RISING energy prices could force Australia to re-visit the nuclear power debate, an energy expert believes.
"The question is, what's more expensive -- cleaning up the coal, bringing in the gas or installing a nuclear power plant?," the secretary-general of the World Energy Council, Gerald Doucet, said. "I believe in Australia there will be a debate on a role, perhaps small, for nuclear power generation."
Mr Doucet made the remarks shortly before John Howard yesterday opened the 19th international congress of the London-based WEC.
More than 2000 delegates are attending the five-day conference with themes including renewable energy, cleaner coal, supply and demand in oil markets, hydro-electricity and nuclear power.
Mr Doucet said rising energy prices -- and not just speculative oil prices -- would confront Australia with difficult choices.
"It's an error to only look at the oil price," he said. "Look at what's happened to gas prices, look at what is now happening to coal prices."
Mr Doucet singled out Victoria's reliance on brown coal -- "dirty coal, we call it" -- and the cost of piping gas from Western Australia to markets in the east.
He said the public would want to be reassured that nuclear waste could be properly managed and gave Finland as an example of the way to do this.
Australia maintains a nuclear reactor for research at Lucas Heights in Sydney but has no nuclear power industry, although it exports uranium. The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory has had a series of leaks and spills. Environmentalists have called for its closure.
Global warming has caused some division within the environmental movement, with British ecologist James Lovelock saying it was time to go nuclear.
"Whatever the objections there are to nuclear, it's nothing like as great a danger as just leaving things as they are and going on burning fossil fuel," he said on ABC Radio in May.
But Australia's key oil-industry lobby group says political parties and commentators are being sidetracked from the real energy issue.
"Australia has a gap between demand and supply for transport fuels and industrial oil and that gap is growing," the executive director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Barry Jones, said.
Mr Jones said the demand-supply gap would be about 800,000 barrels a day and over the next decade the cumulative shortfall would be 2.55 billion barrels of oil.
The national self-sufficiency level would fall to 22 per cent compared with the current 70 per cent and the high point of 90 per cent in 2001.
He forecast that Australia's daily import bill for oil would be $US24 million ($34.7 million), assuming a long-term average oil price of $US30 a barrel, and that the government would lose $US12 million in tax.