Liliah Dolbel, 17, is “a bit scared” about the idea of Australia producing nuclear power.

For one thing, she could have a nuclear power plant on the doorstep of her home town, Lithgow in regional NSW, if the Coalition wins the next election and goes ahead with its proposal to build the infrastructure

She also knows the decision will shape the environmental and economic outlook for her generation — for better or worse.

“I support the idea of sustainable energy and green energy,” the high school student said.

“A lot of us younger people want to have a newer, fresher way to sustain ourselves and continue living comfortably.

“But I do fear [with nuclear] … we could potentially, if it was done wrong, destroy our beautiful land.”

Liliah and Lewis, both 17, see benefits to nuclear power but still have some concerns.(Supplied: Brett Jeffers, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

The government’s plan to reach net zero by 2050 relies on renewables like wind, solar, and hydrogen, backed up by batteries and natural gas.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has proposed nuclear power as an alternative to renewables, saying it would be a smoother transition as reactors could be built at existing coal power stations.

The Coalition has been warned it needs to attract more votes from young people to win future elections, but their responses to the nuclear announcement have been mixed.

‘Clean’ energy appealing

Transitioning to “clean” sources of energy was a key priority for young people like Liliah who spoke to BTN High.

But most were less certain about whether that should be achieved through nuclear or renewables.

Emily Foster, 17, from Lithgow, thought a mix of sources would be best.

“I don’t think it’s wise to just focus on one,” she said.

“I feel like we need to make sure that we’re still focusing on the ones that work at the minute.”

Emily, 17, thinks governments should keep focusing on renewables but Ebony, 18, sees nuclear as “the future”.(Supplied: Brett Jeffers, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

In a Newspoll survey earlier this year, about two-thirds of respondents aged 18-34 backed the idea of replacing coal-fired power with nuclear energy generated from small modular reactors (SMRs).

However, a national energy survey conducted by RedBridge Group last month found support for nuclear was lowest in the 18-34 age group, with only 29 per cent in favour.

In contrast to the Newspoll research, it found the demographic aged 65 and over expressed the strongest support for nuclear.

One consistent theme among young Australians has been that they want action on climate change, and report significant fear about the future due to its effects.

Nuclear jobs tempting

To Liliah, one of the most compelling arguments for going nuclear would be the industry’s potential to create new jobs and investment in her Central Tablelands town.

“It’s just starting to die a little bit,” she said.

“If everything went according to plan I think it would become a once-again booming community, such as during the mining days.”

Mount Piper Power Station near Lithgow has been named as a potential site for a nuclear plant.(Supplied: EnergyAustralia)

Fellow student Lewis Ariki, 17, supported the nuclear proposal for similar reasons.

“It would bring a lot of business and people to the town and we would benefit greatly profit-wise,” he said.

“I don’t think people will be negatively affected at all, as long as it’s done well and safely.”

But he thought Australia should continue to focus on renewables too.

“Other countries are implementing solar panelling everywhere and it would be great to see that here as well,” he said.

Renewables are at the centre of the current government’s strategy to lower emissions.(ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)

Safety fears

For some young people, concerns about the safety of nuclear energy — and the disposal of the radioactive waste it generates — overshadowed any benefits.

Isaiah Beattie, 16, from Port Augusta in South Australia’s far north, which has also been named as a potential site for a plant, would rather Australia stuck with renewables.

“It just feels like so many things could go wrong,” he said.

“Where do we put the waste? Is it going to be on Aboriginal land?

Isaiah, 16, is opposed to the idea of having a nuclear reactor near Port Augusta.(Supplied: Maggie McLean, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

“We should focus on solar power. Australia’s a desert after all — we get plenty of sunlight.”

Despite being pro-nuclear, Lewis said he too worried about the consequences of an accident.

“If anything was to go wrong, it wouldn’t be a little mistake … it could be quite detrimental to a lot of people’s health and wellbeing,” he said.

Tony Irwin says modern nuclear reactors are safe.(Supplied)

Honorary Associate Professor Tony Irwin, from the Australian National University, operated nuclear power plants in the UK for more than 30 years and said safety risks could be managed. 

“I’m used to living with a nuclear power plant — I mean, I [have worked] on top of one. So I was more interested in safety than anybody else,” he said.

“We haven’t had an accident at a reactor built in the last 30 years … [and] we’ve successfully managed waste for 70 years.”

Renewables expected to be ‘much cheaper’

Questions remain about the feasibility of introducing nuclear power in Australia.

Mr Dutton has not yet revealed how much his proposal would cost, or how much power it would generate.

However, Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe from Griffith University said solar and wind generally worked out to be significantly cheaper options.

“If I was backed into a corner with a broken beer bottle, and the only choice was nuclear or coal, I would probably go with nuclear,” he said.

“But now that solar farms and wind turbines are much cheaper than nuclear … I can’t see any reasonable case for building nuclear power stations in Australia.”

Professor Lowe said he also doubted the number of proposed nuclear reactors would be able to generate enough power to get Australia to its net-zero target.

“If there were five large reactors and two small modular reactors — if they existed — by the time we want to build them, they would only produce about 10 gigawatts of electricity,” he said.

“We need about 100 gigawatts of electricity to get to zero emissions.”