OPINION: Time to put nuclear generation on agenda

AUSTRALIA has skirted the debate about whether or not nuclear-generated power should be part of the menu of alternate power sources available to it as our historic reliance on fossil fuels comes more and more into question.

What has been omitted is not a discussion about whether we should have nuclear generation but the discussion about whether we should have a discussion on the topic.

For as long as we can remember, Martin Ferguson offered the only cracks of light from the federal government into this debate, shaded by the government's established policy position of "no nuclear".

This month, his replacement as Resources Minister, Gary Gray, took the issue front and centre when he told the Australian Uranium and Rare Earths conference in Perth that he believed there was a "clear commercial market" for nuclear power in Australia.

In a timely comment, Mr Gray said there should be a discussion about whether Australia had a nuclear future, indicating his belief that nuclear power generation "could secure a reliable energy supply while reducing the nation's carbon footprint".

"There is no proposal to build a nuclear power station, but that doesn't mean that it's impossible to have a debate or a discussion around our nuclear industries for the future," he said.

"It is a valuable thing for Australians to be aware of the whole range of opportunities that are available to us as a nation and also responsibilities that are available to us as a nation."

This comment gave hope to a host of energy commentators and advocates around the nation and was timely as it came only days before a conference in Sydney, titled Nuclear Energy for Australia?

Organised by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), the conference brought a raft of international authorities to Australia to discuss the issue.

It wasn't a pro-nuclear event. The organisers included a range of speakers representing a variety of views to discuss many of the aspects of nuclear power generation - from technical issues and capability through to safety and community concerns.

Those included senior figures involved in nuclear generation in Europe and Asia and speakers addressing sustainability, climate science, economic impact, community attitudes and nuclear medicine.

The academy has previously argued that Australia needs a mix of new and existing technologies to achieve its energy needs and its environmental targets.

"If nuclear is not included as part of the mix it will be difficult to achieve the abundant, reliable supply of low-emissions electricity needed to meet the worthy and ambitious goals to which Australia has committed," says the academy's president Dr Alan Finkel.

As a huge and reliable supplier of uranium to the world's reactors, Australia also has a moral responsibility to debate how its uranium is used and disposed of after use, he says.

Susan Pond is adjunct professor at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a board member of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.