CANBERRA - Australia’s incoming Chief Scientist has declared nuclear power should “absolutely be considered", as he articulated his vision for a coal, oil and gas-free Australia.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday announced that neuroscientist, engineer and prominent nuclear advocate, Dr Alan Finkel will replace Professor Ian Chubb as the government’s key adviser on science and innovation at the start of next year.
Finkel, the chancellor of Melbourne’s Monash University, drives an electric car and has a zero carbon emissions home.
“My vision is for a country, society, a world where we don't use any coal, oil natural gas because we have zero emissions electricity in huge abundance,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“And we use that for transport, for heating and all the things we ordinarily use electricity.”
But he said wiping out Australia’s carbon emissions will take time.
“What we need to do is optimise the technology so that we can cost effectively introduce alternatives.
"The best way to get rid of coal is to introduce alternatives that deliver value at a reasonable price rather than just arbitrarily turning it off."
Coal and oil currently drive Australia, but the controversial alternative of nuclear power should be considered, according to Finkel. He did note Australia lacks the necessary infrastructure for such an industry.
“Nuclear energy is a zero emissions energy. It comes with issues, including the fact we don't yet have the infrastructure, the training, all the things that would enable it to be a viable industry.
“So it's something that should be absolutely considered for a low emissions or a zero emissions future, if that is what we are looking for. But it is not the only way forward. With enough storage, we could do it in this country with solar and wind.”
Environmental groups disagree that nuclear power should be part of Australia’s future energy mix.
“Australia needs an energy mix that is 100 per cent safe. Neither coal nor nuclear are safe, so we should not be planning a future around them,” said Australian Conservation Foundation head Kelly O’Shanassy.
61 prominent Australians today co-signed an open letter calling for an international moratorium on new coal mines to be negotiated at the Paris climate talks in December.
The group includes former Climate Change Authority head Bernie Fraser, former Australian of the year Fiona Stanley, Wallabies player David Pocock and the Bishop of Canberra, George Browning.
The Prime Minister dismissed the call, and that for a moratorium on new Australian coal mines.
“Coal is a very important part, a very large part, the largest single part of the global energy mix and likely to remain that way for a very long time,” Turnbull said.
“That is not my forecast, but the International Energy Agency's forecast and many others.”
But Turnbull sees renewable energy sources increasing as a viable alternative.
“The pace of improvement in the efficiency of solar panels has been quite remarkable and of course the now what we're starting to see is affordable storage which has always been the problem with intermittent renewables, that is to say things like wind and solar only generate power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
“So the improvement in batteries is a big game changer.”
Turnbull describes Finkel as being a “formidable communicator” in the field of science. He founded the magazine Cosmos with his Eureka Prize-winning wife Elizabeth.
“He absolutely fits the spirit of the times in which we live,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“A scientist and an entrepreneur, an innovator, a communicator.”
Science and Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne said the appointment fits in with the Turnbull Government’s new focus on linking innovation and business.
“We're number 33 in the OECD out of 33 countries in the commercialisation of our research,” he said.
“And Alan Finkel is a living example of how to commercialise research, how to have the interface between business and universities, to make the sciences very real for people.
“So we have demonstrably appointed him as a signal to the sector that we want science and business to be very much focused together in this country.”
Finkel takes up the new role in January 2016.