Nuclear power in Australia

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Australia currently has no nuclear facilities generating electricity. Australia has 31% of the world's uranium deposits and is the world's third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada.[1] At the same time, Australia's extensive, low-cost coal and natural gas reserves have historically been used as strong arguments for avoiding nuclear power.[2]

1969 Jervis Bay Plant proposal[edit]

In 1969, a 500 MW nuclear power plant was proposed for the Jervis Bay Territory, 200 km south of Sydney.[3] A local opposition campaign began, and the South Coast Trades and Labour Council (covering workers in the region) announced that it would refuse to build the reactor.[4] Some environmental studies and site works were completed, and two rounds of tenders were called and evaluated, but in 1971 the Australian government decided not to proceed with the project, citing economic reasons.[3][5]

1979 Perth proposal[edit]

In 1977-78, the West Australian Government, under the leadership of Charles Court, announced plans for a nuclear power reactor near Perth. 1977 was seen as the year of mass mobilisation in WA, with 300 at the first anti-nuclear demonstration to 9,000 at the third protest in the inner city of Perth. Despite public protest, the WA Government selected a first site for a nuclear reactor in 1979 at Wilbinga, 70 kilometres north of Perth. Court predicted that at least another 20 nuclear power plants would be needed by the end of the century to meet rapidly growing power demand, but none of this came to pass.[6]

Nuclear power politics[edit]

As uranium prices began rising from about 2003, proponents of nuclear power advocated it as a solution to global warming and the Australian government began taking an interest. In late 2006 and early 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard made widely reported statements in favour of nuclear power, on environmental grounds.[7] Faced with these proposals to examine nuclear power as a possible response to climate change, anti-nuclear campaigners and scientists in Australia emphasised claims that nuclear power could not significantly substitute for other power sources, and that uranium mining itself could become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.[8][9]

In 2006, the Howard Government commissioned the Switkowski report, an investigation into the merits of Nuclear power in Australia. The report concluded that nuclear power would be competitive with coal power plants if Carbon credit sanctions were implemented upon Australia. The Industry would have been able to produce its first plant in 10 years and could have delivered 25 plants by 2050 supplying Australia with a third of its base load power.[10]

Queensland introduced legislation to ban nuclear power development on 20 February 2007.[11] Tasmania attempted a ban on nuclear power facilities[12] but later did not pass the bill.[13] Both bills were formulated in response to the pro-nuclear position of John Howard,[14] and the release of the Switkowski report.[15]

Anti-nuclear campaigns were given added impetus by public concern about the sites for possible reactors: fears exploited by anti-nuclear power political parties in the lead-up to a national election in 2007.[16][17] The Rudd Labor government was elected in November 2007 and was opposed to nuclear power for Australia.[18][19] The anti-nuclear movement continues to be active in Australia, opposing expansion of existing uranium mines, lobbying against the development of nuclear power in Australia, and criticising proposals for nuclear waste disposal sites.[20]

At the same time, a number of Australian politicians feel that the development of nuclear power is in the country's best interests. Notably, on 13 June 2008, the annual New South Wales state conference of the National Party passed the resolution, proposed by the delegates from Dubbo, supporting research into the development of a nuclear power industry and the establishment of an international nuclear waste storage facility in Australia. The resolution was opposed by the delegates from NSW's north coast and by the party's state leader, Andrew Stoner.[21][22]

In 2005, the Australian government threatened to use its constitutional powers to take control of the approval process for new uranium mines from the anti-nuclear Northern Territory government. Also, the government is negotiating with China to weaken safeguard terms to allow uranium exports there.[citation needed] States controlled by the Australian Labor Party are blocking the development of new mines in their jurisdictions under the ALP's "No New Mines policy."

The John Howard-led Coalition government went to the November 2007 federal election with a pro-nuclear power platform. This government was defeated by the Labor Party, however, which opposes nuclear power for Australia.[23][24]

Nuclear law[edit]

The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 prohibits certain nuclear actions specified in s.22 unless a federal approval is obtained. It specifically prohibits nuclear power generation in s.140A (an amendment insisted upon by the Australian Democrats). The Act states that the Minister must not approve an action consisting of or involving the construction or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, or a nuclear power plant, or an enrichment plant, or a reprocessing facility.

Nuclear power debate in Australia[edit]

In the 2010 book Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power[25] Barry Brook and Ian Lowe discuss and articulate the debate about nuclear power. Brook argues that there are various reasons why people should say "yes" to nuclear power, and these reasons include:[25]

  • Because renewable energy and energy efficiency may or may not solve the energy and climate crisis
  • Because nuclear fuel is virtually unlimited and "packs a huge energy punch"
  • Because new technology solves the “nuclear waste” problem
  • Because nuclear power is the safest energy option

Lowe argues that there are various reasons why people should say "no" to nuclear power:[25]

  • Because it is not a fast enough response to climate change
  • Because it is too expensive
  • Because the need for baseload electricity is exaggerated
  • Because the problem of waste remains unresolved


Sir Ernest William Titterton (1916 – 1990) was a nuclear physicist and professor who publicly advocated nuclear power for Australia.[26]

Sir Philip Baxter (1905 – 1989), a British chemical engineer, was one of the most prolific public advocates of nuclear power in Australia.[27]

Professor David Wigg (1933 - 2010), was the clinical examiner in radiotherapy physics for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists from 1970 - 1978, and directed the expansion of radiation oncology and clinical radiobiology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital from 1980 until 1997.[28] In the years before his death, he published his views on the safety of low-dose radiation and the related misconceptions that impeded effective medical uses of radiation and the benefits of uranium mining and nuclear energy.[29]

Barry Brook is a professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide. He is a strong advocate for nuclear power as a sustainable energy source, especially the Integral Fast Reactor.[30] His most recent book is Why vs Why: Nuclear Power.

Tim Flannery is a professor at Macquarie University, and the chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group.[31] In 2006 he supported nuclear power as a possible solution for reducing Australia's carbon emissions,[32][33] but in 2007 he changed his position [34] and in May 2007 told a business gathering in Sydney that while nuclear energy does have a role elsewhere in the world, Australia's abundance of renewable resources rule out the need for nuclear power in the near term. He does however feel that Australia should and will have to supply its uranium to those other countries that do not have access to renewables like Australia does.[35]

Opinion polls[edit]

A McNair Gallup poll on the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia was carried out in 1979. The same poll was conducted again 28 years later in 2007 on 1,000 randomly selected people throughout Australia. A new poll was asked in 2009 which marked the first time that more people support nuclear power than oppose it. The support for nuclear power is still in a plurality not an outright majority [1] . Respondents were asked the following question:

“Do you favour or oppose the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia?” 1979 2007 2009
Favour 34% 41% 49%
Oppose 56% 53% 43%
Don’t Know 10% 6% 8%

The 1979 poll was conducted soon after the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant accident located near Pennsylvania USA where a sequence of events lead to the partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core.[36]

Opposition to the construction of nuclear power plants in the 2007 poll was strongest amongst females, Greens supporters and Australians aged 18–29 and 40-49.[37]

Do you favour or oppose the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia? TOTAL ALP Coalition Greens
Favour 41% 30% 59% 22%
Oppose 53% 66% 34% 78%
Don't Know 6% 4% 7% 0%

The McNair Gallup Poll showed a significant difference in opinion between ALP, Coalition and Green supporters, and moderate differences by gender. Men were more likely to favour the construction of nuclear power stations (55%), with twice as many males in favour of the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia than women. 41% of men were more likely to oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia. In contrast, 65% of women were more likely to oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia, while 28% favour the construction of nuclear power plants.

A 2014 independent survey, commissioned by SACOME, of 1,214 South Australians revealed a distinct trend in the community towards supporting consideration of nuclear energy.[38]

Please rate your level of support for Nuclear Power? TOTAL Female Male 18-34 35-50 51-65 65+
Total Support 48.0% 44.5% 64.4% 52.3% 53.8% 52.3% 59.8%
Neutral 19.5% 26.2% 16.9% 22.9% 20.6% 21.6% 21.8%
Total Oppose 32.6% 29.3% 18.6% 24.7% 25.6% 26.0% 18.4%

The proportion of neutral respondents was at around 20-25% in all categories, with qualitative feedback largely indicating conditional support given the satisfactory addressing of concerns, or a requirement for further information. Positive responses outnumbered the negative, most dramatically men and the elderly, with less dramatic support from women.

After Fukushima[edit]

The nuclear debate in Australia increased after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.[39] Some protestors demand a halt to uranium mining in their country and throughout the world.[40]

In 2012 a first-of-a-kind study was undertaken in which a combination of solar and wind technology, proposed as a replacement for the ageing Northern coal power plant, was comprehensively compared with a reference nuclear reactor. Assuming equal public confidence and an established regulatory framework, the nuclear energy option compared favourably on cost, reliability, commercial availability, plant lifetime and greenhouse gas abatement, among other criteria.[41]

In 2013, in response to a paper by Kharecha and Hansen quantifying the global benefits of existing and future nuclear energy capacity,[42] Jim Green of Friends of the Earth Australia published a highly critical rebuttal asserting that overall harm from nuclear technology was comparable to that of coal,[43] but following criticism of crucial arithmetical errors an apology was issued.[44] University of Adelaide Professor of climatology Tom Wigley co-authored an open letter calling for an expansion of nuclear energy as a tool against climate change.[45] Further calls for the consideration of nuclear power came from academics,[46][47] Australian media[48][49] and The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.[50]

In the lead-up to the 2014 South Australian election, BusinessSA proposed the establishment of a nuclear industry to enhance the state's economic growth.[51]

In response to the Northern Land Council's withdrawal of the Muckaty Station site as a potential centralised nuclear waste facility,[52] it was articulated that the process had suffered from a lack of recognition of the limited hazard posed by existing waste, which is currently stored at over one hundred sites in cities and industrial areas.[53] Furthermore, an open tender process for volunteered sites has attracted interest from pastoralists.[54]

The federal government released an energy green paper which articulated the potential for Australia in modern nuclear capacity, including small modular reactors, generation IV reactor technology and the role of thorium as nuclear fuel,[55] though industry minister Ian MacFarlane opined that "there is no need to have a debate in regard to nuclear energy in Australia but we should focus on the opportunities that nuclear energy presents in other countries and build our uranium industry to take advantage of that."[56] In contrast, foreign minister Julie Bishop declared support for nuclear energy, saying "It's an obvious conclusion that if you want to bring down your greenhouse gas emissions dramatically you have to embrace a form of low or zero-emissions energy and that's nuclear, the only known 24/7 baseload power supply with zero emissions."[57] The call for sensible discussion was publicly welcomed by economists and at least one member of the federal opposition.[58] The CEO of Origin Energy spoke in support of the prospect[59] and BusinessSA demanded the lifting of federal prohibitions so that debate on specific designs could proceed.[60]

At the end of 2014 an open letter[61] was addressed to environmental organisations and signed by seventy-five[62] distinguished climate science experts, including twenty-seven Australian-based academics, endorsing the findings of a peer-reviewed article which quantified the potential climate and biodiversity benefits of nuclear energy.[63]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Australia's Uranium and Nuclear Power Prospects
  2. ^ Australia report gives nuclear nod BBC 22 November 2006
  3. ^ a b McLeod, Roy (1995). "Resistance to Nuclear Technology: Optimists, Opportunists and Opposition in Australian Nuclear History" in Martin Bauer (ed) Resistance to New Technology, Cambridge University Press, pp. 171–173.
  4. ^ Falk, Jim (1982). Gobal Fission:The Battle Over Nuclear Power, p. 260.
  5. ^ 'Gorton gave nod to nuclear power plant', (1 January 2000), The Age.
  6. ^ Martin, Brian (Summer 1982). The Australian anti-uranium movement Alternatives: Perspectives on Society and Environment, Volume 10, Number 4, pp. 26–35. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
  7. ^ Martin, Brian. Opposing nuclear power: past and present Social Alternatives, Vol. 26, No. 2, Second Quarter 2007, pp. 43–47. Retrieved 12 January 2008.
  8. ^ Diesendorf, Mark (2007). Paths to a Low-Carbon Future: Reducing Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 (PDF)
  9. ^ Green, Jim (2005). Nuclear Power: No Solution to Climate Change (PDF)
  10. ^ Nuclear power in Australia within 10 years: Switkowski Sydney Morning Herald. 26 November 2006
  11. ^ Queensland bans nuclear facilities Aleens Arthur Robinson Client Update: Energy. 1 March 2007. Retrieved 19 April 2007.
  12. ^ Australias States React Strongly to Switkowski Report Hieros Gamos Worldwide Legal Directories 10 December 2006. Retrieved 19 April 2007.
  13. ^ Uranium Mining Policy in Australia Clayton UTZ, October 2012.
  14. ^ Wikinews PortalAustralian nuclear debate
  15. ^ Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy – Opportunities for Australia?
  16. ^ Matthew Franklin and Steven Wardill, PM nukes Labor's "campaign of fear", Courier-Mail, 6 June 2006.
  17. ^ Joseph Kerr and Steve Lewis, Support for N-power plants falls, The Australian, 30 December 2006.
  18. ^ Support for N-power falls The Australian, 30 December 2006. Retrieved 12 January 2008.
  19. ^ Rudd romps to historic win The Age, 25 November 2007. Retrieved 12 January 2008.
  20. ^ ABC News, Anti-nuclear campaigners say Muckaty will be dumped, 26 November 2007, Retrieved 31 January 2008.
  21. ^ Nats leader 'not keen' on nuclear power Business Spectator, 13 June 2008
  22. ^ Stoner defies Nationals' nuclear support, ABC News, 13 June 2008
  23. ^ Support for N-power falls
  24. ^ Rudd romps to historic win
  25. ^ a b c Brook, B.W. & Lowe, I. (2010). Why vs Why: Nuclear Power. Pantera Press, ISBN 978-0-9807418-5-8
  26. ^ Brian Martin (1980). "Nuclear Knights". Rupert Public Interest Movement. 
  27. ^ Brian Martin (1980). "Nuclear Knights". Rupert Public Interest Movement. 
  28. ^ Dr Margaret wallington (2011). "Prof David Ross Wigg obiturary". Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists. 
  29. ^ DR Wigg (2007). "Radiation: Facts, fallacies and phobias". Australasian Radiology. 
  30. ^ Klimaforscher Barry Brook „Deutschland muss Atomkraftwerke bauen“ FAZ 19.3.2011
  31. ^ Copenhagen Climate Council (2008). Tim Flannery. Retrieved 17 May 2008.
  32. ^ Davies, Julie-Anne (23 February 2007). "Dr Flannery, I presume". The Bulletin. Retrieved 10 April 2007. 
  33. ^ "Let's talk about nuclear power and other energy sources". The Age (Melbourne). 30 May 2006. 
  34. ^ Clive Hamilton:Flip-flop Flannery is a climate change opportunist, in Crikey 5 February 2009, retrieved 17 June 2010
  35. ^ "Nuclear power a turn-off: Flannery changes stance". The Sydney Morning Herald. 23 May 2007. 
  36. ^ National Museum of American History (link: Three Mile Island: The inside story. Retrieved April 2008
  37. ^ Australian Social Science Archive ( Opinion Poll D0237: Australian Gallup Poll, July 1975. Retrieved April 2008
  38. ^ South Australian Chamber of Mines & Energy ( URANIUM and NUCLEAR ATTITUDES SURVEY, April 2014. Retrieved January 2015
  39. ^ After Fukushima, there is still only one clean energy option{{subscription required|s}}
  40. ^ Nuclear protesters in Australia target miners
  41. ^ [ThinkClimate Consulting, Brown&Pang ( Zero Carbon Options Final Report]
  42. ^ Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power
  43. ^ Jim Hansen's Nuclear Junk Science
  44. ^ Green Nuclear Junk
  45. ^ Adelaide Euniversity Scientist Tom Wigley Joins Peers Calling For Greenies to Embrace Nuclear Power
  46. ^ Pro-Nuclear Greenies Thinking Outside the Box with Pandora's Promise
  47. ^ We Need Abundant Reliable Power. Why Not Nuclear?
  48. ^ Tory Shepherd Going Nuclear Would Tackle Global Warming Without Threatening Our Standard of Living
  49. ^ Want to Kill Fewer People? Go Nuclear
  50. ^ ATSE Nuclear Energy for Australia
  51. ^ A Charter for a Prosperous South Australia
  52. ^ Northern Land Council Withdraws Muckaty Creek Nomination
  53. ^ Nuclear Waste is Safe to Store in Our Suburbs Not Just the Bush
  54. ^ Time is running out to find a nuclear waste site in Australia
  55. ^ Federal Energy Green Paper
  56. ^ Macfarlane rules out nuclear, as report considers energy future
  57. ^ Julie Bishop Reopens Nuclear Debate as Route to Cut Carbon Dioxide Emissions
  58. ^ Julie Bishop's calls for nuclear power debate welcomed
  59. ^ Don’t rule out nuclear power, says Origin’s Grant king
  60. ^ Business groups want Government to 'get out of the way' of nuclear power
  61. ^ Nuclear Power is the Greenest Option Say Top Scientists
  62. ^ An Open Letter To Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy
  63. ^ Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation