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It’s Time: Nuclear

October 13, 2021

AWU National Secretary Dan Walton says Australia’s switch to nuclear-powered submarines means it’s time to reconsider our ban on civil nuclear energy.

Australia is happy to mine and sell uranium, but when it comes to using it here we have been scared off by the likes of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

But emerging technology such as small modular reactors (SMRs) could offer a solution to our fears

“SMRs are at the core of the US and British plans to create zero-carbon economies. Australia should be following suit,” Dan says.

“We already have the uranium, why would we not develop the capacity to use it in safe and effective modern ways?”

SMRs are a fraction of the size of conventional reactors. They can be made at a plant and transported to a site to be installed. Being modular, they will reduce on-site construction costs, increase containment efficiency, and offer much more safety through the use of passive safety features that operate without human intervention.

As such they are claimed to cross the financial and safety barriers that inhibit the construction of conventional reactors.

Dan says SMRs are a logical progression from the nuclear subs plan.

“It’s absurd that Australia will rely on nuclear submarines for its defence, yet lack the capacity to build and maintain them,” he says.

“If these subs are going to help secure our national interest against China or anyone else, we need to be able to develop and maintain them here.

“And if we go to all the effort of developing that manufacturing capability we should maximise the potential to also manufacture modern small modular reactors to power emission-free industry.

“That would make Australia part of the international supply chain for this nascent, zero-emissions energy technology.”

Dan says this would be a massive boost to Australian manufacturing at a time when the Morrison Government’s subs backflip has put thousands of local jobs at risk.

“Australia is spending billion on warships and submarines, and the French submarine contract had promised large-scale local manufacturing participation,” he says.

“But in trashing that deal Government also trashed the contract’s commitments to local jobs and local supply chains, such as Australian steel. This will be a massive loss, particularly to South Australian members.

“So it’s vital that the Government not only pressures the US to include Australian content in any new subs contract, but also that it considers the opportunities and jobs civil nuclear power will offer.”

SMRs are pivotal and prominent in the zero-carbon plans of both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson.

And speaking on ABC radio this week, Lord Adair Turner, former chair of the Britain’s Climate Change Committee and now chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission, pointed to nuclear energy as a key element in Britain’s transition away from fossil fuels.

ETC is a global coalition of leaders from across the energy landscape, including about 50 major steel, cement and mining and fuel companies, which is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century.

“We kept our gas, have more renewables, and we have sensibly kept our existing nuclear power, and that is a pattern that has allowed us to decarbonise our electricity very significantly at a very low cost.”

Dan Walton says that while Prime Minister Scott Morrison claims he is not seeking to establish an Australian civil nuclear capability, “if we don’t allow ourselves to explore the option, we’ll be letting hysterical scaremongers triumph over the environment and our economy”.

“If Australia wants to accelerate along the path to becoming a zero-carbon economy, this is a golden opportunity to create the capacity to build small modular reactors capable of powering energy-hungry manufacturing.

“You could easily envision SMRs attached to factories, steel mills, and aluminium smelters. They would provide the kind of reliable, constant energy these facilities need to survive and thrive.

“Attaching SMRs to heavy manufacturing hubs could enable Australia to rapidly grow its capacity to make things.

“If we don’t provide manufacturing with the reliable, constant power it needs then Australian factories will shut. And this will do nothing positive for the climate, because production will just move overseas.”

Dan says he believes that with SMRs’ inherent safety, Australians will back civilian nuclear power.

“I’ve been raising my family within a stone’s throw of Lucas Heights (Sydney’s nuclear research facility) and I know most in my community would be happy for that facility to house a new SMR.

“Chernobyl was a terrible one-off disaster, but if you don’t think Australians are capable of handling safety better than decline-era Soviets you might want to check your sense of patriotism.

“Put Chernobyl aside and, since 1957, 14 people have died as a result of nuclear power accidents. By comparison, Australia’s agriculture sector had 37 workplace deaths in the past year.

“And if we start an Australian nuclear industry the AWU will be vigilant about the safety of those who work in it.

“The reality is we have members in construction, agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, and firefighting – all of whom face statistically more danger at work.”

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