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Australia’s clean energy future being stalled by government opposition to nuclear

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By Colin Hay - 

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has declared that the nation’s net zero future is being held back by a government failure to see nuclear energy as a key solution to reducing emissions.

MCA chief executive officer Tania Constable says nuclear energy has to be part of the equation if Australia’s economy is to be decarbonised in the most cost-effective way.

“We need all energy options on the table, to ease the burden on heavy industry and manufacturers, and ensure they maintain their international competitiveness,” Ms Constable said in releasing the MCA’s “Nuclear: Decarbonising Australia’s Industrial Heat Sector” report.

Ms Constable said the report pinpoints the critical need to provide Australia’s manufacturers, industrial companies and miners with the ability to properly decarbonise their heating and refining operations in situations where electrification is not possible.

Significant energy numbers

The report found that industrial energy demand accounts for 42% of Australia’s total final energy consumption, half of which is used for process heating, with more than 80% of that energy generated by fossil fuels (46% natural gas, 22% coal, 13% oil and other hydrocarbons).

“When put in an emissions context, the scenario is alarming, given the lack of current viable alternatives. Greenhouse gas emissions from industrial heat contributed 21.1% of Australia’s overall emissions in 2022. That’s more than the entire transport sector, and second only to electricity generation,” Ms Constable said.

“The mining sector is not only up for the challenge of reaching net zero, it is playing a significant role in investing in the technology and infrastructure necessary to reduce emissions not just for our industry, but many other sectors who will benefit from new technology.”

Miners doing their bit

The report noted that scope one emissions (direct emissions from a company’s operations) from the MCA’s full member mining facilities declined by 9.3% in the full year 2022, while scope one and two emissions (indirect energy emissions) fell by more than 7%.

“Mining and minerals companies are taking deliberate and urgent action to address climate change. They are leading the charge,” Ms Constable said.

“But achieving Net Zero requires a profound change.”

Agnostic approach needed

The MCA says that change will require an agnostic approach to technology and energy, one that overcomes outdated ideological positions and stubborn mindsets. An approach that puts all the options on the table and explores every avenue to emissions reduction.

“We must embrace all options, and as a principle, deploy what we have and develop what we haven’t,” Ms Constable said.

“That means the development and deployment of nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, biomethane, and renewable diesel.”

“These critical energy pathways are being championed by our global peers, attracting vast investment and incentives; hampering not only Australia’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, where energy costs and reliability are paramount, but putting Australia at the back of the grid in the race to net zero.”

Multi-pronged challenge

The MCA report suggested that to view the task of decarbonisation through the narrow lens of electricity generation fails to comprehend the multi-pronged challenge to reduce emissions in Australia’s industrial base.

The report says it is critical that solutions are found to decarbonise industrial heat, and to give the nation’s industrial companies, miners, refiners and manufacturers an energy source that replaces traditional fossil fuels in the heating process of their operations.

According to the MCA, nuclear energy is complementary to renewables.

“An industrial furnace may require temperatures beyond 1000 degrees Celsius, and current renewable energy options are not able to meet that challenge. This is where a civilian nuclear sector can step in and assist industry to decarbonise their operations in a competitive manner, without forcing them to look to other jurisdictions for their energy supply,” Ms Constable said.

Impacting Australia’s critical minerals future

Ms Constable added that this is of paramount importance for Australia’s emerging critical minerals sector, where building vertical capability will be integral to maximising the economic and social benefits of what will be a once in a century mining boom.

“Australia has, in abundance, what the world needs to meet its climate ambition; the critical minerals such as copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel that form the components of electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines.”

“To secure a vital place in the global supply chain, Australia needs the investment and capability to not only extract such rare earths and minerals, but to process them in a cost-effective and reliable way, rather than have China do it for us, only for us to buy back the finished technology.”

“Nuclear energy is that enabler.”