Nuclear technology presents an opportunity for plentiful clean energy, with the potential to address the intertwined issues of climate change and energy security. 

However, while nuclear energy is recognised internationally as a necessary tool to mitigate climate change, there is a historic lack of trust in the industry and low levels of participation in cross-disciplinary fora that could lead to consensus about its genuine opportunity versus its risks among general society. 

This has curtailed innovation in beneficial nuclear technology in many countries, including Australia. 

Now, the possibility of introducing nuclear energy has been brought back to the table as a powerful clean energy source that both eliminates carbon emissions and enhances resilience in energy systems.

Nuclear energy could well be an option for Australia in the future, with small modular reactors (SMRs) being identified as an emerging technology in the Australian Government’s national Technology Investment Roadmap, which helps prioritise Australian investments in new and developing low emissions technologies to mitigate climate change. 

The Australia-UK Partnership on Low Emissions Solutions also includes a commitment to cooperate on research and development for SMRs, including advanced nuclear designs and enabling technologies such as advanced materials and waste processing.

The caveat to this, however, is that there needs to be bipartisan support to lift Australia’s ban on nuclear energy, which is the main political barrier to its implementation, while at the same time creating the skills and capabilities to support this future if we want the option to choose it.

These barriers are to some extent real, but they are also perceived in larger-than-life form compared to the actual challenge of initiating change. The two major perceived barriers to political action in favour of nuclear energy are that Australia is missing the skills to deliver a civilian nuclear energy program and that the Australian public does not support nuclear energy.

Skills development

UNSW Sydney is leading the way in skills development through its programs aimed at creating the next generation of nuclear technologists and supporting Australian industry to learn more about nuclear technology. Regardless of Australia’s choices about energy supply, its use must increase worldwide to have any chance of meeting global decarbonisation objectives.

Exporting into this high-tech, high value-add supply chain supports prosperous industry with potential massive benefits to the Australian economy – both economic and in terms of the sovereign capability of what Australia can do.

As the only university in Australia to offer a nuclear engineering program, UNSW is ensuring that Australia has the home-grown skills to do this. 

Its internationally recognised 2-year postgraduate program in nuclear engineering prepares students for careers in high-tech industries, including nuclear science, nuclear medicine, mining and resources, energy, manufacturing, aerospace, and defence. 

This nuclear engineering program is continuing to expand, with $1 million in funding recently provided by the Sir William Tyree Foundation to support approximately 20 domestic students to obtain a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from UNSW’s School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, along with other professional development opportunities. The generous donation includes PhD top-ups and scholarships for international students. 

UNSW has also co-founded a Nuclear Skills Forum in collaboration with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) to explore opportunities for Australian manufacturers in nuclear supply chains. 

This effort will include cataloguing the skills and capabilities in the Australian industry for nuclear engineering and training and retaining a new generation of nuclear-trained and nuclear-conversant engineers through education, placement, and career opportunities.

Recognising our achievements and potential in nuclear engineering, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) invited UNSW to join the NEA Forum on Nuclear Education, Science, Technology and Policy. UNSW is among 20 world-leading universities engaged in nuclear engineering education invited to the Forum. 

The purpose of this Forum is to provide new knowledge and ideas in the form of academic research and innovation, via the NEA steering committee, to NEA member state governments like the Australian Commonwealth on matters that are critical to the future of the nuclear industry. These include gender diversity in nuclear workforce, the future of nuclear engineering education, innovation in the nuclear industry, and the relationship between nuclear energy and society.

UNSW’s Dr Edward Obbard was invited to co-chair the working group ‘Rethinking the relationship between nuclear energy and society’ in this Global Forum. 

The working group, led by UNSW and the Nuclear Engineering Department of Milan Polytecnic, Italy, aims to deliver original research that enhances understanding of the role in society of nuclear technologies and of the people who work with nuclear technology.

The working group is researching three key areas, which are:

  • To investigate qualitative benefits or drawbacks of using nuclear technology, for example its impact measured against the UN sustainable development goals.
  • How the values of the nuclear science and engineering community have contrasted with the values of wider society in the past, and how to align values and actions in the future.
  • To reimagine futures beyond 2050 that may or may not include nuclear technology, and to compare these futures and analyse the role that nuclear technology plays in determining their attributes. 

The working group is growing and interested researchers from all Australian universities should get in touch with Dr Obbard if they would like to be involved in the research, with a view to presenting at the First NEA Global Forum Symposium, to be held in Paris, 2023. 

How to use nuclear technology, which is going to be with us forever, remains a contemporary grand challenge, that touches on climate change, energy security, sovereign capability, governance, geopolitical strategy and even how we perceive and understand our future. 

UNSW students and partners will continue to be at the forefront of determining our future, ensuring that we understand the full implications the futures that result from our current choices, and ensuring that Australia is ready to choose between them.


Do you have something to contribute either to the relationship between nuclear energy and society? Or are you an industry partner and you want to join the Nuclear Skills Forum? Get in touch by contacting