Speaker Spotlight: Tony Grey AM

23 April 2019

As we enter our 14th consecutive year of this flagship annual event, there has never been a more appropriate theme than “U and the Future”.

The conference has secured some excellent keynote speakers and we recently asked Tony Grey AM for his views on the industry.

Q. What is the most important innovation required to take the nuclear industry into the second half of the 21st century?

A. It is vitally important that the nuclear industry reduce costs. In the 1970’s, nuclear’s total costs were the lowest of all energy sources, even coal, except where coal mines were close to the power station. That has changed dramatically. Costs have become a significant barrier to willingness to invest in nuclear. Innovation here could be the difference between realizing high growth scenarios for nuclear rather than low ones.

Nuclear plants are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run. Capital costs account for 60% of their levelised cost of electricity. Steps are being taken to address this. Since traditionally in the West plant designs have been customized, the normal learning curve has not applied to its natural extent. Standardised designs could remedy this, as is happening in China, tapping into engineering innovation.

The advent of the small modular reactor is perhaps the most important area for innovation. Reproducible designs, economies of scale in manufacturing, passive safety systems (requiring less redundancy), potential for siting underground, lower requirement for access to cooling water, and other benefits, make SMRs a prime candidate for lower cost power generation. Much is being done here but much more needs to be done.

Q. Name one challenge that needs to be solved today to guarantee nuclear’s crucial part in the world’s future energy mix?

A. Among the several challenges facing the nuclear industry’s role in providing the world’s energy needs one of the most important is public acceptance. Since the social revolution of the 1970’s when the environmental movement was formed out of anti Vietnam war activists and aligned itself with Ban the Bomb protestors in the UK, nuclear power has struggled to obtain and keep what is currently called a social license. Ralph Nader declared 1975 as the Year of the Nuclear Debate. And so the anti nuclear movement was started. The result has been slower growth in nuclear and higher costs than what might have been. We experienced its effect on the Australian uranium industry.

While public acceptance is a bigger threat in the developed world it is relevant even in fast growing China, although to a much lesser extent. That public understanding of nuclear is based more on ideological beliefs and sentiments than on empirical evidence and data makes it difficult to mount an effective defence. But it must be done. If not, the current roll back we see in parts of Europe and threatened in the USA will further stall nuclear’s progress in those important regions. In the USA as many people oppose nuclear as support it – not a good situation.

However, green shoots are appearing. The recent IPCC report states that its goal of holding temperature rise at 1.5 degrees cannot be achieved without nuclear. And several leading environmentalists are in concurrence. Public fears after Fukushima are diminishing.

The unusual alliance with environmentalists who are more worried about climate change than the perceived shortcomings of nuclear should be built upon by strong and effective advocacy.

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