Australian Prime Minister John Howard declared that nuclear energy is "a source of hope" as he officially opened the Opal research reactor.
Howard told reporters that "Nuclear energy, nuclear science, nuclear power is part of Australia's future and those who seek to shut the nuclear option out of anything in relation to power generation or science or medicine in the future are really looking backwards rather than forwards."
The Opal (Open Pool Australian Light-water) reactor will be used for research purposes and not commercial power production. However, Werner Burkat, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that Australia was ready to make use of nuclear energy for its electricity needs.
"I think Australia would have the technology level, you would have the kind of good governance, you would have the kind of regulatory infrastructure," said Burkat.
His comments were echoed by Howard, who said "Nuclear power is cleaner than power from coal or from gas, and as coal gets dearer as we apply technologies which produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, then inevitably it will become more economic to use nuclear power."
However Burkat stressed the need for an informed debate prior to any political decision to support nuclear power generation and offered the IAEA's help in participating in such a debate.
The Opal reactor reached criticality in August 2006. It is replacing Australia's first research reactor, Hifar, which was closed in January after 48 years of operation.
Opal will be used for radioisotope production, irradiation services and neutron beam research. It will significantly increase the quality, quantity and range of radioisotopes produced in Australia, from the existing 500,000 doses per year.
The commissioning of the Opal reactor had not occurred without some difficulties. A water leak will require reactor operations to be halted later in the year to allow Invap, the Argentinean constructors of the reactor, to make repairs. The leak had caused a mixing of light and heavy water, which reduces reactor efficiency. However, Ian Smith, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) executive director, said that the problem was the kind of thing expected during commissioning and that it would interrupt operations for only one or two weeks.
Ansto's Opal Reactor
International Atomic Energy Agency
WNA's Australia information paper
WNA's Research Reactor information paper
WNN: Hifar shut down for the last time
WNN: Opal shines