Whatever way you slice it, Australia has set itself a monumental task. 

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 may be one of the most ambitious and forward thinking causes on our agenda today.  The fact we have given ourselves less than 30 years to do it, ideally in a reliable, cheap, and practical way is something that should not be understated.  With almost 70% of our energy supply still coming from oil (38.8%) and coal (29.1%), shifting away from fossil fuels to renewables such as solar and wind will have to be a top priority.  To help us get there faster and give our grid more flexibility to reliably meet our energy needs, it is important we diversify our power sources, and explore options for how we can best support our transition. 

Nuclear power, delivered by small modular reactors (SMR) is one such option.  This article does not make a case either for or against such nuclear power.  Rather, we seek to take a frank look at whether nuclear power can support our push for net-zero, and what would need to happen for us to have a real and proper debate about the current technology.

Going Nuclear:  Let’s talk about it

If you were to go back in time a hundred years to Yallourn, Victoria 1921, you would have seen the cutting-edge technology that started our last big energy revolution.  Two buildings that looked more like sheds than a power plant, with a large chimney to let smoke from the boiler house escape.  A temporary coal-fired power station that, when it proved successful, led to the construction of the Yallourn power station seven years later. 

Yallourn Temporary Power Station- Photo from Museums Victoria

The descendant of that early plant, ‘Yallourn W’, currently provides 22% of Victoria’s electricity and 8% of the National Electricity Market (NEM).  That plant is scheduled to close in 2028, and its closure will symbolise the end of Australia’s long, and in many ways’ successful, dependence on fossil fuels.

In line with the global movement away from fossil fuels, coal in Australia is being crowded out by the “new kids on the block”, renewable energy generated by solar and wind.  Blessed with large tracts of land and plentiful sun and wind, Australia is rapidly moving towards a green energy future that is environmentally friendly, and consistent with our national goal of net zero emissions by 2050. 

Until recently however, little has been said about the other tool in Australia’s potential energy arsenal, nuclear power.  As many other countries continue to explore and refine nuclear energy technology, Australia’s main involvement in this sphere is as the world’s third largest exporter of uranium – some might liken Australia to an umbrella salesman “handing out their wares in the pouring rain, but not so much as propping open a parasol for themselves”!

Nuclear power plants have been prohibited by the Australian Government since 1998 (ironically by Prime Minister John Howard, an advocate of greater engagement with nuclear power), and Australia has resisted lifting its moratorium despite successive calls, including most recently a 2019 Parliamentary report recommending a lifting of that ban for Generations III+ and IV reactors.   Australia’s latest attempt at repealing nuclear prohibitions, the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Facilitation) Bill 2017, remains one of the oldest bills currently before the Senate.  Meanwhile, the current Australian Government has made it clear, both in press announcements and their whole-of-economy plan (Net-Zero Plan), that they will not be considering adopting nuclear energy as part of Australia’s net-zero strategy for now. At the same time though the Australian Government’s Technology Roadmap signals that those developments in nuclear power, particularly modular reactors, will be kept under review.

Many other countries already use nuclear power as one of the few realistic options to assist themselves in reaching net-zero emissions.  France relies on nuclear power to meet over 70% of its energy needs (often using Australian uranium). China is on track to build and operate the world’s first land-based commercial SMR by the end of 2026, with 150 more reactors planned over the next 15 years (totalling around 200 GW by 2035). The United States of America (US), long the world’s largest generator of nuclear electricity, has been aggressively working to revive their nuclear energy capacity amidst the phasing out of older costly nuclear power plants.  Pushing heavily for advanced light water and non-water-cooled reactors, the US is also looking at spending up to USD $2.5 billion in funding on the development of new advanced reactors with safer and more cost-effective designs.

The concept of nuclear power as a viable energy source in Australia may sound like a pipe dream.  But Australia already has one nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in New South Wales – its purpose is not to produce power, but rather radioisotopes for various medical and industrial uses.   When it comes to nuclear power, many people still have in their minds a vast, dangerous, toxic plant, like the kind featured in the Simpsons and represented by the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima.  Such reactors are a relic of 1970’s technology, more prone to operator error, higher costs, and slower to build than more recent plants.

Solar and wind will (and, in our view, should) be the backbone of Australia’s energy needs going forward.  Possessing some of the best sun and wind resources in the world, renewables currently produce 24% of Australia’s total electricity generation and that percentage is growing.  The technology will also continue to progress, with advances being seen in generation, battery capacity, transmission, cost, and even regulation as we continue to rehaul the NEM and open the way for offshore wind.  But no energy source is perfect.  Questions exist about battery capacity, transmission line construction, farm placement, space requirements, and, naturally, reliability and firming.  Realistically a combination of different energy sources will be required on the path to net-zero, and nuclear power from SMR’s may just be one of them

Beyond carbon fuelled power

The energy industry is constantly shifting. Responses to growing demand for clean energy in a practical way has pushed the development of non-carbon-based electricity generation.  Exciting advancements are on the way in solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, oceanic, and of course nuclear power.  While some of the technologies mentioned in this article are more speculative than others, at this stage none are purely theoretical, with proof-of-concept plants, or even working prototypes currently being developed or in operation.

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There is something very seductive about the idea of a one sentence solution.  Alchemists used to chase a mythical cure known as a panacea, named after the Greek goddess of universal remedies.  The idea that you could take one thing and instantly be cured of whatever ails you is a potent one.  In politics a simple catchy slogan could help you win more votes than weeks of campaigning, never mind the nuance of your actual political message.  When it comes to losing weight, forget about the complexities of diet and exercise, the USD $300 billion weight loss industry wants to give you one pill that will do it all.  But how often does a simple solution really come along that fixes all your problems?  How many things in life are really that simple?  Well, when it comes to the problems of nuclear energy, on the surface SMR’s almost present as that one sentence solution (although as we will see, things are a little more complicated).

Historically, nuclear reactors have been gargantuan monoliths of architectural design.  There are reactors capable of generating thousands of megawatts of energy, which require cooling towers almost two hundred metres high, and hundreds of workers to run them.  This has some obvious downsides - construction time and cost, space requirements, security, and suitable locations.  SMR’s may just solve all of this.  While the concept of SMRs has only really taken off in the last decade, it already shows some promise, with Russia having built a floating prototype in 2020, known as the Akademik Lomonosov.  The concept is simply to take the design of an existing nuclear reactor and scale it down, have it built using modular parts that can be fabricated off-site and shipped to location, reducing both costs and build time (particularly if multiple units are being built concurrently).  Additionally, having potentially smaller designs means a greater number of possible locations.  Imagine being able to decommission a coal plant and put a nuclear one right in its place, with minimal changes to infrastructure.

SMRs may be the closest thing we have to a one sentence answer to many of the concerns with nuclear power.  However, as foreshadowed, the technology isn’t perfect.  With projects underway in China, Russia, the UK, Poland, the US, and Canada, SMR’s are still in an exploratory stage.  While some companies are advertising build times for reactors of one to two years, this has yet to occur, and may come with its own problems.  Currently SMR’s are also only cheaper to build in theory once you are able to mass manufacture the necessary parts and have the ability to put them together (the ‘modular’ part of an SMR).  Where demand is low or in the pilot phase, this cost saving does not occur.  Then there are also questions of nuclear waste and safety, while greatly reduced by a smaller footprint plant, these are still not eliminated entirely.

And while SMRs may not be the final word in the nuclear power debate, they are undoubtedly a cornerstone of its future.  Australia doesn’t need massive nuclear power plants to generate electricity – rather it needs cheap and efficient designs which can assist with load-following that can be in secure and safe locations and do not involve considerations such as wind or sun conditions.


When Muhammad Ali returned to boxing in 1970, after a three-year absence as a result of his draft refusal in the Vietnam War, he was a markedly different fighter.  Not as fast or as sharp as in his youth, he quickly suffered two back-to-back losses (the first losses in his career).  By the time he was set to fight George Foreman in 1974, Ali was firmly the underdog against his younger heavy hitting opponent. With four to one odds against him, Ali’s round 8 knockout was an almost impossible upset.  How did he do it?  A complete overhaul of his style. From relying on his once lightning-fast reflexes, he pioneered his ‘rope-a-dope’ technique, going against conventional boxing wisdom to invite punches that he would absorb against the ropes and in doing so tire his opponent out - he would cover-up and clinch to rest, techniques that persist today.

History is full of examples of adaptation and reinvention. Thomas Edison supposedly tested thousands of filaments before stumbling on one that would allow the invention of a functional and affordable lightbulb, Dick Fosbury completely changed how the high jump was accomplished after abandoning standard techniques, and Apple went against conventional marketing practices when it hired designers whose sole job is to unbox iPhones and provide feedback to make the unboxing experience a part of its strategic marketing plan.  Nuclear technology is no different.

Because early reactors were more about facilitating nuclear weapons than nuclear energy, concerns such as waste or cost were not adequately addressed.  By the second generation, reactors were on the way out, and from the late seventies to the mid-eighties when most of the world’s reactors were constructed, fewer new reactor orders were coming in, with the public rightly concerned by issues around safety and radiation.  By the time the first Generation III reactors were commissioned in the 1990s, the designs, including output, safety features, and efficiency had all advanced to the point of being almost unrecognizable compared to their initial counterparts.  The technology of nuclear reactors advances still.

The Generation IV reactors are the latest in this long line.  The objective of the Generation IV International Forum, a co-operative international endeavour which includes among its members, Canada, the European Atomic Energy Community, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, China, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States, is to develop the research for better technologies.   The focus on making commercial and industrial reactors more practical has placed a strong emphasis on safety.  Rather than create reactors that can handle nuclear accidents, one goal of the new designs is to exclude accidents entirely.  They incorporate passive nuclear safety systems that will shut down processes automatically in the event of a critical incident.

More efficient processing systems also mean that nuclear fuel is more efficiently consumed, and as a result, the waste output is greatly reduced, with the waste that is created only radioactive for centuries, instead of millennia.  This also leads to a greater output, making these designs 100 - 300 times more efficient than previous generation counterparts.  An add on effect is that this can also reduce the need to mine uranium - in fact some designs may even be able to run on processed fuel from previous generation reactors.  And, of course, if the designs can be scaled down into an SMR, this has the potential to deliver safer, faster to build designs, with potentially less waste, and more flexibility in location.


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The table below shows a comparison of the various technologies in terms of key considerations:

Core Concerns


Talking points


Current Generation (II and III) nuclear reactors

Currently almost all nuclear generators worldwide are Generation II reactors.  It is estimated that based on the number of Generation II reactors currently operating, a nuclear meltdown is likely to occur once every 10 to 20 years.

Gen IV nuclear reactors

These designs are much safer.  For example, molten salt reactors have inherent properties such as a negative coefficient of reactivity, meaning they begin to cool once they reach a certain temperature, greatly lessening the likelihood of a meltdown.

Radioactive waste

Current generation nuclear reactors

A large reactor will produce 25-30 tonnes of used fuel per year.  3% of this is long-lived (up to 10,000 years) and highly radioactive and requires deep geological disposal facilities (which are also used for the disposal of other toxic wastes) for thousands of years.

While not contributing towards carbon emissions, nuclear waste is itself an environmental hazard that must be monitored and dealt with.

Gen IV nuclear reactors

Generation IV reactors produce significantly less waste than Generation II reactors, with some designs capable of reusing waste at a later date (although there may not be an economic benefit to doing so given the abundance in fuel).

Unfortunately, the waste output, while significantly less than Generation II and III reactors (with some designs able to actually run on the waste of Generation III reactors), will still require purpose-built facilities to run for centuries if not millenia to properly house radioactive waste.


Current and future generation nuclear reactors

Historically, nuclear plants have incurred large costs overruns and build times relative to other sources.

When new technologies such as SMRs are considered, build times are being advertised as low as 1 year for a fully operational plant.  These predictions seem very optimistic. If the build time can in fact be shortened, SMRs are more likely to play a key role.  There may also initially be higher costs involved in being an ‘early adopter’ in terms of training and operation.

There has also been a trend observed in France and other nuclear reliant countries of ‘negative learning’.  When legislation and technological advances are introduced, costs increase rather than decrease, ostensibly due to shifting designs and the need for better procedures and protocols.  It remains to be seen whether new generation nuclear technology will be able to overcome this obstacle.


Bringing the conversation to life

Clean, powerful and here

A car speeds through time, a superhero in a high-tech suit of armour fights aliens, and a space crew boldly goes where no one has gone before, all powered by the same source of energy.  There’s a reason why nuclear power is the power source of choice in science fiction.  When a pellet of uranium smaller than one digit of your little finger can produce more energy than one ton of coal, it’s difficult not to imagine the possibilities of using such a clean and powerful energy source.

The 2021-2022 global energy crisis threw into focus just how dependent the world is on traditional carbon-based energy.  China, India, Europe, and the US are all facing sharp price increases and demands on energy for a variety of reasons, ranging from China’s ban on coal imports from Australia, lower power generation from renewables in parts of Europe, and sanctions against Russian oil imports.  As global pressure to move to clean energy increases and countries shift to renewables to take on a greater share of their electricity needs, nuclear becomes more and more attractive as a fuel source.  It provides clean energy that can be adjusted to an extent to account for demand and supply shifts, stabilising the energy grid when seasonal fluctuations affect other renewable energy sources. Nuclear also has the capacity for significant electricity output, giving an additional practical option to countries without reliable solar and wind resources.

Currently, nuclear energy provides roughly 10% of the world’s electricity from 440 reactors.  This is a total of approximately 790 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and displaces around 1.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.   Australia alone exports enough uranium ore concentrate (UOC) to power roughly 92% of Australia’s electricity consumption each year, which is roughly 1.7 times more energy than we generate from coal.

In respect of sun and wind resources, Australia is more fortunately located than many other countries.  As a country, we have time to consider our options while we are still phasing out coal and scaling up our sun and wind generation capacity.  Now could be the best time to have an eye to the long term and consider other potential energy sources to help with our transition.  Offshore wind, oceanic, geothermal, and hydropower (which may very well allow Tasmania to reach its goal of 200% renewable generation by 2040), are all worthy of investigation and expansion, but it could be time to include nuclear power on that list.  In terms of carbon emissions per kilowatt hour for the full life of a nuclear plant nuclear power plants rank as one of the cleanest energy sources in the world.

No country aims to reach net-zero emissions on one power source or one solution alone – rather, it will be a combination of different energy sources and industries that will allow us to produce cheap, practical, and reliable energy to replace our need for coal and gas fuelled power.

The table below shows an estimated amount of carbon produced by different energy sources as a rough guide over the lifetime of their plants (including construction and, where applicable, fuel transport) from a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Please note these figures are a rough guide, and do not take into account newer generations of reactors, nor may they fully take into account the impacts of mining and requiring a continued (or potentially expanding) uranium mining industry.


Carbon produced gCO2eq/kWh


Coal (worldwide average)









Modern-to-advanced hard coal plants



Natural gas combined-cycle plants



Coal with CCS (expected)



Gas with CCS (expected)

120-170 (assuming a leakage of 1% of natural gas)

90-370 (assuming current normal leakages of 0.8%-5.5%)


Solar PV




Solar CSP



Nuclear power (Gen II)










Ocean energy




Estimates range from:

40 (SRREN)

3-7 (Dones et. al. 2007)

20 (Hertwich, 2013)

70 (Global average)

2 (Large reservoirs)


Plug and play

Commercially, one of the most exciting advancements in nuclear technology in recent history is the construction of an SMR.  As noted above, these are scaled down versions of existing nuclear plants, and as such, offer advantages in terms of safety, build times, flexibility in terms of output as well as location.  Imagine being able to replace an existing coal fuelled power plant with a clean and more efficient nuclear plant.  In doing so, you don’t have to worry about site suitability for wind or sun, grid connections, or even space requirements, with plants being able to scale up and down as needed - the technology is almost perfect as a supplementary source.

As mentioned, the world’s first land based SMR is currently under construction in China, but the rest of the world is not far behind.  Russia has already built an off-shore SMR with plans to construct a land based one by 2028, repurposing icebreaker reactors for the design.  France, the USA, and Japan have all announced a renewal in efforts to construct and operate an SMR within the next decade.  If these developments can be combined with Generation IV technology (advanced SMRs), then the safety features and efficiency of SMRs can be further enhanced.

An embarrassment of riches

Even with outdated technology, nuclear energy manages to produce a remarkable output in comparison to the amount of fuel consumed.  Of the 440 nuclear reactors currently operational, less than 30 are Generation III and III+, with the rest being Generation II reactors.  These reactors, largely constructed in the 70’s and the 80’s are much less technologically impressive than their newer counterparts.  As Generation IV reactors come online (currently in the prototype phase, with designs being rolled out around the world over the next ten years), designs that are up to 300 times more efficient than Generation II reactors are on the horizon, becoming more fuel efficient, and requiring less space.

This bodes well for Australia, a country which is currently the world’s third ranking producer of uranium.  We are selective as to how and to where we export our uranium, requiring treaty-level assurances that the materials will only be used for peaceful purposes, and further International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards such as monitoring the use of these materials.  Should a domestic demand for uranium ever arise, Australia has access to the world’s largest readily available supply of fuel.    

In defence

The announcement of AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US on 15 September 2021 has implications for Australia that are too significant to ignore.  As a result of this pact, Australia will join the US, Russia, the UK, France, China and India as one of the few countries with nuclear submarine capabilities, but unlike them will not have a civilian nuclear industry to lend its expertise or build up local specialist capability.  In comparison to previous diesel designs, nuclear submarines move at high speeds for longer periods of time and allow longer submerging and travel durations.  Importantly, they will also require enriched uranium as a fuel source.  Once the on-board reactor has been fuelled with enriched uranium provide by the US, it should not need to be replaced for the lifetime of the submarine.  This is presumably why Prime Minister Scott Morrison has provided assurances that the AUKUS deal is not meant to signal the start of Australia’s own nuclear industry.

However, refuelling isn’t the only factor that will require nuclear expertise – there are also potential issues regarding maintenance.  In an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, former PM Malcolm Turnbull questions whether it is credible to expect that a nuclear submarine will not need inspection and maintenance for 35 years, and what Australia’s options are if something does need to be done.  Training workers to build, maintain, and refuel nuclear submarines is not an overnight job.  Are the submarines to be maintained and repaired by sending them to the US if something were to go wrong?  These is not a question that necessarily must be answered by a full scale civil nuclear industry, but the development of such an industry is one possible solution.

Addressing the concerns

For as many problems as nuclear power could potentially solve, there are strong negatives that should be acknowledged.  Since the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, the technology has had a history of high-profile failures.  Critical safety events, such as the ones at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and more recently Fukushima, are rightly at the forefront of public perception when it comes to questions of safety.  Additionally, while not a direct contributor to greenhouse gases, by-products in the form of nuclear waste, made worse by poor early storage and disposal mechanisms, continue to throw up environmental challenges.  Furthermore, nuclear plants typically have significant start-up costs.  In countries like the US or China where there is greater need for energy and less availability of reliable sun and wind than Australia to fuel clean energy sources, such an investment may be more easily justified to achieve net-zero in time to meet emission goals.  However, in Australia where alternative clean energy sources are plentiful, the initial financial investment and risk may be harder to swallow, perhaps it is of too significant a scale for a nuclear industry to ever develop here.  But unless we ask the right questions, commission the appropriate studies, and be frank and realistic about what is needed for safe, reliable, and cheap nuclear energy, we can’t have the needed mature national discussion and debate at this critical environmental and commercial juncture in Australia’s energy evolution.

Below we outline what we consider are several key issues with nuclear power that need to be addressed before Australia can consider a civil nuclear industry, as well as possible regulatory and potential technological solutions.


Nuclear power’s critical safety incidents can be horrific, with dramatic consequences for humans and the environment.  While scientists have learned from each event and there is now much less likelihood of the same mistakes being repeated, human error, unforeseen dangers, and deliberate sabotage or terrorist attack will always loom on the horizon. 

No one can deny that nuclear facilities are potentially dangerous.  Studies of previous generation reactor designs predict that nuclear reactor accidents will occur every 10 to 20 years.  Fukushima’s nuclear disaster in 2011, triggered by unforeseen consequences from an earthquake and tsunami, brought these dangers to the forefront of the public’s mind, and led to the idling of many of Japan’s nuclear power stations (which have only recently begun to restart amidst Japan’s energy needs and its obligations under the Paris climate accord), and also to Germany’s phasing out of nuclear power completely.

SMRs and Generation IV technology have the potential to address these concerns.  Inventive designs such as molten salt reactors, for instance, have inherent safety features to prevent meltdowns.  But these safety improvements need to be put under the spotlight to a greater extent, so that the broader community can become better educated and we can all better understand the advantages and drawbacks of these more advanced technologies.  As these technologies become commercially available, Australia should, as a first step, ensure it is able to properly evaluate and, if it chooses, acquire such technologies accordingly.


Nuclear energy is clean, at least in the sense that it emits no carbon.  However, nuclear energy does produce something else, nuclear waste that is both hazardous and requires careful management once produced.

The very real consequences of carbon emissions and climate change are significant, and quicker measures to move towards net-zero emission are needed.  Where countries lack the necessary space and reliable sun and wind resources, nuclear energy may well be the backbone of their energy needs, but it will come at a cost.

Most Generation II fission plants utilise 1-10% of the potential energy from the plant’s uranium fuel source.  The by-product of the fission process is a highly radioactive material that can cause serious harm to humans and the environment.  In addition, materials around the reactor itself can also absorb radiation and itself become low level radioactive waste.  While background radiation is ever present in our lives, even these low and medium-level waste items need to be disposed of.  Of all the waste produced by a nuclear plant each year - the average American nuclear reactor is estimated to produce roughly 2000 metric tons of waste each year - roughly 3% will be high level nuclear waste (i.e. highly radioactive).  Dealing with this high-level nuclear waste needs to be addressed - it represents roughly 95% of the radioactivity and will remain fatally dangerous to humans for thousands of years.


Currently, all nuclear waste is stored in temporary storage facilities, and until the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland becomes operational in 2023, most waste will be cooled for several years in the nuclear plants that generate them or placed in dry casks rated to last a little over 200 years.  One alternative solution is to reprocess the waste.  As previously stated, Generation II plants are notoriously inefficient at processing their fuel source.  At the end of a complete chain reaction which takes roughly 8 years, 90-99% of usable energy in in the fuel rod is still usable in the form of plutonium, provided the rod has been reprocessed.  This usually occurs by separating plutonium, uranium and other wastes from the spent fuel and enriching the uranium with plutonium to create a fresh product with similar characteristics to the original fuel.  Many countries, such as France, China, Japan, and Russia also invest heavily into reprocessing, and it’s not hard to see why.  Despite the heavy cost to fabricate, the reprocessing theoretically greatly reduces the amount of nuclear waste produced and can vitrify some of the high-level radioactive waste, transforming it to glass that is heavily radioactive for hundreds instead of thousands of years.

But reprocessing is not without its flaws.  Reprocessing plants (such as La Hague in France or Sellafield in the UK) both require the intentional release of low levels of radioactive material.  While the amount released each year is minimal and less than received from doing something as low risk as boarding a transatlantic flight, significant controversy has arisen about the long-term effects of the collective dose and its impacts on both environmental and human health.  Additionally, Australia’s abundance in uranium means that reprocessing is even less desirable from an economic standpoint.  At this time, Australia will not have any significant need to reuse the nuclear material, and it will be more cost effective to simply insert new fuel rods and dispose of the spent rods.  The reprocessing will also greatly increase the volume of low level and very low-level waste, and once the radioactive liquids and gases discharged by the reprocessing plants are factored in, there is no clear advantage for the reprocessing in terms of waste volume or required repository area.  That said, more advanced forms of waste processing are being explored.  Techniques such as Synroc production (a method pioneered by ANU in 1978 of solidifying high-level liquid nuclear waste to make it easier to store and less likely to leak into waterways) may well be worth investigating.  As pointed out in the final inquiry report for the Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Repeal Bill standing committee, Synroc production is capable of reducing by volumes on average by up to 90 per cent compared to traditional waste treatment methods such as cementation, and its development, even without a nuclear industry gives potential for Australia to become an innovator and leader in radioactive waste management.

Deep geological disposal

Internationally, broad consensus is that deep geological disposal is the only effective way to deal with the long-term problem of nuclear waste.  This would require the construction of specialist facilities deep underground, where waste will be transferred to over the course of decades, before finally being sealed using state of the art technology.  France, Finland and Sweden are some of the most advanced countries in this area, with proposed sites very close to completion.  There are a range of technical considerations, requiring stable sites, ensuring no leaks to groundwater, combined with site selection problems and landowner consent.  The idea also presents challenges that are almost entirely new, such as estimating the impacts of having to seal the sites for longer than recorded human history.

Potential Australian Storage

Given Australia possesses large tracts of remote, relatively stable land, the idea of building a suitable storage facility here for high level nuclear waste is something that has been floated before.  Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously pushed for the idea in 2005, and again in 2014, advocating for land to be allocated with the full consent of Australia’s Indigenous leaders.

‘In other words, we make the world a safer place, we earn an enormous amount of new money, and we use that money to help close these unacceptable gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.’

Whether this is actually a viable answer needs far more information than is currently or publicly available to assess.  Whether Australia actually has suitable storage sites (the US spent decades and approved millions in spending to develop the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, only to abandon the project due to, among other reasons seismic activity and cultural impact), the technical requirements of building a suitable facility and its associated upfront costs (the estimated cost of the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository, the only one in the world, was estimated to be €818 million for construction and operation costs), are all areas that need to be explored in great detail before Australia can fully consider the operation.

One of the most recent inquiries we have into this exact topic is the 2016 Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission in South Australia.  Economically findings were conservatively estimated that just one above ground interim storage facility and an integrated secure underground repository would bring in a total revenue of $257 billion against total costs of $145 billion (including security and construction), both over the period of roughly 130 years, as well as creating several thousand jobs.  It would also allow the storage of 390,000 m3 of intermediate nuclear waste, removing an environmental hazard not just from Australian nuclear waste production, but also around the world.  It was also concluded that such a facility would not require significant state investment if a pre-commitment to accept used fuel was secured.  However, the inquiry was met with public outcry and concerns about environmental and cultural impact.

At present, nuclear waste in Australia (apart from that produced by mining which is stored at the mines), is processed overseas and then stored at more than 100 locations around the country.  A proposed National Radioactive Waste Management Facility has been approved in Napandee in South Australia to host the facility.  This will not be a high-level waste management facility, and therefore will not require many of the costs or jobs that a deep geological disposal site would require.  There are currently no concrete plans to build a deep geological waste storage facility within Australia.

So where does Australia stand?  We could either consider a deep geological storage facility or look more into advanced processing methods such as REMIX fuel or Synroc, but like it or not this is a problem we will have to tackle one day.  Even if Australia chooses not to develop a further civil nuclear industry, responsible long-term waste storage is a problem we cannot ignore.  Given the importance of nuclear materials in medicine and industrial uses, even if no civil nuclear energy industry is developed, the Lucas Heights reactor will continue to produce waste, and a more responsible solution will eventually need to be developed. 


Almost every nuclear plant that has ever been built has suffered overruns in construction costs, both financial and temporal.  If Australia were to commit to building a Generation III+ reactor tomorrow, similar to say the unit 3 reactor in the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, it could take up to 15 years or more to be constructed (the Olkiluoto plant broke ground in 2005, and officially started production in December 2021).

Studies in France also suggest that nuclear power has a ‘negative learning’ curve.  The more production is scaled up, the higher costs seem to increase.  These cost increases arise as the complexity of the technology increases, requiring more expertise, better materials, and different designs.  This curve is largely based on trends observed in the 70’s and 80’s during the initial push in most countries for nuclear power, and again in the early 2000’s when the US and Europe began commissioning new plants after decades of relative inactivity in terms of nuclear plant construction. 

Will this trend still hold?  It’s difficult to say, but almost all traditional reactors have required heavy upfront costs in the billions of dollars.  Given returns won’t be realised until the plant is constructed and begins producing electricity, it is easy to see why financing may be difficult to raise.  If a plant were to be constructed in Australia using current technology, it would almost certainly have to be an SMR to be viable.  An SMR which is able to be built faster and cheaper, and potentially with a modular design so pieces can be manufactured and assembled in Australia with significantly lower cost and time commitments. 

Even so, such a plant is likely to be expensive - for example, Russia’s first and so far only operational floating SMR cost USD $740 million (noting that this was a pilot plant of this design and built offshore) for 70MW of energy.  By comparison a solar farm of equivalent MW, say the 70MW Morwell Solar Farm in Victoria which is due to break ground in the second half of 2022, is estimated to cost roughly AUD $105 million.  Final determinations from a financial perspective will need to consider what value can be attributed to not just a plant’s generation capacity, but also to its despatchability, security of supply and its capacity to support an otherwise largely intermittently generating network (noting the Australian government’s current push to re-create the Australian Electricity Market with capacity factors and payments).

The table below sets out some estimated costs for construction of SMRs in Australia per kilowatt as provided from three independent studies (Heard, B. (2021). Small modular reactors in the Australian context. Report prepared for the Minerals Council of Australia, figures converted to USD on 1 March 2022):

Plant type

Costs USD $/kWh


SMR Small



WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff (2015) based on adjusted vendor est. from National Nuclear Laboratory





SMR Large







Energy Innovation Reform Project (2017)



Anonymised study of seven vendor cost details





SMR Roadmap (2018)



Analysis of 47 estimates from vendors and literature





By comparison, here are several estimated costs for the construction of several other sources of energy (US Energy Information Administration. (2020). Capital cost and performance characteristic estimates for utility scale electric power generating technologies):


Capital cost in 2019 (USD $/kW)



Onshore Wind


On the issue of build times, while the projects that receive the most attention are usually those that have had very significant cost and time overruns, it is not unusual for plants to take upwards of 10 – 15 years to construct (incorporating material delays to originally expected timing). 

However, the trend for timing delays has reduced recently.  The table below shows build times for countries with multiple nuclear plants built over the last 10 years which suggests that nuclear power plant times have trended downwards, although ultimately build and cost times are likely to vary from project to project and will differ greatly by country and expertise (A Mycle Schneider Consulting Project (2021). The World Nuclear Industry Status Report).



Construction time (years)















South Korea















Ultimately, the front-end costs of nuclear reactors are a large hurdle, and possible delays in their construction gives rise to issues as to whether they can be operational in time to make a meaningful contribution to Australia’s achievement of net-zero emissions is questionable.  As new generation SMRs come into operation over the next 10 years, Australia will be in a better position to assess these costs.  As yet, no truly ‘modular’ design reactor (where parts of the plant are prefabricated and then shipped to save on build time and costs) has been implemented.  If truly modular designs can be implemented, build times should drop dramatically.

A nuclear future in Australia?

We have seen that there are significant hurdles that the technology must overcome before Australia can comfortably consider implementing nuclear power.  How will storage of nuclear waste be handled?  Can we ensure that implementation will be safe?  What are the projected likely costs for bringing nuclear power to Australia?  What are the alternatives if we don’t?

The first step to properly considering whether nuclear power (ie. almost certainly from SMR’s), has a role or potential role in Australia’s energy future at this important junction in our energy history, is to facilitate an informed discussion, and to have the transparent and mature debate between stakeholders and Australian society.

Ultimately, such a debate needs to be informed by feasibility studies of nuclear technology in the modern era, with input from experts and interested parties, and contribute a perspective towards Australia’s unique needs and energy mix.  In recent years three separate State inquiries (Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report (2016)Report 46 – March 2020 final report for the Uranium mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Repeal Bill 2019 for NSW; and Inquiry into nuclear prohibition for the Environment and Planning Committee in Victoria in 2020.)

 have looked at different potential opportunities related to nuclear power in Australia.  All three inquiries concluded that Australia’s moratorium on nuclear power hampered our ability to obtain necessary business cases, properly assess costs, test commercial viability, or truly consider with public policy dialogue whether nuclear power has a place in Australia.

In our view, either a temporary or permanent removal of the moratorium is a key legal and economic step to enable government, business and Australian citizens to begin to obtain the information each of them need to properly consider the relevant opportunities, and associated pros and cons of SMR nuclear power contribution to Australia’s future carbon-free energy mix. 

The moratorium grew out of political drivers influencing the Howard Government in 1998, and perhaps the net-zero goal we now share can be the catalyst to re-open this important debate for the betterment of all Australians.