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Why is nuclear power banned in Australia?

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The Federal Opposition has reignited debate about the ban on nuclear power in Australia, so why has been outlawed since the 1990s?
The nuclear power debate has reignited in Australia

Nuclear power is a form of energy that has been officially banned in Australia since 1998. However, the Federal Opposition want it to form part of Australia’s long-term energy plan.

Nuclear doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but it is not a renewable energy source and produces radioactive waste.

The Coalition’s pro-nuclear stance has reignited debate over whether Australia should drop its long-standing opposition to nuclear power.

Nuclear power

Nuclear energy is produced through the process of fission, where atoms (tiny bits of matter) are heated and split into many parts.

The process is generally fuelled by uranium, which starts a chain reaction. Heat is created before a cooling agent like water is used, producing steam. The steam then helps spin machines called turbines, which generate electricity.

Australia has one of the world’s biggest uranium reserves. While there is a lot of uranium in the world, it is still a limited supply. That’s why nuclear power is not considered renewable.

History

Multiple incidents in the 20th century demonstrated the dangers of nuclear power on the world stage.

For example, nuclear technology powered the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing an estimated 200,000 people.

The 1986 explosion at a Soviet nuclear power plant in Chernobyl is estimated to have caused, or to eventually cause, thousands of deaths from radiation poisoning.

Pushback

A national anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s saw rallies by workers and activists driven by concern over the impacts of uranium mining, radioactive waste and the high costs of developing nuclear power stations.

In 1977, Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition Government approved the mining and export of uranium.

The then-Labor Opposition took a firm anti-nuclear stance. It’s maintained this position in the decades since.

Australia’s ban

Australians became more cynical about nuclear power in the wake of Chernobyl.

The Federal Government eventually passed laws in 1998 and 1999 to ban nuclear facilities being built in Australia.

Some states, including Queensland and NSW, legislated their own nuclear bans as well.

Australia’s only nuclear facility in Sydney’s south is used for medical and industrial research, not energy production.

Opposition policy

The Coalition has been spruiking the development of nuclear power as an alternative to gas and coal since it lost the 2022 federal election.

Part of its strategy includes a “coal-to-nuclear” transition, where existing coal mines and infrastructure could be converted to nuclear power plants.

Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister Ted O’Brien has said “next-generation” nuclear technology is needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Dutton remarks

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton flagged he’ll release a detailed energy policy soon.

Dutton has indicated he wants to see nuclear power harnessed for Australian energy production in some way.

Out of the G20 countries, “Australia is the only nation that doesn’t have or hasn’t agreed to adopt nuclear power domestically”, Dutton said.

Government’s positon

Energy Minister Chris Bowen has strongly rejected the Opposition’s calls to lift bans on nuclear generation.

He’s described the position as a “fantasy wrapped in a delusion accompanied by a pipe dream”.

“Anyone who has done their homework knows nuclear is not viable,” Bowen said.

Response

The government questioned modelling released by the Coalition, which suggests Australia could have functional nuclear power by the mid-2030s.

Independent analysis by the Blueprint Institute found nuclear production is at least a decade away.

National science agency CSIRO also found that “nuclear is currently the most expensive” type of electricity to generate, “particularly compared to renewables”.

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