The state of South Australia is to carry out an in-depth investigation into its future role in the nuclear fuel cycle in a first-of-a-kind Royal Commission.
Announcing the commission, state Premier Jay Weatherill said it would create the foundations for further discussions within the community.
"The Royal Commission will be the first of its kind in the nation and will explore the opportunities and risks of South Australia's involvement in the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Australia is a major producer of uranium, but has no nuclear energy. South Australia itself is home to the Olympic Dam uranium, copper and gold mine, which produced 6% of world uranium output in 2013. Weatherill said that it was time for the state to engage in a "mature and robust conversation" about its future role in the nuclear industry.
"We believe South Australians should be given the opportunity to explore the practical, financial and ethical issues raised by a deeper involvement in the nuclear industries," he said.
The issue of whether or not Australia, which currently relies heavily on coal for its own electricity generation, should consider using nuclear power has been a subject for increasing debate over recent years. A 2006 expert taskforce called by then-Prime Minister John Howard, known as UMPNER (Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review), concluded that the country could have nuclear power plants up and running within 15 years, but found that nuclear would only become competitive for the country if low-to-moderate costs were imposed on carbon emissions.
Nevertheless, bodies including the Energy Policy Institute of Australia (EPI) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) have continued to call for Australia to keep the door to nuclear energy open.
An opinion poll conducted by market research company ReachTel on behalf of the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy in April 2014 found that more South Australians supported the use of nuclear energy than opposed it. Over half of those polled felt that nuclear power will eventually be introduced into Australia.
The commission is to be headed by former governor of South Australia Kevin Scarce, who said that he had an open mind on the issue.
"I have no pre-conceived views on what the future should hold for South Australia and its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle."
A Royal Commission is a public inquiry, and Weatherill has called for community input to determine its terms of reference, a draft of which will be released on 23 March. He said that the Australian federal government had expressed its full support for the proposal and had committed to provide its own submission to the commission. Independent experts will also be engaged to assist the work of the commission.
Dan Zavettiero, executive director for uranium at the Minerals Council of Australia, described Weatherill's policy announcement as "bold", reflecting the contribution that nuclear energy could potentially play in Australia.
"It is clear nuclear power will play a critical role in sustainably producing electricity in the world in the 21st century," he said, pointing to the nation's long-established and highly regulated uranium industry.
A nuclear future: The options for SA
South Australia’s far north has long been seen as a potential site for a waste dump and was targeted by the Federal Government more than a decade ago in plans that former premier Mike Rann railed against. The far outback is geologically stable and far from major population centres. Many nuclear nations are seeking sites for their waste and would be prepared to pay big dollars. However, there is potential reputational harm from being known as the nuclear dump state.
South Australia is already engaged in the nuclear cycle through its uranium exports and hopes to become an even bigger player should the shelved Olympic Dam expansion be given new life. However, much of the ore is shipped off shore before being processed elsewhere into energy-grade product. Enriching it here could add value and create jobs.
Nuclear energy has been raised as an option for the nation, but dismissed as non-commercial for Australia. It requires huge upfront investment and works best when there is a very large market to serve. However, new technology breakthroughs are creating smaller plants that can take waste from old-generation plans and convert it into energy while also treating it at the same time. Possible opportunities for the construction of nuclear plants in SA as the Playford B station in Port Augusta and Victoria’s Hazelwood facility are in line for decommission.