Time for nuclear, Australian union says

13 October 2021

The national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) has called for the nation to reconsider its ban on civil nuclear energy and to place small modular reactors (SMRs) at the heart of its decarbonisation plans.

(Image: AWU)

The recent announcement through the trilateral AUKUS partnership that Australia will acquire nuclear submarines "means it's time to reconsider our ban on civil nuclear energy," AWU National Secretary Dan Walton said today.

Walton described SMRs as a "logical progression" from the plan for nuclear submarines. "SMRs are at the core of the US and British plans to create zero-carbon economies. Australia should be following suit. We already have the uranium, why would we not develop the capacity to use it in safe and effective modern ways?" he said.

"It's absurd that Australia will rely on nuclear submarines for its defence, yet lack the capacity to build and maintain them," he said, adding that if nuclear submarines are to help secure Australia's national interest it must be able to develop and maintain them itself.

"And if we go to all the effort of developing that manufacturing capability we should maximise the potential to also manufacture modern small modular reactors to power emission-free industry. That would make Australia part of the international supply chain for this nascent, zero-emissions energy technology," he said. This would also boost Australian manufacturing, he added.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he is not seeking to establish an Australian civil nuclear capability, but "if we don't allow ourselves to explore the option, we'll be letting hysterical scaremongers triumph over the environment and our economy", Walton said.

"If Australia wants to accelerate along the path to becoming a zero-carbon economy, this is a golden opportunity to create the capacity to build small modular reactors capable of powering energy-hungry manufacturing.

"You could easily envision SMRs attached to factories, steel mills and aluminium smelters. They would provide the kind of reliable, constant energy these facilities need to survive and thrive.

"Attaching SMRs to heavy manufacturing hubs could enable Australia to rapidly grow its capacity to make things. If we don't provide manufacturing with the reliable, constant power it needs then Australian factories will shut. And this will do nothing positive for the climate, because production will just move overseas."

Emerging technology such as SMRs could also offer a solution to Australian "fears" over nuclear energy, Walton said. "I've been raising my family within a stone's throw of Lucas Heights (Sydney's nuclear research facility) and I know most in my community would be happy for that facility to house a new SMR."

Australia is the world's third-ranking uranium producer, behind Kazakhstan and Canada, and although it has a significant nuclear infrastructure - including the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation, which owns and runs the modern 20 MWt Opal research reactor at Lucas Heights - all of its uranium production is exported. The use of nuclear power in the country is currently prohibited by federal and state-level regulations.

Tracing its roots back to the establishment of the Australasian Shearers' Union in 1886, the AWU is one of Australia's oldest and largest trade unions and today covers hundreds of industries across the nation. The union has previously expressed its support for lifting Australia's ban on nuclear energy.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News