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RMIT Head of Physics talks nuclear power

Nuclear power could be as cheap as coal if the cost of carbon capture and storage is considered, according to Professor Peter Johnston, Head of Physics at RMIT and panel member of the 2006 federal government review into the nuclear industry.

In his presentation to Australia’s top oil and gas industry body, the Australian Engineering Network (AUSEN), Johnston said that nuclear power is the cheapest low-carbon emission technology available for baseload power generation.

“Although the cost of carbon capture is not known precisely, nuclear power is likely to become economically viable if coal-fired power stations were required to fit carbon capture and storage technology,” he said. “But without enforced carbon constraint, all low-emission technologies remain uncompetitive.”

On the key questions of when–and where–nuclear power stations would be built, Johnston said that it is likely to be at least 2020 before the first plants could become operational. The sites would most likely be coastal, as the large volumes of water required for cooling purposes do not need to be from fresh water sources. However, a number of barriers would need to be overcome before the establishment of a nuclear industry in Australia.

“First of all, Australia would require a bi-partisan government policy,” said Johnston. “The ALP currently does not support the introduction of nuclear power, and no company would risk losing its investment due to a change of government. Potential investors require a stable policy environment and a predictable licensing and regulatory regime.

“Australia would also need to upgrade its engineering knowledge in a number of critical areas, as well as skills in nuclear science, environmental science and hydrology. The engineering and safety standards of the nuclear industry are the highest of any discipline, and the country lacks people with the necessary skills and experience.”

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