitt said.
He said he wanted the select committee to also look at the lifetime costs of renewable technologies in comparison to nuclear, saying solar panels only had a life expectancy of up to 20 years and there were “tens of millions” of them already in the system.
“We have got a real risk particularly with solar panels and lithium batteries that they could turn out to be this generation’s asbestos,” he said.
“We need to look at the life cycle in its entirety and we need to have a balanced approach moving forward with energy in this country.”
On Monday, the former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said he agreed with Pitt’s push for Australia to use nuclear power.
“We dig it up, semi process it, send it to others to use and SA Labor believes we can take the scraps back and bury them. We believe in a reactor for medical purposes smack in the middle of Sydney BUT we must not use it for our power,” he said on Twitter.
During the election campaign, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, appeared to open the door to Australia having a nuclear industry, saying “if it can pay its way”, the industry should be allowed to operate.
But after facing a backlash from Labor, Morrison said the government had “no plans” to change the law to allow nuclear power in Australia.