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Nuclear power Royal Commission told renewables are main game for future energy needs. -

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DAVID MARK: South Australia's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has heard that uranium enrichment and nuclear energy could become an increasingly important part of Australia's effort to reduce its carbon emission in response to climate change.

That's the view of one of Australia's leading authorities on the impact of climate change, the economist Professor Ross Garnaut.

He was speaking on day one of the commission's first public hearings.

But the Australian Conservation Foundation says the royal commission is focussing on the wrong area.

It's arguing that rapid advances in renewable energy technologies is the main game when it comes to finding a sustainable solution to the world's energy needs.

Nick Grimm reports.

(Archival sound from US 1946 film 'A Tale of Two Cities')

MAN: Just as in the darkest of the desert morning when the atomic age was born, atomic power puts the question squarely to mankind.

NICK GRIMM: Ever since the dawning of the nuclear age, around 70 years ago, there's been anxiety about the risks and Armageddon scenarios associated with the use of radioactive material.

That hasn't prevented the commissioning of hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world to satisfy the needs of a power-hungry world.

(Archival sound from US 1946 film 'A Tale of Two Cities')

MAN: These atomic footprints on the sand of time can never be erased; they point a path which leads to unparalleled progress, or unparalleled destruction.

NICK GRIMM: But more recent decades have witnessed that risk benefit equation modified somewhat by the emergence of climate change and an understanding of the danger posed to humankind from the ongoing use of fossil fuels.

It's prompted some old opponents of nuclear power to alter their stance, and champion it as a cleaner, carbon-free alternative.

The question of whether nuclear energy should be regarded as friend or fiend is the focus of a royal commission set up by the South Australian Government.

KEVIN SCARCE: Today's the commission's public sessions commence.

NICK GRIMM: It began its first public session today in Adelaide, led by royal commissioner Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, the former South Australian governor.

KEVIN SCARCE: Subsequent sessions will explore a range of other issues, including the threat posed by radiation to humans and the environment.

NICK GRIMM: At the outset, counsel assisting the royal commissioner, Chad Jacobi, outlined the purpose of today's public session, which kicked off the inquiry's work by focussing on the problem of climate change.

CHAD JACOBI: The role of the commission is not to express a view about what climate change policy ought or ought not be. But it's when it does require to consider those conditions necessary for viability, because they will have a dramatic effect on energy generation, demand, transmission, distribution and consumer behaviour.

NICK GRIMM: The royal commission's first witness was economist professor Ross Garnaut.

As he acknowledges he's no climate scientist, but he was tasked by the former Labor federal government to write the 2008 Garnaut climate change review and its 2011 follow-up review, entitled 'Australia and the Global Response to Climate Change'.

As he told the royal commission, the need for Australia to reduce carbon emissions is an urgent one.

ROSS GARNAUT: Now, if the world as a whole is to reduce emissions by more than half by the middle of the century, that really means effective decarbonisation of the electricity sector of the developed countries.

NICK GRIMM: On the upside, Professor Garnaut says the cost of fossil fuel alternatives has fallen faster than he'd ever anticipated, boosting hopes that the world can be weaned off its reliance on coal, oil and gas.

ROSS GARNAUT: This is most spectacularly so in the case of photovoltaic solar; the last time I looked, the capital costs of photovoltaic panels had fallen 80 per cent.

NICK GRIMM: And Ross Garnaut says as wind and hydro-electric turbines become more efficient, he expects renewable will become ever-increasingly a more important part of the solution.

But he doesn't dismiss a role for nuclear energy as part of the mix.

ROSS GARNAUT: You may actually see a larger role for Australia in other parts of the nuclear cycle, particularly uranium enrichment.

NICK GRIMM: For others though, nuclear is not the way to go.

Dave Sweeney is the nuclear-free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF).

DAVE SWEENEY: Australia and the world's energy future is renewable, not radioactive. We believe that's where the gigawatts are, that's where the megawatts, that's where the jobs are and that's where the future is.

There are more cold beers and more hot showers in the world today because of renewable energy than because of nuclear power. What we need to do is move away from that dirty and dangerous industry, and move ahead to be a world leader where we're blessed with smart technology, great renewable resources, smart people and a manufacturing sector that needs a new direction.

Renewable energy is in so many ways the way to go.

NICK GRIMM: And as far as the ACF is concerned, the nuclear fuel cycle royal commission is merely a costly exercise by the South Australian Government to justify the establishment of a nuclear waste dump inside the state, something past Labor governments there have firmly opposed.

DAVE SWEENEY: There's four terms of reference, one's on uranium, one's on enrichment and reprocessing and one's on nuclear power and one's on radioactive waste.

Increasingly we're seeing the commission and the discussion scoping down to hosting radioactive waste, because the other ones do not stack up economically and make no sense in the South Australian or Australian context.

DAVID MARK: The Australian Conservation Foundation's Dave Sweeney, ending that report from Nick Grimm.