The nuclear option

A STUDY by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics has turned up some surprising results – none that will appeal to mainstream politics.
The nuclear option
The nuclear option
The nuclear option
The nuclear option
The nuclear option

It shows nuclear energy is among the cheapest power options available to Australia under a carbon price, alongside solar and wind, which are both two of the lowest cost power sources.

The study, which is a first-of-its-kind to look at the cost metrics of different generation options under various scenarios, shows nuclear and solar photovoltaics would be more cost-competitive than previously thought.

Nuclear costs were similar to solar PV and only marginally more expensive than wind power, when comparing low carbon technologies in 2020.

The study reported that at a cost of about $50 to $100 a megawatt hour, nuclear was the second cheapest source of power generation as it had a smaller carbon footprint and remained one of the cheapest low emissions technologies until 2030.

Industry observers say the study has thrown up some surprises, showing nuclear and wind are already competitive but other emerging technologies such as solar-cell farms will become competitive in the near future.

Policy makers have, until recently, debated the relative merits and economics of various energy sources with best guesses and estimates.

However, this study, with its extensive modeling tool, will provide for the first time, the resources to trace long-term projections that can be altered with changing government policies and global situations.

The study will feed into the government's energy white paper that is likely to be released later this year.

While both major political parties in Australia do not formally support domestic nuclear power, for many energy experts, the study provides a strong case for exploring that option.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been a vocal supporter of nuclear power, saying it should remain an option. Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has maintained the issue is still a "live debate in Australia, despite the best efforts of the Greens and non-government organisations to demonise the discussion".

Within the Coalition, there appears to be a schism. Opposition leader Tony Abbott's position is that the party does not promote nuclear, while his deputy Julie Bishop is saying it should be part of the energy portfolio.

However, despite the findings of the study, the political climate in the country is unlikely to allow for any meaningful discussion of including nuclear power in the energy mix.

A concrete policy position by either party is unlikely. The federal Coalition's political fortunes in the battle to regain Canberra remain mixed. Any Labor position is likely to be hamstrung by its uneasy alliance with the Greens.

While the cost competitiveness of nuclear is a surprise, equally surprising was the finding that the cheapest low emission power available comes from landfill methane, along with power from biomass, onshore wind energy and combined cycle gas and that these resources remain competitive until 2050.

Industry experts say the findings turns the prevailing false dichotomy of "cheap or clean" on its head.

The study was done with consultants WorleyParsons and found that carbon capture and storage on coal-fired power plants will not be cost competitive until 2030.