WITH the Latrobe Valley a possible site for a nuclear power station, the federal Opposition has upped the argument for nuclear as a possible way for the nation to lower greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining a reliable and cheaper energy supply.


While the Coalition has not specifically named the Latrobe Valley, the federal Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, last week said Australia could meet its three national goals of cheaper, consistent and cleaner power by becoming a nuclear-powered nation.


“We can achieve that goal by putting nuclear technologies on or near the sites of decommissioned or retiring coal-fired power plants using the existing grid,” he said in an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review. Australia had a key market advantage in nuclear: “Australia holds the largest deposits or uranium in the planet – one third of the world’s reserves.”


Mr Dutton said the Coalition would shortly unveil host sites where new nuclear technologies could be placed. “The Coalition … will seek a social licence for our energy policy by listening to and incentivising communities to adopt nuclear power,” he said.


The federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, has said he understood the emotion surrounding nuclear, but urged residents to look at nuclear-power generation on a global scale and how it was often fuelled by uranium mined in Australia.


“It’s a conversation we need to have as calmly and as rationally as we can to make sure we’re making the best decision about future generations of Australians having access to reliable and affordable energy,” he said.


The National Party has argued a nuclear plant on an old coal station site would negate the need for large transmission lines through farm land. Farmers in South Gippsland are now negotiating with various companies about access to their land for transmission lines from proposed wind farms off Bass Strait.


Mr Dutton said in the AFR that more than 400 nuclear reactors in 30 countries were operating in the world today. The Ontario province in Canada, for example, produced 60 per cent of its power from nuclear, 35 per cent from renewables and 5 per cent from gas.


“We’re not starting a nuclear industry from scratch. The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor (in NSW) has been running for 66 years,” he said. “Some 50 countries are exploring or investing in next-generation nuclear technology for the first time. Australia is the only country in the top 20 economies which hasn’t embraced domestic nuclear power, or is taking steps to do so. During COP28 in December, more than 20 countries from four continents pledged their intent to triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050.”


Mr Dutton said if the federal government was so confident about its ‘renewables only’ energy policy, it should not fear lifting the moratorium on nuclear and letting the market decide. “Labor sees nuclear power as a competitor to renewables. The Coalition sees nuclear power as a companion to renewables,” he said.


Mr Dutton’s comments came as Australia’s former nuclear science regulator under both Coalition and Labor governments said a domestic nuclear energy industry in Australia was the only option if the country wanted a reliable and low-cost energy source with zero emissions, The Australian newspaper reported.


Dr Adi Paterson, who was the head of the federal government’s Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) for more than a decade until 2020, said nuclear was the only “rational choice” for post-coal dispatchable power. The other possibilities were geothermal or hydro; there was some geothermal in northern NSW and Snowy 2 Hydro was struggling to be built.


“Nuclear is the most reliable, safest, most predictable form of low-cost electricity that is also no carbon,” he said.


Dr Paterson said nuclear was not too costly. While initial capital costs were high, they ultimately led to much lower electricity prices for consumers. The argument of long time frames in other countries was based on regulatory hurdles rather than construction, he said, which ANSTO confirmed was only three to five years for a small modular reactor.


“There is no known credible impact on biodiversity from nuclear power, rather the opposite. It has a tiny environmental impact compared to solar and wind,” he said.


Dr Paterson said he was naturally a creature of the ‘political left’, having come out of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. H was an energy “generalist” who had worked on battery technology and hydrogen schemes in the 1990 and early 2000s. Batteries were not viable.


“The cost of electrons from a nuclear power plant from the moment you turn it on, is a tiny fraction of the cost of electrons from a battery at any time of their life cycle,” he told The Australian.