The announcement of AUKUS in 2021 has been met with applause and criticism on its implications for security within the Indo-Pacific region. Amongst a sea of questions and fears though, one stands out, does AUKUS provide a future platform for Australian nuclear energy investment and usage.
The Australian government banned nuclear energy production in 1998 and 1999 so then why reconsider nuclear energy now? Put simply the advent of AUKUS and new nuclear technology represents a realistic and tangible opportunity for Australia to dramatically reduce its emissions, increase its energy security and diversify its energy market.
Australia is reliant upon four key sources of energy including coal (75%), gas (16%), hydro (5%) and wind (2%). Our reliance on coal for energy production is likely to change over the next three decades however with coal power plants slowly being phased out in parts of Australia and government goals pushing for net zero emissions by 2050. That would leave a 91% gap in the energy market that would have to be filled by non-emission producing energy sources. Renewables are ideal but still lack electrical generation capacity to fill the gap completely and are at times unreliable. There needs to be a stable and consistent source of energy in combination with these other forms of zero-emission energy. Furthermore, oil must also be considered as 90% is provided by foreign supply leaving us vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. Government mandates alongside growing popularity in electric vehicles will help reduce our dependency on oil however this places an additional burden on the electrical grid. Nuclear energy provides an ideal middle-ground that satisfies the zero-emission goal while also providing one of the most efficient and stable sources of energy. Australia also carries the benefit of an abundance of land and stable tectonic movements minimising the risk to reactors from environmental factors as seen in Fukushima.
The most significant barrier towards the adoption of nuclear energy is safety. This perception is grounded in historical events such as Chernobyl or Fukushima but statistically despite these events, nuclear energy is the second safest source of energy just behind solar power. What also has to be considered is the evolving technology around nuclear energy that’s creating easier to access, cheaper and safer nuclear energy such as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Gas-Cooled Reactors (GCRs) and Fast Spectrum Reactors (FSRs).
AUKUS provides an opportunity to include nuclear energy in the Australian energy market. The agreement will see long-term collaboration and sharing of high-value defence technologies between the US, UK and Australia. This plan appears ambitious because it is as it outlines the integration of a nuclear-powered submarine fleet into a military that has no experience with nuclear powered assets. The capital and time required therefore to build up these foundations will be immense, the submarines themselves will at a minimum cost $70 billion and a maximum of $171 billion. This investment will create a future generation of Australian military and civil professionals skilled in the maintaining, supplying and developing of a nuclear fleet whose skills could then be utilised in the civil sector if nuclear energy was legalised. AUKUS provides a long-term opportunity to bridge the gap between military and civil use of nuclear energy and the Australian skills developed from this alliance should be taken advantage of for the sake of Australian energy needs and their movement towards a zero-emission future.
Overall Australia is facing a growing demand for zero-emission energy while nuclear technology is becoming a safer and more efficient option. The AUKUS agreement is an opportunity for Australia to embrace nuclear energy should it decide to go down that path.
Teague Mirabelle is a fourth-year student at Macquarie University undertaking a double Masters in cyber-security analysis and international affairs. Teague is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.