South Australia announces nuclear power royal commission

South Australia, home to one of the largest uranium deposits in the world, will examine potential benefits and risks of establishing a nuclear industry there, the state government said on Sunday.

Premier Jay Weatherill announced a  royal commission to investigate the state’s possible role in the production of nuclear power. Jay Weatherill said South Australians should be given the opportunity to consider the practical, financial and ethical issues raised by a deeper involvement in the nuclear industries.

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.

“We are home to one of the largest uranium deposits in the world and after more than 25 years of uranium production, it is now time to engage in a mature and robust conversation about South Australia’s future role in the nuclear industry,” he said.

 South Australia’s premier, Jay Weatherill, has revived debate about whether the state should build a nuclear power plant. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

South Australia’s premier, Jay Weatherill, has revived debate about whether the state should build a nuclear power plant. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

“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.

He said the royal commission was the first of its kind in Australia, as they usually looked backwards at things that had gone wrong. The commission will explore the opportunities and risks of the state’s involvement in the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

“Royal commissions are a trusted and reliable means to establish the facts with which the people of South Australia can engage in this important debate.”

“We need a clearer understanding of the world’s demand and use of nuclear energy,” he said. “We also need a deeper understanding of our state’s and the nation’s energy needs and how they are likely to develop in the future.

 The Government said former South Australian governor Kevin Scarce would head up the nuclear inquiry, which was likely to run for about a year. Mr Scarce said he was taking on the role of commissioner with no preconceived ideas of an outcome.

“It’s timely, I think we need to get on with it and I’m delighted to lend my support to the review,” he said.

“I know the dangers of the industry, I also know the opportunities it can bring. It’s about how we blend that together in a sensible fashion for the state.”

“My preliminary view and once again, that’s why we need an inquiry into these matters, is that it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see nuclear energy on any timeline within your or my sort of contemplation,” Mr Weatherill said.

But the Conservation Council’s chief executive Craig Wilkins described any use of nuclear energy in SA as “unwanted” and “unsafe”.

“It’s old thinking, rather than new thinking and it’s so frustrating to spend time, energy and resources investigating this when we are on the cusp of an energy revolution in renewable,” he said.

Business groups embrace nuclear industry debate in South Australia

The prospect of a nuclear industry in South Australia has been embraced by the state’s peak business group as a multi-million-dollar industry.

Business SA chief executive Nigel McBride said it would be good for the state and could result in reduced carbon emissions.

“We’re talking about a massive, potential nuclear recycling industry,” he said. “We’re talking about low energy costs and a huge rise in job opportunities through cheaper manufacturing, cheaper water.”

SA Chamber of Mines and Energy chief executive Jason Kuchel said it was “about time” options for the future were discussed.

“One of those things that we would be hopeful for is that we might able to consider enriching uranium in South Australia,” he said.

National debate urged on nuclear future

Director of the Energy Change Institute at the Australian National University Professor Ken Baldwin called for nuclear issues to be debated widely among Australians.

“I think that this is a debate we have to have not only in South Australia but nationwide because we’re reaching a point now where we need to make crucial decisions as to our energy future,” he said

“It makes good sense to have all options on the table … to fight the issues around climate change.”

He said federal politicians needed to step up and tackle the issues.

“This should be brought to a national table and politicians from both sides … should be engaged in this discussion,” 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.

WNN/Guardian/ABC