Australia’s Coalition government pledged to triple nuclear energy if the opposition leader is elected as Prime Minister, going back on the country’s declaration at COP28 in Dubai to triple its Renewable Energy.

In contrast to the Coalition’s declaration, Australia and 117 other countries joined in pledging to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.   

“We know that renewables are the cleanest and cheapest form of energy – and that energy efficiency can also help drive down bills and emissions,” the Albanese government said in a statement

However, the opposition’s climate change and energy spokesperson, Ted O’Brien, believes renewables would play an important role in Australia’s future energy mix, but “they can’t do it on their own”.   

Only 11% of the countries represented at COP28 backed the nuclear pledge, mostly countries with a nuclear industry, the Guardian reported. On the sidelines of the conference, O’Brien claimed that “COP28 will be known as the nuclear COP”.  

The Coalition government also claims that nuclear energy could support livelihoods as Australia is the third largest supplier of uranium globally. While it creates jobs for its people, Australia’s uranium “helps power nuclear plants” worldwide, O’Brien said at COP28. The Coalition government said it would also advocate for removing uranium mining and exploration bans as Australia has a “moral obligation” to provide to the world.   

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Currently, Australia cooperates with other countries under nuclear non-proliferation agreements to ensure that uranium is used solely for peaceful purposes. According to the Minerals Council of Australia, uranium mining is a prescribed nuclear activity under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.  

Countries like the US, UAE, Japan, Ghana, and the UK, to name a few, were seen supporting nuclear energy at COP. 

“Recognising that new nuclear technologies could occupy a small land footprint and can be sited where needed, partner well with renewable energy sources, and have additional flexibilities that support decarbonisation beyond the power sector, including hard-to-abate industrial sectors,” their declaration read.   

Nevertheless, Australia did not sign any nuclear pledge at COP28 to develop nuclear energy. 

Australia – a land divided?

Environmentalists, campaigners and think tanks have criticised the Coalition government’s plans to support nuclear energy. The Australian Climate Change Minister, Chris Bowen, who was present at the conference in Dubai, had a different vision for Australia’s renewable energy mix.   

A draft report by think tank Blueprint Institute seen by Guardian Australia made the case that small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, could play a “small but vital role” in minimising costs associated with achieving net zero emissions in the power grid by 2050, as well as the repeal of the nuclear energy ban.  

It has stated that there is no chance of nuclear energy in Australia until 2040 and has urged the “drastically accelerated deployment” of renewable energy, batteries, and electrical transmission infrastructure.  

As outdated and more inefficient coal-fired power facilities have closed over the last ten years, some analysts have questioned how the Coalition’s strategy to slow the renewable energy expansion would prevent power outages.   

O’Brien stated that 80% of Australia’s “baseload power” would be off the grid by 2035, which is ambitious. He also claimed that the Coalition government will announce their energy mix percentage before the next elections.   

However, “the lag time between nuclear plant construction and energy generation will mean it will be some time before nuclear can significantly contribute to Australia’s energy mix, let alone meaningfully boost global nuclear capacity,” Francesca Gregory, GlobalData’s energy transition analyst, told Mining Technology.   

“The stark contrast between Australia’s renewable and nuclear landscapes emphasises the futility of enveloping these technologies in a zero-sum game. As the 1.5℃ warming window rapidly narrows, it is essential Australia prioritises renewable technologies that can provide swift decarbonisation while maintaining the diversification of its baseload power as a longer-term goal,” Gregory added.

According to the Albanese government, the Coalition’s proposed nuclear power plans would require up to A$387bn to replace Australia’s outdated coal-fired power plants.   

Around 71 tiny nuclear reactors would need to be constructed to replace the 21GW of coal-fired power now used in the nation’s electricity mix, Bowen added while discussing analysis from the Climate Change Department. Small modular reactors producing about 300MW of power must be greatly expanded to replace the current coal capacity.   

Additionally, the developers have raised the high costs of switching to nuclear technology due to the absence of commercial deployment of these reactors at the moment, GlobalData reported.   

According to Bowen, Australian taxpayers would have to foot the bill “one way or another”—that is, either through higher taxes or higher energy prices.

A question of timing

Australian mining giant Fortescue’s chief executive and founder, Andrew Forrest, utilised the COP28 platform to call out the phasing out of fossil fuels. Forrest was seen promoting fossil fuel phase-out through ads displayed at COP28, one of which read, “Oil and gas, here is the science you’ve missed”.  

“Look, I would have thought it’s unlikely that a call to phase out fossil fuel would get a lot of airplay because the petrostate and fossil fuel sector sent thousands and thousands of lobbyists here,” he told the Guardian.   

This is not the first time he was seen talking about the importance of green policies. Many top executives moved on from Fortescue this year due to clashing opinions on the direction the company was going towards – in other words, to go green.   

On 2 December, Fortescue published an open letter with 60 other scientists about a “consensus that rising humidity and heat pose a serious and growing threat to humanity”.

The letter suggested policies such as matching incentives and disincentives to risk with carbon pricing, eliminating barriers to the green industry, including fossil fuel subsidies, before 2030, and providing economic stimulants to support green growth and transformation. It also advocated for regulations around replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy to achieve zero emissions.  

Despite the growing popularity of green technologies in achieving net zero emissions, some politicians and companies hold a contrasting view. O’Brien believes nuclear energy is indispensable in attaining net zero emissions. He said: “No nuclear, no net-zero”.    

“The Australian Coalition government’s support for nuclear power as an alternative to Australia’s rapidly growing renewables segment will continue to spark debate.”

“While it is true that a combination of technologies will be key to alleviating long-term energy security concerns, Australia’s renewables and nuclear markets are at vastly different stages of development,” Gregory added.  

There remains no doubt about the support renewable energy is getting, but the next elections in Australia will decide what route the country will take to mitigate climate change.