'We have to have this conversation now'. Deputy Premier of NSW calls for dialogue on advanced nuclear

Dr Ben Heard for Bright New World

 Speakers L-R Daniel Zavattiero (Minerals Council of Australia), John Barilaro MP (NSW National Party), Tony Irwin (SMR Nuclear Technologies)

Speakers L-R Daniel Zavattiero (Minerals Council of Australia), John Barilaro MP (NSW National Party), Tony Irwin (SMR Nuclear Technologies)

Last week, Bright New World joined a roomful of Australian stakeholders to hear from the Honourable John Barilaro MP, Deputy Premier of New South Wales.  With measured, calm argument, Barilaro articulated a clear position that Australia must pursue the inclusion of nuclear power generation in our energy system. He further asserted that we must focus on early adoption of advanced nuclear technologies, particularly small modular reactors (SMR).

Barilaro named the crisis in Australian energy, born of nearly 15 years of policy uncertainty. Australia has shifted from a position where affordable, reliable energy was our competitive advantage, to where business is now hurting from high and volatile prices and reliability is threatened across the network. ‘Thirty years ago, Australia didn’t need to have this conversation’ Barilaro stated. ‘With plentiful resources, a reliable system and no pressure for change, we just didn’t need to do it. We definitely need to have the conversation now’.

It is 'a conversation' that Barilaro repeatedly called for, in contrast to the notion of debate.

‘As soon as you say ‘debate’ people think ‘Yeah, I’ll debate you!!!”, and it’s adversarial and it’s aggressive and it doesn’t really help. We need a conversation. An open, long-term, honest conversation about what we need and how this technology can help us’.

 NuScale 50 MWe light water reactor. Passively cooled SMR.

NuScale 50 MWe light water reactor. Passively cooled SMR.

What Barilaro has seen and wants Australia to have a conversation about is a class of nuclear technology that is altogether different from what was on-sale when our regressive ban on the technology was put in place in 1999. Barilaro sees promise in smaller units that can be easily connected to our long, skinny grid; that do not need to be located on the coast because of their dramatically different cooling systems; that don’t need any external power at all to maintain safe conditions in any event; that provide a great deal more flexibility in operation. What Barilaro is calling for is a new conversation, about new technology, for renewed Australian energy system.

Having followed Barilaro’s position from afar, I was concerned I would encounter a politician entering a technology-evangelist phase. Barilaro surprised me: he is no evangelist. While evidently enthused and credibly well-informed the nuclear technologies he has been studying, Barilaro was measured, calm, and he over-committed himself on nothing.

‘There is not a politician in Australia who can do anything to fix our energy woes in the next twelve months’ he declared. ‘But we need to look at the medium and longer term, and think about where we need to be in the next ten years’.

Beyond energy supply, Barilaro sees this as a manufacturing, science and technology opportunity for Australia, using our considerable capability to become part of the global development and supply chain for SMR. In this, he was back-up with information from Adi Patterson, CEO of Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. Patterson described how ANSTO is currently being engaged by the Canadian nuclear industry to help them establish and maintain their nuclear material engineering capability, as Canada moves decisively to secure a position in the SMR development space. Despite our non-sensical rejection of nuclear energy, Australia is no laggard in nuclear science itself.

In a discussion lasting well over an hour, climate change was barely metioned. That ought no longer be construed as studious avoidance of the topic. Climate change is now hard-wired into Australia’s energy decisions, regardless of political lenses. Our reliability has crashed with the adoption of variable, asynchronous renewable generating technologies and the closure of dispatchable, reliable generation from coal and gas (and our emissions, thankfully, have declined a little as a result). A loss of liquidity in the electricity market has hit the prices that hurt the businesses. Meanwhile our massive coal reserves are looking like stranded assets, uninvestable as a domestic power source for a developed nation in 2018. Australia is tied in a political knot over the possibility of a mine to export coal to one of the world’s great poverty centres. A new generation of domestic coal power looks politically and financially implausible. Climate change was only directly raised by the dastardly villain representing the Minerals Council of Australia itself. Dan Zavattiero highlighted that Australian industry needs certainty in moving towards a system that is reliable, affordable and much lower in emissions.

So there is an essential point that many in the environmental movement overlook, and the rents-seekers in the renewable industry deliberately obfuscate. To steal from John Lennon, ‘war is over, if you want it’. The climate change argument is, for most intents and purposes, over the finish line in terms of driving our energy future. To steal next from Mick Jagger, those who insist climate change action can only ever be about boosting renewable technologies just can’t always get what they want.

However if we follow the strong lead of John Barilaro, with an intelligent, open conversation, we might just find we get what we need…and a whole lot more.

 Terrestrial Energy, Integral Molten Salt Reactor. High temperature molten-salt reactor heat plant with sealed, replaceable reactor vessels. 

Terrestrial Energy, Integral Molten Salt Reactor. High temperature molten-salt reactor heat plant with sealed, replaceable reactor vessels. 

For a brief report of the event and discussions from the Energy Policy Institute of Australia, see here.

Bright New World sincerely thanks the Energy Policy Institute of Australia for hosting this event and SMR Nuclear Technologies for covering economy-class return airfares with Jeststar from Adelaide.

With apologies to John Barilaro, quotes in this piece are (doubtless) paraphrased based on listening intently, rather than recording!

Ben Heard3 Comments