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Australia’s nuclear crossroads

8 July 2022
Jack Baker

Australia, like most other nations, is confronting an uncertain energy future. But like iron ore, the country’s richness in uranium, holding more than one-quarter of the earth’s reserves, is positioned for prosperity as the developed world factors a role for nuclear power as part of an energy transformation.

Tony Irwin, a chartered engineer for British Energy for over 30 years overseeing the birth of eight nuclear reactors, says atomic technology and uranium mining is a tremendous untapped resource.

He has provided advice to the federal government, which comes from a place of authority when he says there is a groundswell of demand to be met.

“There are 56 reactors under construction worldwide, so there is huge potential in Australia to meet this demand before the new power stations come under construction,” says Irwin, now in Australia as technical director of SMR Nuclear Technology.

“We have more uranium resources than anyone, with deep mines ready to go as the price of uranium increases again.”

After a massive industry decline following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, emissions reductions and energy security needs have nuclear firmly back on the agenda — China alone is constructing 19 significant plants, all capable of producing over 1000 megawatts a piece.

Irwin contends bitterly cold eastern European winters and other unforgiving climates have softened anti-nuclear sentiment, particularly in Poland and Romania, where there has been a great move to nuclear.

He says governments faced with stark options make drastic changes in energy policy.

“European parliament including nuclear in its taxonomy for sustainable investments, this will make a big change because now they can be part of a green investment which will reduce financing costs,” he points out.

And the changing attitude worldwide with the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia showing openness to nuclear options.

“Recent surveys have shown more people prepared to accept nuclear as part of the energy mix than those against it,” Irwin says.

“Previously, there was no reason for Australia to choose nuclear with substantial fossil reserves. However, now we are looking at a low emissions future and bank everything on renewables.

“There are costs and difficulties with very high proportions of renewables – everyone is looking for low emissions technology, the only one independent of weather and reliable is nuclear.”

The need for energy security has become an obsession with global powers rocked by the uncertainty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nuclear oddly seems a logical choice with the commodity a convenient high-density energy source, requiring just a comparative sprinkle of yellow powder to provide sustained power to millions.

“We need all available technologies for a low emission future. The question in the future is, what is the best mix?”

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