Ted O’Brien, chair of the House standing committee on environment and energy, has set out a path towards conditional acceptance of new and emerging nuclear energy technologies, including small modular reactors (SMR) to meet the nation’s energy demand – a critical step towards securing national energy security.
Nuclear power has proved a poison chalice in Australian politics, however the perfect storm of environment, consumer cost and the growing strategic imperative of energy security has prompted the Australian government to launch a major inquiry into the suitability of developing a domestic nuclear energy industry to address these concerns.
Growing concern about Australia’s lack of strategic resource reserves – mainly liquid energy supplies – is emerging as a major issue to be faced by the new government and Australia’s strategic policy leaders as the world becomes increasingly unpredictable.
Further exacerbating these issues is growing concern about climate change and humanity's impact on the environment.
Central to the national security challenge is Australia's dependence on the ocean and strategic sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) for access to critical energy supplies – namely crude and refined oil products following the closure of Australia's only remaining oil refinery at Kurnell in 2014.
In response to these growing economic and strategic concerns, Energy and Environment Minister Angus Taylor has officially launched a parliamentary inquiry into the viability of developing Australia's own nuclear energy industry:
"This will be the first inquiry into the use of nuclear power in Australia in more than a decade and is designed to consider the economic, environmental and safety implications of nuclear power," Minister Taylor said at the time.
Throughout recent decades, nuclear technology has rapidly evolved with a range of civil and military applications – the advent of 'small modular reactors' (SMR) and 'very small modular reactors' (vSMR) in particular serve as notable examples of recent developments to address the growing need for reliable, 'clean' base load power generation for Australia.
In response, chair of the House standing committee on the environment and energy, Ted O'Brien, has issued a preliminary report into the nation's future energy security and generation equation.
"Nuclear energy should be on the table for consideration as part of our future energy mix. Australia should say a definite ‘No’ to old nuclear technologies but a conditional ‘Yes’ to new and emerging technologies such as small modular reactors," O'Brien said.
Say yes to the tech
A key component of the conditional 'yes' to nuclear energy as part of Australia's energy solution is the acceptance of new generation technologies on the back of over 300 submissions to the committee and its report, titled Not without your approval, which recognises the contentious issue of nuclear power.
In recognising this, O'Brien focused the argument: "If we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t simply ignore this zero-emissions baseload technology. But we also need to be humble enough to learn lessons from other countries who have gone down this path.
"It’s as much about getting the technology right as it is about maintaining a social licence based on trust and transparency."
Despite the overwhelmingly emotional response to nuclear energy in Australia, the nation's position as one of the largest fissile material exporters in the world, combined with world-leading standards, environmental protection legislation and voracious demand for reliable, 'clean' and 'safe' energy, positions Australian policy makers at a cross roads where logic and reason need to trump emotion.
The advent of SMR technology and the similar vSMR platforms was a key focus of the terms of reference outlined by Minister Taylor – with the ABC recently reporting the growing focus of SMR developers, stating their key objective as "aiming to lower the typical construction costs associated with nuclear plants through serial fabrication at an off-site facility, with components brought together at the operational site for final assembly".
SMR technology is one such example of modernisation and technological breakthroughs in the nuclear industry, with the US Army 'Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations' study highlighting the growing importance of energy on the modern battlefield, saying: "Energy is a cross-cutting enabler of military power and nuclear fuel provides the densest form of energy able to generate the electrical power necessary at forward and remote locations without the need for continuous fuel resupply."
Enter the development of vSMRs, designed to deliver between one and 10 megawatts (MW) for years without refuelling in a rapidly-deployable (road and/or air) package.
Both the US Department of Defense and NASA have collaborated on the development of such reactors for use in military and space exploration contingencies.
Additionally, the US Army study identified a series of performance and design considerations for the development and operation of such a system, including:
- Sized for transport by different strategic, operational and tactical military platforms (C-17 aircraft, ships, Army watercraft and military truck);
- Designed to enable multiple movements in austere locations throughout its operating life (e.g. passively or actively vibration-resistant during transport);
- Once installed, provides stationary 'load-following' and conditioned electric power as well as possibly process heat. Capable of meeting a camp’s variable electrical base power load demand;
- Provides electrical power for mission systems (e.g. sensing, computing and communications), life support (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting etc) quality-of-life functions, and other future applications (e.g. electric weapons, manufacturing, water or fuel production) during contingency operations in remote locations;
- Must have characteristics enabling minimum downtime for periodic instrumentation and sensor replacement or refurbishing, without requiring direct exposure to the nuclear fuel system;
- Must be simple in design and operation. Reactor design and fuel must be inherently safe and accident-forgiving; and
- Factory fuelled with system operating life of 10-20 years without refuelling.
The HOLOS reactor in particular has been designed to support deployed military requirements, with full-power tested successfully in 2018.
The HOLOS reactor uses a form of low-enriched uranium known as 'high-assay low-enriched uranium' or HALEU, which is neither weapons-grade nor useful in dirty bombs, and satisfies all nuclear non-proliferation requirements.
Further supporting this, the committee report recommends "the Australian government undertake a body of work to deepen the understanding of nuclear technology which would include economic, technological and readiness assessments and also a two-way public engagement program".
"The report recommends a partial-lift of the current moratorium on nuclear energy, urging the government to keep its moratorium on Generations I, II and III reactors while lifting it for reactors in Generations III+ and IV, so only the newest and best be considered," the report said.
While Australia enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, the ability to refine and produce vast quantities of steel, coking coal and now domestic agricultural produce and critical, specialised medical supplies also serves as a glaring gap in the broader national security debate.
Accordingly, any national strategic reserve policy requires a holistic approach to incorporate these into the development of any policy response.
Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods.
This is extended further when we recognise that even fewer within modern Australia understand the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Accordingly, it is now up to Australia's political and strategic leaders to form an integrated policy agenda as part of a broader National Security Strategy.
Similar to that advocated for by senator Jim Molan – to include the development of critical national strategic reserves to support the national economy and defence capability during an increasingly troubled period in global history.