Australia could store nuclear waste for other countries, Malcolm Turnbull says

PM tells Adelaide radio that he was sceptical Australia would ever build nuclear power stations, but a larger role in nuclear fuel industry was worth exploring

Australia should “look closely” at expanding its role in the global nuclear energy industry, including leasing fuel rods to other countries and then storing the waste afterwards, Malcolm Turnbull has said.

But the prime minister said he was “sceptical” about whether Australia would ever build its own nuclear power stations to provide electricity to domestic customers, given the country had plentiful access to coal, gas, wind and solar sources.

Turnbull made the observations in a radio interview on Wednesday, a day after he named Dr Alan Finkel, a vocal advocate of nuclear power and the outgoing chancellor of Monash University, as Australia’s next chief scientist.

He was asked to weigh in on the issue during a visit to South Australia, where the state Labor government has launched a royal commission into options for participation in the nuclear fuel cycle. Turnbull praised the premier, Jay Weatherill, for setting up the inquiry.

“I was just talking about this with the cook in the cafe downstairs, when I was having some coffee and breakfast with Steve Marshall [the SA Liberal leader],” he told Adelaide radio station FiveAA.

“As Brett, the chef, was saying, and I think a lot of South Australians feel like this and it’s a perfectly reasonable view: we’ve got the uranium [and] we mine it; why don’t we process it, turn it into the fuel rods, lease them to people overseas; when they’re done, bring them back – and we’ve got very stable geology in remote locations and a stable political environment – and store them?

“That is a business that you could well imagine here.”

Turnbull was less confident about the possibility of a domestic nuclear power industry. “Would we ever have a nuclear power station in Australia, or like the French do, dozens of nuclear power stations? I would be a bit sceptical about that,” he said.

“I’m not talking about the politics. We’ve got so much other affordable sources of energy, not just fossil fuel like coal and gas but also wind, solar. The ability to store energy is getting better all the time, and that’s very important for intermittent sources of energy, particularly wind and solar. But playing that part in the nuclear fuel cycle I think is something that is worth looking at closely.”

Turnbull was environment minister in the Howard government, which commissioned a study into the feasibility of nuclear power by a task force led by the former Telstra chief, Ziggy Switkowski, who is now chairman of NBN Co.

The 2006 report suggested that up to 25 nuclear reactors could be built in Australia, producing a third of the country’s electricity by 2050. But it also found nuclear power would be much more expensive to produce than coal-fired power if a price was not put on carbon dioxide emissions.

The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, said on Wednesday that the cost of setting up a nuclear industry from scratch was expensive. Shorten said it would be interesting to see what the South Australian royal commission proposed.

“All the research and data I have seen is if you are going to start with a nuclear industry, that decision should have been made decades ago,” he said.

Shorten instead called for an emphasis on renewable energy sources, which he said provided “exciting prospects for an energy revolution in Australia which generates jobs, investment and a cleaner environment”.

“I don’t want Australia to miss the technological and economic opportunities of embracing climate change and renewable energy,” he said.

“Labor is the only party who has proposed that 50% of our energy mix by 2030 should be powered from renewable energy. I am excited by the opportunities of battery storage, I am excited by the ability to expand solar power into small businesses.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation described Turnbull’s comments as “ill-considered” and warned that radioactive waste was “a complex and contested policy area”.

“Radioactive waste presents serious environment, security and public health challenges – and it lasts a lot longer than any politician’s tenure,” said Dave Sweeney, a foundation campaigner.

Greenpeace dismissed nuclear power as “an expensive distraction from the real solutions to climate change, like solar and wind power”.

“It leaves a legacy of radioactive waste which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years,” said Emma Gibson, head of program for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

“We only have to look at the Fukushima disaster in Japan to be reminded of the health, social and economic impacts of a nuclear accident, and to see that this is not a safe option for Australians.”

Turnbull is seeking to bolster the Liberal party’s popularity in South Australia, where the government suffered political difficulties after his predecessor, Tony Abbott, backed away from a pre-election promise to build 12 submarines locally.

During his visit to the state on Wednesday, Turnbull sought to avoid specific commitments on the future submarine contract, but pointed to the government’s “competitive evaluation process” to resolve the issue.

He also sought to counter the challenge from the South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, whose fledgling political party is promising to contest key seats. Turnbull told local ABC radio that the candidates might be very different from Xenophon.

The prime minister faced questions about tax reform as a result of his repeated statements that all options remain on the table.

Asked if he would only increase the goods and services tax if it was part of a suite of measures, such as the abolition of state states, Turnbull said: “It certainly has to be part of a suite of measures. No one, I think, is seriously suggesting doing it in isolation.”

Turnbull said the GST had to be considered in a broader context. “That involves what you’re doing with inefficient state taxes, what you’re doing with the states exploiting their own tax bases, what you’re doing about improving efficiencies,” he told FiveAA.

“You can’t just treat the commonwealth government as an ATM because everybody has got to improve the way they’re delivering services.”

The stark message to state premiers and territory chief ministers builds on remarks Turnbull made to Guardian Australia last week. “A state government can’t say: ‘Nothing to see here, give us more money’,” he said on Friday.

Shorten said the prime minister wanted to tell the states how to run the states. The Labor leader said Turnbull should focus on fixing the unfairness in the tax system, including superannuation concessions favouring high income earners.

“I believe Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals have an undeclared plan to put a GST on everything and to increase the cost of the GST,” Shorten said. “I represent working people in this country, people who can’t afford to pay more taxes.”

Shorten said while Turnbull had floated lots of ideas since taking over the Liberal leadership, the government’s next budget would be “a test of the Liberal thought-bubble machine”.


Daniel Hurst Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
ABC staff to walk off job next week – as it happened
This blog is now closed.

Rafqa Touma and Natasha May (earlier)

15, Mar, 2023 @7:50 AM

Article image
Should Australia build nuclear power plants to combat the climate crisis?
Though renewable energy could meet 100% of demand by 2025, the nuclear option still looms over discussions on how to rapidly lower emissions. Is it worth it?

Royce Kurmelovs

12, Oct, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Liberal MP says search for Aukus submarine nuclear waste dump site in his electorate is premature
Rowan Ramsey ‘amazed’ government starting selection process in 12 months, given 33-year life of Virginia-class reactor

Paul Karp

14, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Government to pick single site to store Australia’s nuclear waste within a year
Shortlist includes three sites in South Australia and one each in Queensland, NSW and Northern Territory, but plan will only proceed with public support

Daniel Hurst Political correspondent

13, Nov, 2015 @2:31 AM

Article image
Inquiry backs plan to store world's nuclear waste in outback Australia
Draft findings of royal commission in South Australia back nuclear fuel storage and expanded uranium mining, but rule out nuclear energy industry

Paul Karp

15, Feb, 2016 @1:42 AM

Article image
‘Unproven’ small nuclear reactors would raise Australia’s energy costs and delay renewable uptake, report says
Australian Conservation Foundation report finds modular reactors are expensive and introduce unnecessary challenges in managing radioactive waste

Graham Readfearn

04, Oct, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
Australia passes controversial nuclear waste bill
Radioactive material set to be dumped in remote Aboriginal community, despite ongoing court case into legality of proposal

Oliver Milman

13, Mar, 2012 @12:50 PM

Article image
Nuclear industry to push for Australia to adopt 'clean, affordable power'
Australian Nuclear Association plans to lobby Turnbull government to embrace the technology ‘to create jobs and economic opportunity’

Oliver Milman

29, Sep, 2015 @5:50 AM

Article image
Malcolm Turnbull says South Australia blackout a wake-up call on renewables
PM’s comments comes as Jay Weatherill accuses Coalition of pushing anti-windfarm agenda and playing politics when thousands of households still have no power

Gareth Hutchens

29, Sep, 2016 @3:36 AM

Article image
Malcolm Turnbull was told gas plant shut down before South Australia blackout
Documents show prime minister knew the failure of Torrens Island plant affected efforts to restart power before he made comments about renewables

Katharine Murphy Political editor

13, Feb, 2017 @3:37 AM