The South Australian Labor government has called for Australia’s first royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, raising questions about the use of nuclear power. Royal commissions are mostly held to explore issues and events that have already taken place, so it is unusual that a royal commission has been appointed to analyse the case for nuclear power. Why a royal commission? And is that really the proper forum to investigate the potential use of nuclear power?

Why is a royal commission being used instead of a normal inquiry process?

A royal commission is a form of “public inquiry” where government-appointed bodies provide advice on or investigate an issue. Royal commissions are used to analyse issues of high importance or controversy, and they can last for several years.

The royal commission itself follows a recent call by Julie Bishop for a renewed discussion about nuclear power, as she says it is an “obvious direction” for reducing greenhouse emissions.

The infamous nuclear disasters that took place in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have made people wary of nuclear power, and there is concern nuclear power stations could be “potential targets for terrorist attacks”.

Energy expert Mike Sandiford told Crikey the “irrationality in nuclear debate” requires a mature discussion.

Australian royal commissions hold significant advantages over normal inquiry processes. Once a commission has begun it must be completed — it cannot be stopped by the government for any reason. A royal commission also allows for a process of public involvement, whereby members of the public are able to provide suggestions on the terms of reference in the commission.

Australian royal commissions at both a state and Commonwealth level are appointed under legislation and given special and so-called “coercive” powers. This wide range of powers includes freedom of right of entry, phone-tapping, witness cross-examinations and protection from defamation.  

What can a royal commission investigate if nothing has happened yet?

In this instance, the royal commission will be used to assist in providing instruction, information, choices and research to governments about everything nuclear power — what it is, why we might need it, how it could help, or how it could hinder.

Royal commissions produce huge reports with findings and recommendations about the topic at hand. Conclusions drawn from royal commissions are influential in shaping decisions and legislation, but they are not binding.

The commission comes just over a week after oil and gas giant Santos announced it would make staff redundant due to volatile oil prices, and several weeks after both BHP Billiton and Arrium said they would cut jobs due to sinking commodity prices.

Given this, it is fair to assume the commission will have a heavy emphasis on the employment and economic prospects that a nuclear facility would bring.

What is the royal commission trying to find out?

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has said the inquiry will look into SA’s involvement in the storage, uranium enrichment, and nuclear power generation phases of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Current nuclear debate has explored the use of South Australia’s far north as a potential site for storage, or rather, waste dumping. The far north is an outback region that has low rainfall, is far away from underground water, has a stable geology, and is far from human population.

Sandiford says that Australia needs to treat a decision to store nuclear waste carefully, because with hazardous wastes comes risks, and the move could also label Australia as the world’s “dump site”.

He says a royal commission is a good way to explore the issue.

“We may have a geologically stable environment, but plenty of other countries in the world have that too,” he said. “When you have radioactive hazards, there are big risks involved.”

The pro-nuclear lobby suggests that the construction of a uranium-enrichment plant would raise billions of dollars for the SA economy and create jobs. Taking the nuclear cycle one step further and using uranium as a nuclear power source, they argue, is a promising alternative to fossil fuels.

“We’re going to have to start enriching uranium in South Australia, whether that’s in the next 10 years, the next 20 years or the next 50 years, I don’t know,” SA Resources and Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis said.

What will the royal commission cost?

A budget is not yet in place for the upcoming royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, but given the costs of recent commissions, the figure could reach the hundreds of millions. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is one of the more recent commissions in Australian history. The national commission was allocated over $434 million of the 2013 federal budget for its first four years of operation.

A royal commission in 2001 that assessed the collapse of HIH insurance company cost around $40 million, and it only had to investigate one company.