Manufacturing – the Nuclear Option

By Michael Sharpe

It truly is a privilege to walk the floors of factories all over Australia, build collaborative partnerships and help companies to go for growth. The talk often turns to the cost of energy. 

To build a manufacturing business you need to look at all your costs, including energy. In times long passed, Australian manufacturing had the benefit of cheap and abundant energy that helped companies like BHP to build steel mills and take on the world. Affordable energy allowed building products companies like Boral to produce roof tiles, plasterboard, asphalt and bricks. Think of all the local and regional jobs in those supply chains.

For whatever reason, the cost of energy has gone through the roof and it is pulling the handbrake on business and cutting the opportunities for the next generation of manufacturers. It is time for the nuclear option.

The Forever Partnership, AUKUS, has just been born and yet it has been in the making for generations. The partnership brings tremendous opportunities.

Not only have I been talking with industry leaders at their own factories, I have been meeting with politicians and research leaders too. When it comes to talking about nuclear energy I was often told that “no it will never happen in Australia, we just don’t have the skills”. My reply was always the same, “how have we ever achieved anything in Australia, we need to start somewhere.” 

The second most given response to nuclear is that “we have laws in Australia that stop nuclear power.” Well I reckon its time the politicians take a look at the legislation and get with the times.

AUKUS is the game changer. We can share skills, experience, know-how and other capabilities with our trusted partners.

Earlier this year I attended an Industry Advisory Panel meeting at UNSW where Ed Obbard, a nuclear materials engineer and senior lecturer, talked about the skills needed for the nuclear industry. I rang him that afternoon and arranged to meet. It was a refreshing conversation and we agreed to form the Nuclear Skills Forum. I told Ed about my own experience in seeing companies expand into the new space industry supply chains since the formation of the Australian Space Agency and the skills uplift. Surely we could achieve similar outcomes by connecting Australian manufacturers into the global nuclear industry. 

At the next meeting in April, I invited three leading manufacturers that are involved in such things as pressure vessels, advanced composites and other specialised equipment. We met at UNSW and explored the opportunities. We started to map out the potential and agreed that our next meeting would be to invite the researchers to the factory floor. 

In June, we met at LA Services in Western Sydney. The company manufactures very large pressure vessels for the oil and gas sector. Ed Obbard arranged for NuScale Power to zoom in from the United States. NuScale is the first company to receive US Regulatory Approval for their Small Modular Reactors and is keen to build global supply chains.  

An outcome from this site visit was the growing interest from other manufacturers and researchers to get involved. By September, UNSW Sydney received good news: their nuclear engineering course has received a $1 million donation through the Sir William Tyree Foundation, which will support new master’s-level scholarships and industry engagement. The industry engagement is important.

On 15 September the AUKUS Partnership was announced to start with the procurement of nuclear submarines for Australia. Talk about good timing.

We now have approximately 40 people involved in the Nuclear Skills Forum. Just last week, due to the lockdown, we met on zoom and were joined by Rolls Royce zooming in from the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson is backing a new generation of nuclear reactors as Britain finds itself in the grip of an energy crisis. UK Ministers are understood to have adopted a “change of focus” towards nuclear power, which the prime minister sees as essential to the government achieving its 2050 net zero targets as well as his levelling-up agenda, The Times reported.

The British Prime Minister has just asked for bids to build 16 Small Modular Reactors across the UK. Rolls have been building similar technology for the submarine fleet over the last six decades. 

Last Wednesday, the Minerals Council of Australia released their latest research – the Small Modular Reactors in the Australian Context report written by one of Australia’s leading nuclear experts, Dr Ben Heard, providing a timely overview of SMRs, their potential role in Australia and likely operating costs.

This week, Reuters reported – French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that by 2030 France must be a leader in carbon-free power production, and will build one small modular reactor as well as two megafactories for the production of green hydrogen by then.

“We must be a leader in green hydrogen by 2030,” Macron said in a speech.

Macron said that Europe will never have enough renewable energy capacity to produce sufficient green hydrogen for mobility, and that France’s nuclear plants are a major asset for producing green hydrogen via electrolysis.

Yesterday, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) National Secretary Dan Walton said Australia’s switch to nuclear-powered submarines means it’s time to reconsider our ban on civil nuclear energy.

“SMRs are at the core of the US and British plans to create zero-carbon economies. Australia should be following suit,” Walton said.

2030 is just around the corner, and 2050 will be here before we know it. I have no doubt that Australia can meet net zero. The costs of solar panels and other technologies will continue to come down. However, I would argue, why would a country like Australia go into this massive transition with our hands tied behind our backs? We dig up uranium and send it to other countries to benefit. As a nation, we earn record prices for coal and we send it to other countries to benefit. We have enormous gas supplies and we send it to other countries to benefit. Former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull said that if Australia stopped exporting coal, the countries that buy it would import it from somewhere else.

“So if Australia were to stop all of its coal exports, it would not affect – it would not reduce global emissions one iota,” Mr Turnbull said.

Surely nuclear energy should be part of the mix for Australia.

Building Back Better includes improved alliances, new collaborations and global supply chains. It should mean building greater skills to go nuclear. It needs improved legislation to unlock the potential.

Picture: Rolls Royce

Michael Sharpe is National Director Industry at the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre and Founder, Nuclear Skills Forum.

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